Hirshhorn Museum chief curator Charles Millard believes that abstract color painter Friedel Dzubas is as good as Morris Louis, Ken Noland and Frank Stella.

"Maybe better," he says.

"Of course, history may prove me wrong, but that is what I believe. So, like Martin Luther, I cannot say otherwise."

Millard's fervor for Dzubas' giant, romantic canvases--typically covered with floating, swirling patches of color with melting edges--has inspired the retrospective now on view at the Hirshhorn through Aug. 14.

The most complete survey to date, it was also propelled by Millard's belief that Dzubas, a 68-year-old German-born artist now living in Cambridge, Mass., has not yet had his due from the public or the museum and critical establishments--even though his works hang in major museums and sell to corporations and private collectors at prices approaching $45,000 for the 25-foot-long pieces.

There is one notable cheering section: the influential critic Clement Greenberg and his followers, including Millard and the National Gallery's 20th-century curator, E.A. Carmean, who organized the first Dzubas retrospective in 1975 while at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts.

But other viewers might argue after seeing this show that Dzubas has had his due and then some--that his paintings are well-made and pretty, but surely not "among the finest this century, or any century has produced," as Millard asserts in the crescendo of his catalogue essay.

Some detractors have even suggested that Dzubas has succeeded, in part, because of his friendship with Greenberg.

"You could just as well say that Greenberg is famous because he is a friend of Friedel Dzubas," huffs Millard.

But the dashing artist's life is marked by a string of lucky moves and encounters (including several marriages), starting with his departure from Berlin five days before Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939.

At 24, after a brief stint at the Prussian Academy of Fine Arts, Dzubas made his way to New York. He worked as a busboy and delivery boy until a publisher hired him for graphic design in Chicago. There he began reading about the new Abstract Expressonist fervor in New York, and soon found himself in the thick of it when he returned there in 1945.

Spotting an ad that read "Commentary editor looking for summer home," Dzubas sought out the editor in the hopes of sharing the cost of a house he'd rented in Connecticut. The new housemate turned out to be Clement Greenberg.

Dzubas' circle grew to include not only Helen Frankenthaler (with whom he shared a studio for a year), but the leading mid-20th century American up-and-comers, including Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning and Franz Kline. They all served as inspiration for the earliest Dzubas paintings in the Hirshhorn show, starting with a 1949 abstraction painted on an old bedsheet. Dzubas showed similar works at New York's Tibor de Nagy gallery in 1952.

In 1960, after years as a free-lance book designer, Dzubas went to Europe for 10 months. When he returned he produced the first really distinctive paintings on view here. Some are round, some square, all are black with dense calligraphic squiggles of paint. Hung together here, they are designed as decorations for the whitewashed baroque church interior the artist still hopes someone will give him to decorate one day.

In fact, this tendency to "decorate"--fostered by an early apprenticeship with a decorator-painter in Berlin--persists throughout his work, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

"Decorative" is the only way to describe most of the flat, highly simplified abstractions that came forth in the '60s in response to the stylish, hard-edged color painting that was going on around him.

The decorative impulse turns up again, but in a far more profound way, in the 25-foot long painting from 1979, "Grand Transfer," which looks like a stage set for some dark, stormy Wagnerian opera. This passionate work also conjures thoughts of the new German Neo-Expressionists, with whom Dzubas may well be innately in tune, given his penchant for 19th-century German romanticism. The chief failing of this show is that it stops in 1981, just when you begin to wonder where this tack will lead.

The mature Dzubas paintings, for which he is best known, came in the early '70s. They are ever larger canvases with soft rectangular areas of mottled color tumbling through space. Some, like "Passages," are strong and architectonic, while others--notably the Hirshhorn's own appropriately named "Trough"--are incredibly trite in sweet pinks and greens.

The best works began to emerge around 1975, when the color areas stopped floating and took on the heft of ancient stones. In "Patmos," perhaps the strongest painting in the show, these forms seem to come to life, lurking and jostling each other in a sort of drama that is far more interesting than the facile showmanship that turns up all too often in the earlier work. "Late Flowering" is another, beautifully lyrical piece from 1976.

One question lingering over this show is whether Dzubas, even in top form, can live up to Millard's claims. And the answer for Dzubas--or nearly any other living artist--would almost have to be no.

Curators who climb that far out on limbs risk taking the artists down with them.

The more relevant question, and one viewers might do better to keep in mind, is whether this artist's work, thus far, deserves an extensive public reading. Given the strong feelings on both sides, and the worthy body of work in between, the answer to that question is more likely to be yes.