ART '80 got off to a roaring start at the D.C. Armory last night as artists, collectors and museum types strolled among booths were 150 dealers and print publishers will show their wares to each other and to the public through next Thursday.

The chief topic of conversation concerning this annual event -- known as the Washington Art Fair -- was how far the exhibition has progressed since entrepreneur Eli Felluss, now 38, organized the first such show in America five years ago. Fairs have been proliferating in Europe since the late '60s.

"Do you know that Washington dealers used to cross the street to avoid me and the fair?" Mused a triumphant Felluss.

This year no fewer than 30 area dealers -- plus a special show of Washington art -- are among the fair's highlights. So was a pre-opening reception for artists held in the Corcoran atrium Thursday night, hosted by Felluss.

"This is quite a step up from the annaul barbecues in our back yard," chuckled his wife, Tina. "We never thought this could happen."

It happened, like everything else, because of Felluss' ingenuity. In exchange for the use of the Corcoran, he gave the Corcoran School the first booth at the fair to display some of the 60 works of art to be given away as door prizes at their upcoming $100,000 fund-raiser on May 20.A 20-foot-high banner, hanging over paintings by Gene Davis and Leon Berkowitz, and a huge ceramic ostrich by Bill Suworoff, marks the spot where the $100 tickets to the event are being sold.

Moving straight ahead, the quality drops off precipitously in the next booth, which features paintings by Leonardo Nierman. But it picks up fast at the next stall, occupied by Petersberg Press, where a spectacular new portfolio of color lithographs by Frank Stella is having its world premiere. Prints by Johns, Hockney, Dine and Oldenburg are also on view.

Across the way, a Paris gallery, Bateau-Lavoir, is showing a retrospective of lithographs by the Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux. Delvaux was a contemporary and admirer of Picasso, and it shows, though he is considerably more interesting when he apes that master than when he apes himself over and over again.

Considerably more satisfying, and also from Paris, is the nearby Maeght booth, featuring a knockout series of huge black and white etchings by Pierre Alechinsky, an artist too little known in America. Miro fans can also find ample satisfaction here among his latest issues.

At the far left corner of the huge hall, Felluss has given our 12 booths to a special exhibition, organized by him, called "Washington Light," which focues on 19 area artists for whom this city's sky and light are in some way factors in their work. He makes a point, though the show has its lapses and suffers badly from overcrowding. Nonetheless, artists like Robert Stark, Kevin McDonald, Joe White, Jerry Clapsaddle, Sherry Kasten and Elaine Kurtz shine through and emerge head and shoulders above most of the other artists in this international bouillabaisse.

This view is reinforced (and proven to be more than mere chauvinism) in the booths of Washington dealers like Middendorf/Lane (which is showing new prints by Sam Gilliam) and Baumgartner (where Stark holds up against Hundertwasser).

What it says about the state of the photography market is not clear, but this year four Washington photo dealers are huddled together in one booth (turn right after the Corcoran booth) -- Lunn, Ewing, Sander, and a newcomer to the fair, Sandra Berler, a private dealer who handles first-rate talent. What this booth lacks in size it makes up in exceptional quality.

Wang Ming's booth is also showing strong photographs, those of Cynthia Brumback.

There is more -- some good, much that is unadulterated schlock. Some early Dali prints suggest that there's no Dali as bad as an old Dali, while Christie's Contemporary Art publications suggest that Christie's should stick to the auction business.

Two exhibits of special interest are a display of Ukrainian Non-Conformist art from a Washington Collection and another featuring black artists from South Africa, arranged by a Northport, N.Y., gallery.

"I was really nervous about this fair, there was such a turnover in exhibitors," said Felluss, who admits to having lost a dozen of his best exhibitors to Art 1980 Chicago, a new fair opening May 15. "Some dealers will do both, but others were forced to make a choice, and I lost."

Felluss' success here has spawned other competition. Fairs -- mostly for publishers -- have turned up recently in Boston and New York. Felluss himself organized a dealers-only fair in Los Angeles last February, and plans a "high-class" show in New York in October at the new Passenger Ship Terminal, Pier 92.

For those who complain about the schlock, Felluss complains in turn about the city's facilities. "Fair are not elitist events unless you have elitist places to show them."

ART '80 will be on view at the D.C. Armory noon to 9 p.m. daily, through Thursday, May 8. Tickets are $3 or $6 for a six-day pass. Children under 12 are admitted free.