Robert Motherwell, 67--a central figure in the Abstract Expressionist Movement--is still considered one of the greatest living American painters. Washingtonians know him best through his giant black-and-white "Reconciliation Elegy," which looms over the National Gallery's East Building atrium--the only painting ever commissioned by that institution.

Some have been left wondering what all the shouting is about.

Only part of the answer can be found in "The Painter and The Printer: Robert Motherwell's Graphics," opening tonight at the Phillips Collection. Billed as the first major retrospective of the artist's prints, the show could have--and should have--come to some critical and historical conclusions about Motherwell's graphic oeuvre and its relation to his art in general, which it closely parallels.

But instead, this show--and its accompanying tome (incorporating a catalogue raisonne of his prints)--concentrates chiefly on technical matters, artistic collaboration and interviews with printers and publishers with whom Motherwell has worked. Print aficionados may be enthralled, but those interested chiefly in getting at the essence and flow of Motherwell's art are likely to be left frustrated.

Persistence, however, will pay off, for there are superb images among these gestural marks, primal signs and symbols that first appear to be so many blobs, smears and splatterings of ink, but ultimately overtake the willing viewer. A few, in fact, may number among Motherwell's finest works when the final accounting is made: the energetic splashes of aquatint from 1966, the lovely little print with collage titled "Gauloises Bleues," the superb "Calligraphic Studies" from 1976, which are monumental despite their small scale. Others, no doubt, will be consigned to oblivion, among them an inverted 4, a big brown smear called "Poe's Abyss," the overworked "La Guerra II"--bogged down in excessive angst--and "Easter Day," which is sheer vacuity.

In fact, a careful reading of this show suggests two important elements that may have conspired to keep Motherwell's art and reputation somewhat out of focus. Like most artists, Motherwell needs an editor. He also seems to be the victim, rather than the beneficiary, of the overzealous research and overblown prose he seems to inspire.

A brilliant, charismatic figure who emerged as one of the most literate spokesmen for the Abstract Expressionist group (he coined the phrase "New York School"), Motherwell is also a highly regarded art historian, critic and editor of treatises on modern art. Such critic-painters have always received an extra portion of respect and admiration from their critic-colleagues, but in Motherwell's case the total absence of criticism may well be responsible for leaving the public in a muddle about why all of this art is equally good, which of course it is not.

But the originality of his pictorial imagination, so admired by other abstract imagists, is is ample evidence here. Motherwell, who has been an abstract artist from the start, put the challenge most vividly himself: "one has no idea," he writes, "what it is like to spend 40 years of one's adult life alone in a room with blank canvas or blank paper and think, "Now what am I going to do with it?'"

For him, abstraction has always been a way of life, starting at age 11, when he received a scholarship to study art in California, but was barred from life-drawing classes because of his tender age. While a student of art history at Columbia University in 1940, he was introduced to the exiled Surrealists in New York, and his interest in "automatic" drawing -- or drawing straight from the imangination -- was once again reinforced. Motherwell's work differed from the Surrealists, however, in that he took his first sctibblings and built them into monumental, iconic abstractions.

Motherwell had his first exhibition with the Surrealists in New York in 1942, and about the same time began making prints, though it didn't become a principal medium until the mid-'60s. He rode the high tide of the print boom, and worked with the best printers in the business, most of whom have been interviewed in this catalogue. Those who remember the excessive commercialism that enveloped the high-priced print market in the late '70s will be especially taken with the conversation between publisher/dealer Brooke Alexander and Motherwell, which took place when the dealer thought the artist was working too slowly. According to Robert Bigelow, a former Motherwell studio assistant, it went like this:

"Do anything, Bob, just try anything, don't worry about it, if it doesn't work out, fine."

It was this kind of victory of commerce over art that led to the ultimate demise of the great American print boom of the '70s. But commerce does not seem to have been Motherwell's primary concern. He loved fine paper and the rich effects that could be achieved with color in the medium of aquatint, which he used sparingly but magnificently. He also enjoyed the collaboration of artisans, which is what this show is really about.

As we see throughout this exhibition, Motherwell often repeats favorite configurations--the strong black verticals and floating ovals of his "Elegy to the Spanish Republic," for example, has produced more than 100 variations. But his inventiveness rarely flags, even in the least interesting of the 70 images selected for this show. Altogether, he has produced nearly 250 images in virtually all print media.

The chief digression from his essentially expressionist style is in the works of the minimal "Open" series, usually characterized by three spare black lines on a colored ground. This image emerged in both his paintings and his prints of the mid-'60s, which somehow seem richer now, in some cases, than they did at the time.

Which brings up the question of whether the time has not arrived for a truly selective retrospective of Motherwell's entire corpus of work--not just his prints. There have been several such exhibitions in Europe in recent years, but none in America since 1965, when he was honored at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The Phillips has done its share with this show and an earlier one of his collages, but they fail to satisfy the need for a larger view.

The show continues through Aug. 29. It is a traveling exhibition organized by the American Federation of Arts, and was first shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1980.