Bravo, sculptors, bravo! The Eleventh International Sculpture Conference, which opened here last night, has already proved a triumph. Together these artists have conquered a city that for 60 years has been ruled by painting.

Five hundred of their sculptures have been scattered throughout Washington.

One comes upon them everywhere -- in wooded groves and galleries, on windowsills and sidewalks. They stand in littered lots, hug the sides of buildings, burst out of the earth, float in the night sky. The convention itself may be tedious, as most conventions are, but that does not matter. The vast and varied show that the artists have mounted here is what we will remember.

Washington's great patrons -- Duncan Phillips and the Mellons, the Wideners, the Kresses, Chester Dale, LessignRosenwald (Joseph Hirshhorn is the grand exception) -- did not much care for sculpture. One sees in their museums that they loved pictures most of all. The sculptures now all around us should counteract their bias -- and change the way that viewers here, those fans of two dimensions, respond to works of art.

There are so many sculptures here that no one will see them all. Some of them are ghastly, some awesome, some amusing. These should not be missed:

A 100-foot-long giant, his mighty muscles knotted, his bearded face contorted in a silent baroque scream, hs fought his way out of the ground at the tip of Hains Point. There were giants in the earth once; this one has just awakened. His esthetic may be retrograde -- he is horror-movie Gothic -- but his enormous figure is enormously impressive. He was made of cast aluminum by J. Seward Johnson Jr., the Princeton, N.J. Band-Aid heir, a masterful technician generous enough to personally guarantee the conference's financial well-being. His work is called "The Awakening." Were Johnson still more generous, he would not take it with him, but would leave it there.

A laser sculpture by Washington's Rockne Krebs will appear each night from 9 p.m. to midnight in the sky above the Mall. When tested Tuesday night, Krebs' piece assumed a beauty almost magical. Krebs has used his laser beams to conjure on the Mall that most mysterious image -- the pyramid surmounted by a glowing eye -- that appears, peculiarly, on each dollar bill. This city's finest statue -- the great Seated Lincoln of Daniel Chester French -- now gazes towards the Capitol through an equilateral triangle of light. The strange glowing eye appears halfway up the Washington Mounment.

Because the beams that put it there are bounced off the reflecting pool, the pyramid-with-glowing-eye also seems to hover on the surface of the water. Because our monuments are usually darkened at midnight -- and because Krebs's work is most striking in the dark -- it should remain on view at least until 1 a.m.

Another first-rate work that should never be removed is the deceptively simple structure made of timbers notched and stacked that California's Lloyd Hamrol has built in Rock Creek Park Way between Clavert Street and P Street. With its steps and overhangs and 60-degree chevrons, Hamrol's piece suggests caves, sets of bleachers and Ken Noland's color paintings. Its raw pine smells good too.

At 21st and P Streets NW, on the ground floor of the Corcoran's Dupont Center, a building that once housed the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Walter Hopps, once director of that gallery, has installed a truly searing show. Four sculptors, the best of whom confront us with images so real we can harldy bear it, confront us in that space.

Edward Kienholz, the master scavenger, has placed on view an occupied hotel room. Germany's Joseph Beuys offers us two blackboards, a bucket and a rag. rDuane Hanson's lifelike figure of a "Woman Collecting for Charity" seems about to rise and walk. And Mark Prent of Canada, a sculptor of great skill and anger, has made images of terror that might tear out your heart. Bondage is his themes.

The Diane Brown Gallery nearby, meanwhile, is showing "The Tools of the Studio," three admirable related works by Washington's Yuri Schwebler. He works with wood and skeletons, with fabrics, wire armatures, and of course, plumb bobs. The first work deals with the scale of the human figure, the second with the scale of the sculpted bust, the third with the larger scale of the horse. Five hundred years of sculpture are summoned by his show.

No dealer did more for sculpture hereduring the 1960s and the early '70s than Henri of the Henri Gallery 21st and P Streets NW. The group show she has mounted includes a giant tree trunk, made by Washington's Eric Joseph, out of which is growing a tiny living lawn and a tiny living tree.

