Back in the 1930s, nobody wanted the prints of Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and Howard Cook -- even at $5 apiece. Though the artists were much admired, their black-and-white lithographs, etchings and woodcuts were, well, "just prints," as they used to say.

Although prices have risen to three and four figures, prints by Benton and Wood are now selling fast. So are the works by Howard Cook at the Bethesda Art Gallery -- the first exhibited since his death at 79 last June. Two days after the show opened, 68 prints -- with prices ranging from $100 to $800 -- had been sold to a swarm of collectors, corporations and museums from all over the country.

"They're after not only the prints, but the drawings and working states as well," says proprietor Betty Duffy, who in 1975 gave Cook his first East Coast print show since the '40s, thus rescuing him from the oblivion that had engulfed not only Cook but many other good artists not of the abstract persuasion.

In 1975, with interest in early-20th-century American prints mounting, Cook's "Chrysler Buliding" -- one of his many exuberant New York skyscraper images -- sold for $75; by 1978, the price had doubled. In the current show, five copies of that print sold out instantly at $450 each -- still a very moderate price for a superb expression of the urban optimism that characterizes much American art between 1929 and 1932. It was during those four years that Cook produced all of his 160 graphic images, most in editions of 25, 50 or 75 impressions.

The skyscrapers represent the peak of Cook's achievement, but this show broadens our admiration for him through lesser-known images from his native New England; Paris, where he studied lithography in 1929; and New Mexico, where he ultimately settled and taught during the final decades of his life. The show also demonstrates that Cook was a masterful printmarker, equally adept in etching, wood-engraving, aquatint and lithography -- a rare combination. It's high time that Cook was given a major museum show to reestablish his rightful place in the galaxy of American artists. This show continues until Thanksgiving at 7950 Norfolk Ave. in Bethesda.

At last, Washington has a gallery with a deep and continuing interest in current art -- one which not only exhibits new trends, but examines them in large context. The place is WPA, 1227 G St. NW, and the current offering is a case in point.

"Drawn in Space" examines the work of six nontraditional artists who over the last 15 years have been drawing not only on paper with pencil, but in three-dimensional space -- with ropes, wire, wood and more ephemeral materials including the human imagination. In the window are two pieces by Richard Tuttle that give a simple illustration of the idea: They begin with a drawn, gestural line on the wall and then move out into three-dimensional space in a contiguous curl of bent wire.

In the first of several room-filling installations inside, Patrick Ireland draws his angles and rising and falling parallelograms in space with blue, yellow and red ropes stretched between walls, ceilings and floor. The forms constantly change as the viewer moves. Similarly, Roy Breimon uses fishing-tackle to create a glistening web of lines that emphasize directional movement up the stairway. Washington sculptor Nade Haley has made a complex "drawing in space" by floating a rigid wooden grid in the center of a room, and then piercing it with bent wire, shadows and more.

Things get a bit more subtle when lines are not drawn, but only implied. Sibyl Weil's room-sized installation surrounds the viewer with a ring of photographs and postcards suggesting exploration of new frontiers, from mountaintops to outer space to the micro-mysteries of science. A string of words -- "At this point we began, when will it be over" -- ties the whole piece together in one direction, while a sequence of paper airplanes made from phone book yellow pages (note the page titles) leads the viewer back in the opposite direction. This "line," connecting the thoughts and feelings aroused by the work, constitute the "drawing in space."

Not all works are equally successful. Another Tuttle piece -- painted black lines on a white wall -- remains wholly obscure; and Jeff Schiff seems to have gone to great trouble -- without success -- to give us an angled perception of a rectangular room. The show (with catalog) continues through Nov. 22.

Anyone looking for good but inexpensive original prints for Christmas gifts -- or for any purpose -- should stop by the Washington Womens' Arts Center, 1821 Q St. NW, where a fine show of prints by area artists have just gone on view. Selected by critic David Tannous from dozens of entries by WWAC members, this third annual print exhibition shows much greater strength and variety than its predecessors.

Good works abound, notably: Pauline Jakobsberg's intimate and painterly monoprint "Architect's Dream"; Arline Feldman's highly patterned, color woodcut overhead view of her neighborhood; Deborah Schindler's imaginative etching "Tree of Knowledge"; and Martha Olson's wonderfully expressive woodcut "Mississippi Life III." Other standouts include Viviane de Kosinsky's punning "Boardom," Marion Howard's serigraph "Papillons," Carla Klevan's striking monoprints and Barbara G. Sweet's tiny and provocative etching "The Old Lincoln Park Laundromat with No Men Outside."

There is much more, and for those who'd like 12 prints for less than the price of one there is also the Center's 1981 Calendar. At $40, it boasts an original, signed, tipped-in handmade print on every page. The show closes Nov. 22.