"First he put the phone down, then he swung the ax," said Donna Frost. "Nobody screamed. He didn't make a sound. You can still see where the blade cut into the counter. There wasn't much blood, just a few drops.

"He left behind a rat trap with a dollar bill in it, his briefcase and his hatchet.

"He walked out of here so calmly that I thought it was a piece of theater -- until I saw his fingers lying on the floor."

Henry "Banger" Benvenuti was an artist with a message: He was tired of the runaround. At 11:30 on Monday morning he parked his car in front of the New York office of the Soho Weekly News. He walked to the reception desk where Donna Frost, who works in the newspaper's advertising office, was standing. Then he telephoned the editor he had come to see.

"He told me," said the News' art editor Gerald Marzonati, "he wanted 'to rap about the art world.' I told him, 'Look, man, I'm right on deadline. I'm finishing a column. Leave your number, I'll call you back.'

"He said I was 'just like all the other art editors," and that he'd leave a message at the desk. Then he hung up. I didn't see him chop off two of his fingers with one swing of his ax."

"There's a guy here called Buzzy," Marzonati said. "He was great. He picked up the fingers right away -- they were the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand -- and wrapped them in ice and put them in the icebox. Then he called the cops. We hoped the doctors could sew them back."

But after he was taken to New York's Bellevue Hospital, Benevenuti told the surgeons that he did not want them to reattach his fingers. The doctors say their patient "is not acting irrationally."

"He was speaking to the world," says his roommate Lenny Ferrari. "He did it for all the artists who don't have the clout, the connections, who can't come up with the payola. He wasn't depressed or anything. He did it as a sacrifice.He said that he was acting 'in the name of art.'

Benvenuti's scarifying message apparently was delivered with sincerity. But how was it received?

Were he not an artist, Benvenuti might be thought just another nut, but there are pain-filled mansions in the house of art, and Benvenuti's gesture puts him in a grand tradition. Think of Van Gogh's ear.

Body artist Chris Burden, a famous artist, shot himself with a pistol and cut himself with glass. Conceptualist Vito Acconci locked himself in a box. cMarcel Duchamp shaved his head. Washington's Yuri Schwebler, in a similar gesture, once shaved his whole body. Yves Klein once hurled himself from a building to express the void. Rudolph Schwarzkogler and Gina Pane slashed themselves with razors. Lucas Samaras once bound his head with string. Arshile Gorky killed himself, so did Oscar Bluemner, Van Gogh and Mark Rothko.

"Artists using their own bodies as their primary medium of expression is the most significant artistic development of the 1970s," wrote curator Ira Licht in the catalogue accompanying the "Bodyworks" exhibition held in 1975 at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art.

"I saw Henry right before he did it -- and in the hospital right after," said Ferrari, the artist's roommate. "He said, 'Of course I didn't warn you. You'd have talked me out of it.' He didn't seem at all unhappy. He said he felt no pain. He's a very giving human, a very spiritual person. He goes to communion every day."

"And don't believe that stuff they put in the paper about Henry being a punk," Ferrari said.

"It's true he put on the first new wave art show in New York, but that was last year. It's true he dyed a red streak in his hair, but that 's because he thought of himself as a painting. He didn't frequent the Mudd Club -- he didn't even like the place. Don't believe the media hype. Henry is no punk."

Ferrari, who has known Benvenuti since their childhood in Pittsburgh, is a drummer who has played, he says, with "15 New York new save bands." At the Mudd Club -- a Lower Manhattan dance hall which advertised that while Johnny Thunder plays there with his new band, Gang War, "Johnny will be closely watched at all times by Motor City bodyguards with auto-accessory weapons" -- a photograph of Henry "Bangler Benvenuti was displayed on the wall for more than a year.

"Henry is a very responsible individual," says George Staples, the New York art dealer in whose Nonson Gallery Benvenuti has worked and shown for the past three years. "Henry is very dependable. He makes collages and assemblages. He's working on a movie. The art we show here isn't decorative. It's shocking. It's intimidating. Sometimes it's threatening. dIt isn't easy art. That doesn't make it punk.

"Henry is deeply concerned about the art world. He feels, and I agree, that the media ignore the new artists. You don't review them, you don't take them seriously, you don't even come to see their work. Henry truly cares.

"I saw him in the hospital. I asked him, 'How do you feel?' He said. 'I feel really great.' He was satisfied with what he'd done."

At Bellevue, the surgeons and psychiatrists tried to talk Benvenuti into permitting microsurgery, but the artist procrastinated. When he finally agreed, it already was too late. "We've just been able to sew up the two stumps," a hospital spokesman said.

"Henry comes from a really nice family," said Ferrari. They're gracious, religious people. He studied at the Pittsburgh Art Institute, at the Carnegie-Mellon University, and at the Ivy School of Art. He's the most productive artist I've ever known. Right now he has maybe 600 pieces. He cares about people, he wants to see world peace, he's sorry for the bums. Listen to this. This is from Henry's diary. It's a poem about our neighborhood, the Lower East Side: . . . My world is full of bums Whose smiles are full of dumbs: The lower East Side. Give me a chance, Mr. Businessman . . . Beauty is only skin deep Can't you understand, creep? My puke stained clothes Are worn to show I'm on skid row. Help me change my way, Searching for a new day, Honest, I'm OK.