Before the Forrestal Building on Independence Avenue NW, curator Sue Green has placed half a dozen sculptures, among them one by Nancy Graves, that seem to guard the street. ("They certainly animate that dreadful building," Lerner said.) Bruce Beasely's thought-out steel work is shining and aggressive, and Sylvia Stone's is handsome, but it is the Graves -- a piece that seems to be made out of camels' leg bones -- that grips the viewer's eye because it holds his mind.

On the Mall side of the Smithsonian Castle, just across the street, Charles Simonds has installed what may be the smallest piece of sculpture in the show. A small sandstone pueblo with very tiny bricks and a tiny background landscape, it sits upon a windowsill. Most passerby do not notice it is there.

Certain sculptures seem to converse easily both with their surroundings and with each other. Look, for instance, at the three quite different works that William Christenberry, Ronald Bladen, and Nancy Holt have installed on the lawn across 17th Street from the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

The roof of Christenberry's small sheet-metal shed with its handpainted signs ("7-Up," "Prepare to Meet Your God," "Keep out") is a pun on the pointed top of the Washington Monument nearby. So, too, in a different way, is Ronald Bladen's "Boomerang." Bland's giant "X," "Smoke" by Tony Smith and Barnett Newman's "Broken Obelisk" were shown together by Sue Green at the Corcoran in the late '60s. Bladen's new work summons up that memorable show, for it is a sort of "Wounded Obelisk." Smith is represented, too, nearby at the Hirshhorn with a new steel sculpture, "Throw-Back," just purchased by that museum. One of this country's finest artists, he now has a major peice permanently on view here. It's about time.

Uptown, at 1736 Columbia Road NW, Washington's Big Al Carter has installed a painted homemade work whose garishness is somehow perfect for its site.

At 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue Nw, Washington's Rod McCurdy has placed upon a rubbled lot what seems to be anew suburban house that has been somehow squashed. Its mowed lawn has been squashed as well. This work is one of many installed about downtown by the WPA.

Not all the sculptures on display are works that warrant praise. Most of us by now have grown greatly tired of those things of Cor-Ten steel that have become our period's most familiar, and least pleasing, works of public art. One, by Jules Olitski, that overrated painter, is now standing on the lawn of the National Gallery of Art -- an institution that, so far at least, has so rarely noticed the many first-rate sculptors represented in this show.

Other group shows are on view at the Kennedy Center, Howard University, the Pension Building and Columbia Plaza. The conference is headquartered at the Hyatt Regency. Dozens of panels, Lectures, and technical demonstrations have been scheduled, continuing through Saturday. A few of these -- and Saturday's performances on the Mall -- will be open to the public. The others are restricted to registrants only. Those interested may sign up at the hotel. The registration fee is $125.

The first sculpture conference was held -- in Lawrence, Kan. -- 20 years ago when four Midwestern artists decided to assemble to consider casting bronze. At this one, some 3,000 people representing 35 different nations are expected to appear. Many of them gathered at 7 last night to hear words of welcome from federal officials and to wait until the laser beam of sculptor Rockne Krebs brightened the night sky.

Livingston Biddle, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, was called upon to address the gathering. Since returning from a recent trip to several Pacific islands, Biddle has occasionally spoken in the languages he picked up while traveling. Last night he started speaking in Hawaiian Translating, he said that the words meant "this my woman [he meant his wife]; I her man; and together both of us and the National Endowment join in wishing you much success" -- and it became apparent to the assembled artists that he did not have much to say. But the night was mild and the sunset lovely and no one seemed to mind.

Abram Lerner, director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which has the finest sculpture collection in this town, said that in his youth "sculpture was the stepchild of the visual arts. New York galleries in the '50s would have a stalbe of 15 or 20 artist -- two of whom made sculptures. Rodins then were available for a pittance. In the '50s you still could buy a monumental Henry Moore for $7,500, and a David Smith -- and I am talking about a great one -- for $1,200."

Lerner called the conference "a four-day happening" and compared it to New York's famous Armory Show of 1913. "Surely," he said, "you cannot bring together thousands of sculptors without in some way altering the course of the arts." He added, "I shall not speak to you in Hawaiian."

At 8:15 the speaker, having the run out of words, stopped talking. Shortly after 9, although it was still too light to see them properly, Krebs' lasers were switched on.