"None of the Abstract Expressionist paintings that remain from the palmy days of 1946 to 1960 . . . makes quite as perfect a memorial that brave and confident little epoch as the theories." So said Tom Wolfe in his irreverent tract "The Painted Word," a put-down of both the art of that period and the critical theories he thinks inspired them. "The paintings . . . exist only to illustrate the text," he flailed.

That "brave and confident little epoch" is now the subject of a new show at the Hirshhorn, "The Fifties: Aspects of Painting in New York," and after seeing it both fans and foes of Wolfe will be better armed with facts to pursue the argument. Whether or not it dispels Wolfe's doubts, the show makes amply clear that there's a lot more to the '50s than has generally met the public eye.

This show sets out to flesh out a decade now remembered chiefly as the heyday of Abstract Expressionism -- the slashing, herioc style of Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and others -- that signalled the shift in the art world's center of gravity of Paris to New York.

This fresh examination of what really happened in the '50s is accomplished through a well-researched survey of 67 paintings by 33 artists of the 'New York Shcool," all shown chronologically, according to the dates when the paintings were either made or first exhibited. The result is an actual reconstruction (within obvious limits of the flux and flow of stylistic crosscurrents that a sure-eyed gallery visitor might have observed in New York museums, galleries and art magazines between 1950 and 1959. In the process, cliches and myths are shattered, while surprises abound.

The very first painting in the show is the first big surprise -- a formal, hard edge, minimal painting with stripes by Barnett Newman, made in 1949. It is very unlike the surrounding dripped and loosely painted canvases by Pollock, de Kooning, Hans Hofmann and other big stars of Abstract Expressionism.

Newman, it turns out, had attempted to show such work as early as 1950, but met with such critical hostility that he simply withdrew and did not show again until 1958.

That important fact of the '50s -- that violent brushstrokes were not everything -- is amplified later on in the show when the tide of more dispassionate, formal art begins to swell in works by Ad Reinhardt, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin and Frank Stella.

When Abstract Expressionism is discussed, a distinction is drawn between first- and second-generation artists, and it becomes clear early on in this show that such subdivisions are meaningless in this heady mix. Unimportant works by young sprouts like Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg reveal them to be in there slogging away in the style of the first generation, searching for a statement of their own, back in 1950. Even photorealist Alfred Leslie turns up her in an earlier incarnation as an abstract painter.

Also out of this mix comes the considerably more impressive young talent of Helen Frankenthaler, who is represented here by a large, mixedmedia work created at the tender age of 22, when she was clearly well aware of Pollock's latest drip-and-stain works. Such an example by Pollock hangs nearby, making it clear also where the idea of the stained painting came from before it made its way to Washington and led to Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis.

The show winds on, revealing as it goes how many fine women painters have been half-forgotten in the bigname shuffle. Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell both reveal themselves in major examples here -- Abstract Expressionists in the strict sense. Paintings by Elaine de Kooning and Nell Blaine also help make the point that even figurative painters of this period were much influenced by the prevailing gestural style.

By the time one reaches the gallery filled with huge canvases from 1957-58 -- works by Kline, de Kooning, Hoffmann, Michael Goldberg and Alfred Leslie -- the pictures have gotten bigger and bigger, but they are no longer getting better. Many of these artists, by this time, seem to be painting a la mode. One feels the presence of Tom Wolfe more clearly here than anywhere else in the show.

As the exhibition draws to a close, Barrett Newman reemerges with a huge white painting, along with a delicate minimalist work by Agnes Martin that is a welcome breath of fresh air, after what has now become too much heroic overstatement. The final room suggests what the '60s will make of '50s ideas, as Rauschenberg extends the notion of painting-as-autobiography by putting his own blue jeans -- literally -- into his work. As can also be seen in a small painting by Jasper Johns, Pop Art was underway. Frank Stella, taking up the heroic scale of his predecessors, in two stunning black paintings from 1959, signals a new age of minimalism. He was only 23.

A great strength of this show is that it reads (through pictures, not words) on two levels, and those who don't know what '50s art was all about will know by the time they leave. Better examples would have been welcome, but the points, nevertheless, have been made.

It is those who have read the books, however, who will expand their knowledge most by being given the opportunity to collate what they know with the new diversity revealed here. The relationship between critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg and the artists they wrote about can be further pursued in the exhibition's fine catalogue. Even Tom Wolfe should find something he didn't know therein.

The show will continue through Sept 21, and critic Lawrence Alloway will speak on "Stylistic Diversity and the Main Line in the Art of the Fifties" at the museum on May 29 at 8 p.m.