THE SEARCH FOR ALEXANDER -- At the National Gallery East Building through April 5, 1981.

When Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C., the legendary warrior and king of Macedonia left behind a vast legacy of political thinking and esthetic development. In more recent centuries, historians and archeologists have sifted through dusty volumes and ancient tombs looking for the scope of his influence.

Some significant artifacts from his lifetime and the Hellenistic era he inspired are revealed in "The Search for Alexander," a dramatic exhibit opening Sunday at the National Gallery. The display, neatly installed in the East Wing concourse, includes an audiovisual introduction and some handsome photography in addition to 175 ancient objects recovered from tombs and other archeological sites.

There are assorted stone images sculpted after Alexander's death that portray him as both man and god, and a collection of coins from classical antiquity that record his military exploits and political triumps; the youthful leader is pictured as a handsome hero with striking features and flowing hair. More exciting are Hellenistic metalworks, ceramics and jewelry recently discovered in northern Greece, the heart of Macedonia.

Among many fine examples of ancient metallurgy is a spectacular golden stalk of wheat probably created as a votive offering to the goddess Demeter; it was found near Syracuse in 1900. Another stunning piece is a bronze krater made as a vessel for serving wine but ultimately used as a funeral urn; when it was found in a grave at Derveni, it held several gold pieces and some bones wrapped in cloth.

Many of the most important works were found in excavations at Pella and in tombs at Vergina: miniature busts thought to be of Alexander and his father, King Philip II; a golden chest with a royal insignia; and terracota statues.

The exhibit is well-arranged, spacious and perfectly lit; it was coordinated and designed by National Gallery staffers Gaillard F. Ravenel and Mark Leithauser.

During busy periods, free admission passes to the display will be distributed at the Gallery to cut down on crowds.