Chicago has pulled off the biggest--and by overwhelming consensus the best--art fair ever organized in the Western Hemisphere.

Unlike the print-dominated fairs in Washington, New York and Los Angeles, "Art 1982 Chicago" has attracted 112 top dealers from around the world who have brought with them 20,000 original works of art, including Rembrandt etchings, Picasso drawings, Morris Louis paintings, George Segal sculpture and Andy Warhol prints.

All are for sale at prices that range from a few hundred dollars (for work by lesser known contemporaries) to a quarter-million dollars (for paintings by Kenneth Noland and Francis Bacon.) The Marlborough Gallery booth alone contains art estimated at close to $2 million.

The remarkable aspect of the fair is in its concentration of high-quality art--a result of the fact that most of the world's leading dealers are here. More than a third of those who applied for space were turned down, according to the fair's founder and president, Chicago dealer John Wilson of Lakeside Studios.

The result is an overview of the contemporary art market previously available only at European fairs in Basel, Paris and Dusseldorf/Cologne. All sent representatives to look over their first real competition in America.

"The future is here," said Dusseldorf dealer Hans Mayer, who started the first international art fair in his home town in 1967, and has since shown regularly at the Basel and Paris fairs. "Basel may still be the biggest," he said, "but Chicago is now more interesting for contemporary art." Mayer, who deals in Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, Warhol and other big names in American art, says he considered the Washington fair, but found it to be "not for us--too much a printmaker's market."

"This leaves Basel far behind," said Richard Solomon, president of Pace Editions in New York, who was showing new prints by David Hockney, Frank Stella, Jasper Johns and Chuck Close in this, his first show at any fair. "The question for me was how much more business I could do here than I could do on four floors on 57th Street. But I'm convinced that this is the only fair in the world today where you can find such uniformly high quality dealers and works of art, and I've seen them all . . . There's no reason to have a fair in Washington; nobody buys art down there."

"The quality is surprising," agreed Alan Fern, new director of the National Portrait Gallery, who was among many Washingtonians winging their way home Sunday night. "I was amazed," said artist-collector-curator Jacob Kainen, who bought a Kirchner woodcut from the stall of R.M. Light of California, one of the world's great Old Masters dealers. Several Washington artists and dealers also could be found jamming the booths or sipping wine in the many cafes overlooking Lake Michigan.

The five-day event, which closes today, is sprawled over 132,000 carpeted square feet under the arched dome of Chicago's historic Navy Pier--a considerably more felicitous setting than the leaky D.C. Armory, where the Washington fair has been held since 1976.

"Washington isn't an easy place to have a fair," says WashArt founder Eli Felluss, who found the parking lot locked on the final Sunday of his fair last year, and could only marvel at Chicago's exemplary display of civic support. Yellow banners touting "Art 1982 Chicago" flew from light poles along Michigan Avenue, and a $110,000 mayor's grant made possible a major show of 55 large-scale sculptures by leading contemporary Americans in the mile-long approach to the Navy Pier. "Mayor Byrne's Mile of Sculpture," an invitational, features works by Alice Aycock, Sol Lewitt, Red Grooms and Washington artists Martin Puryear, Robert Stackhouse and Ed McGowin. The sculpture show will continue until May 29.

This third annual Chicago fair, which drew 22,000 visitors last year, had counted close to 30,000 paid admissions (at $6 each) by closing time yesterday. "We hope this year at least to break even," said fair backer and treasurer Buff Mundale, a Washington electronics consultant and distant cousin of Walter Mondale, who Mundale says "spells his name wrong."

The idea for the privately run Chicago enterprise was actually hatched at the Washington fair a few years ago when Mundale and John Wilson wondered why Chicago couldn't go one better. "But we'd like to coordinate with Washington; we don't want to see any fair fail."

Asked whether he ever considered coming to the Washington fair, Pace's Richard Solomon asked, "Do they still have one?" The answer, according to Felluss, is yes, though the next WashArt will not take place until March 1983--after the new convention center opens.