Most of the combat artists of World War II languish in well-deserved obscurity, but Frank Wootton, who always was good, just kept getting better and better until now he's the best, bar none, of those who paint the men and machines of war.

Which is not to say that he's just a very good illustrator. He is that, and he's proud of it, but Wootton's landscapes alone guarantee him permanent standing in that long line of English artists headed by Constable.

Some of the 57 paintings in "At Home in the Sky," a retrospective of 40 years of Wootton's work newly installed at the Air and Space Museum, would hang with distinction in any museum in the world. His use of light, texture and composition is deft and sure, and his command of his subjects is such that he understates with a confidence amounting almost to arrogance.

Although airplanes are the central subjects of the majority of the works shown here, most could more properly be titled "Skyscape, with Aircraft," because Wootton, who served in all the major theaters of the war, has a pilot's eye for the complexity, beauty and treachery of the sky.

Many of his works were commissioned, by people who don't know from art but know what they like, for squadron mess halls or corporate headquarters. But Wootton, a journeyman in the ancient and honorable sense of that word, seems incapable of doing less than almost his very best. His very best, especially the scenes he has painted on and around his Sussex farm, may someday be recognized as great.

AT HOME IN THE SKY -- Through September 1984 at the National Air and Space Museum.