The early works of Walter Quirt (1902-68), now on exhibition at the National Collection of Fine Arts, are at least as interesting as they are mediocre.

Quirt made them in New York in the 1930s. Few of them are beautiful; most are preachy, derivative and corny. Yet they bring to light, as few other paintings do, the passions and convictions that motivated artists in that city at that time.

Serious, kindly Walter Quirt (his friends all called him "Shorty") was not the only Freudian then painting in Manhattan -- nor the only Communist, nor the sole Surrealist. What makes these little pictures so telling and so odd is that the man who made them was these three things at once.

Quirt was a believer. He believed that art could illuminate the darkness of tomb, womb and dreams. He detested injustice and he thought that he could paint the flow of melting myth and time.

Among his early pictures here is one called "Protection of White Womanhood." Part diatribe, part sermon, this little eight-inch painting manages to call to mind the acid of George Grosz, the compassion of Ben Shahn, the murals of the Mexicans Riviera and Orozco, the bare surreal wastelands of Dali and Tanguy -- and comic books as well.

Quirt believed in class warfare. He was a leader of the John Reed Club, whose members felt that artists ought to "enter the struggling working class." He drew for New Masses, for International Literature (the organ of the International Union of Revolutionary Writers) and for New Pioneer ("A Magazine for the Boys and Girls of the Workers and Farmers").

For as long as Quirt remained a Communist (like so many of his colleagues, he lost faith in the party in the late '30s), he dutifully included slogans in his art. But even as he fought against the bosses and the warmongers, the racists and the rich, Quirt refused to give himself to the Socialist Realism then so much in vogue.Writing for The Daily Worker in 1936, Washington's Jacob Kainen used the term "Revolutionary Surrealism" in an accurate description of the paintings of his friend.

Quirt was born among the iron mines and snow of Iron River, Mich. He received his early art training from correspondences courses, then moved to Milwaukee, where, in 1921, he enrolled in the Layton School of Art. He liked to tell his friends that he was "run out" of that town for organizing strikes. He was working in Manhattan by 1929.

Such well-known painters as Stuart Davis, George Grost, Romare Bearden and Raphael Soyer -- all better painters -- were among his friends there.

The trouble with Quirt's art is that he tried to do too many things at once. Though he tried to make his pictures surreal and suggestive, he was loath to lose the masses, and so he filled his art with easy-to-read cartoons. He flirted with abstraction, but could not go all the way, Quirt, who liked to initate the jewellike little paintings of the Northern European Renaissance, could not make up his mind whether he should be "difficult" or "easy" avant garde or old-fashioned.

The present exhibition, a truncated version of the Quirt retrospective organized by the University of Minnesota, where Walter Quirt taught art in the last decades of his life, will remain on view here through Aug. 3.