WHAT IS Washington about Washington art? Fifteen years ago -- in color painting's heyday -- we thought we knew the answer. Washington in those days seemed certain of the future, unafraid, well-ordered. So did its sunlit art. This abstract painting done here was more colorful -- and calmer -- than that made in New York. Its governing geometries, its circles, stripes and chevrons, were as hard-edged and Euclidian as those of Pierre L'Enfant's city plan. Its most prominent practitioners -- Ken Noland, Morris Louis, Howard Mehring and Gene Davis -- were opponents of the messey. Together they abandoned the slashings and the writhings of anguished action painting. They took openness from Pollock, rigor from the minimalists, and sunny, luscious color from the paintings of the French. The Washington color painters, those aimers at the future, shared, above all else, a huge historical ambition.

Their episode has passed. Another sort of art -- more modest in intention, and far less single-minded -- now appears ascendant here. Does this city have a style still? Can its working artists -- there are hundreds of them out here -- still be said to share an attitude, a vision? "Options: Washington, 1981," at the Washington Project for the Arts, 1227 G St. NW, is an exhibit without masterworks. But this telling and convincing show begins to sketch an answer to that old, amorphous question: What is Washingtonian about Washington's new art?

"Options" is part swan song, part art salon, part prophecy. It is the last show to be mounted in the downtown G Street home of the soon-to-be-evicted WPA. It is a group show of new talent. Its 22 young artists -- they were chosen by Mary Swift of the WPA's board, and by Gene Davis, the stripe painter -- work with neon and with steel, with wood and cloth and movie film. Their styles are as varied as are their materials, yet their show is held together by an eerie commonality. There is much they share.

None of them is a purist. Most of them are synthesists. Technically -- and conceptually -- they all seem to prefer multiplicity to singleness, layering to flatness. This art is not severe, exclusie, self-sufficient. It is often touched with humor. Almost every object here tells whole sets of stories, and easily embraces both the present and the past.

When Gene Davis, in the catalogue, speaks of this city's "pluralism," he does not merely mean that many styles flourish here. Many styles co-exist in all these works of art.

This looks like art produced in a city of exhibits. Artists have a choice here: They can struggle to reject the art images that flood our lives -- or they can make peace with that torrent and float their own art in it. The artists in this show are unafraid of "dumb art," of wit and historicity. Their show encourages the viewer to mentally revisit a thousand loaded images he has seen before.

Walt Disney's mouse and King Tut's gold, the tiled mosques of Persia, Josef Albers' squares and the apples of Cezanne, the merz-bau of Kurt Schwitters, the garish colors of 14th Street, Joseph Cornell's boxes Watergate, the palm trees of Miami, the weathered barns that Wyeth loves, the heads carved on Mount Rushmore -- these images and many more scavenged from our memories are present in this show.

And yet this work looks new. It seems stamped by the '80s. It could not have been made here a dozen years ago.

Alan Stone's fine small steel sculptures manage to suggest monoliths and insects, the fetishes of Africa and the spaceships sent to Mars. The intrepid hero of Eileen B. Zegar's handsome, goofy drawings is a black pooch-in-boots. Christopher Gardner's colored cones set the mind to musing on boat's screws and on cacti, and it would take a month to untangle all the messages in "Big Al" Carter's paintings, whose neon-garish colors are the brightest in the show.

Stephen T. Moore's palm trees look like tall beings fed on sun glare. Suzanne Codi's little theaters are full of sugared memories, of French songs and ballet; her work is the most telling self-portrait on display. Greg Hannan's wall-hung sculptures, though not far from abstractions, throw off intimations of pencils, houses, rushing roads. Of his art he writes: "It must be retinal yet not at the expense of everything else." He might well be speaking for all those in this show.

Daniel B. Kennedy's ruled lines are both funny and obsessive. His trompe l'oeil spiral notebook pages somehow blend the spirit of the purest abstract art with the foolishness, frustration and well-remembered boredom of study hall at school. Martha May's cloth sculptures suggest hammocks and the hospital, shrouds and the cocoon.

Washington was known once as a city full of painters. Among the great surprises here is that sculpture, or the sculptural, seems to rule this show. The strongest works on view -- Charles Sleichter's veiled doorways, with their overtones of Hopper; the part Islamic, part cartoony "storyboards" of Henry Leo Schoebel; Kendall Buster's witty, flickering "Film Box," and Paul Albert's startling bather, musing in his bathtub -- are all painted sculptures. The "Film Box" calls to mind the strangest range of images -- the "Black Paintings" of Stella, the "Homages" of Albers and the first films of Disney. Schoebel's painted planks look like jeweled surfboards prepared for Mohammed. And Albert's bathing figure, after firing off suggestions of Michelangelo and Helen and the "Thinker" of Rodin, stops the viewer cold.

Swift and Davis visited the studios of perhaps 60 artists before they chose these 22. There are many other artists here who might have been included. Their show, by extension, seems as good a survey of the new art of this city as we have seen in some time.

The WPA downstairs is exhibiting, appropriately, Jonathan Meader's paintings, for often in the past Meader has arranged group shows of young local artists like the one upstairs. His subjects have not changed -- he still shows us unicorns, roses, skies and pyramids, and animals one feels can talk -- and the colors blue and black still dominate his art.His detailing is still amazingly meticulous. Because there are no prints in it, this show lets us see a larger number of his images than we have seen before.

The WPA will close its G Street galleries when these shows come down. It may stay downtown, and pay to renovate a building at 400 7th St. NW -- but it is far from wealthy, and the month-to-month lease if has been offered there presents real problems. No other institution here has, in recent years, done more for local art. The WPA expects to reopen -- somewhere -- in the fall, but, as of this writing, its future is unclear.