Who needs New York?

The Washington art world -- at last -- has become a distinct and independent entity, as capable of generating, supporting and enhancing the reputations of its new artists as any city in the world. Maybe more so.

The evidence: Yuriko Yamaguchi, who is now showing new sculpture at Gallery K, and appearing in the Hirshhorn's 10th anniversary "Content" show, one of only two area artists so honored. Only four years have passed since Yamaguchi's Washington debut in, of all places, the Manassas Fine Art Exhibition, a largely amateur show assembled in a suburban school auditorium. She's come a very long way in a very short time, and being in Washington has helped.

True, Yamaguchi would eventually have made it anywhere, given her talent and the freshness and originality of her vision. From wall-hung ensembles made of small, sensuously carved bits of wood -- some stained black, some brightly colored and patterned -- she can evoke subjects and justify titles as large as "Coexistence" and "Close Relationships" by posing visual riddles of sorts. In the "Coexistence" series, for example, she uses abstract forms to suggest (but never precisely imitate) an infinity of objects, natural and man-made -- from an apple and a bird to a bow tie and a tool handle -- first focusing viewers' thoughts on what these forms are, and then upon the formal affinities and differences between them: soft versus hard; inviting versus off-putting; biomorphic versus machine made.

As one "reads" her work, one also feels it, and the cumulative sense of underlying wit, of vibrant warmth and humanity not only transmits, but ultimately envelops her viewers. But while accessible, the work also maintains tautness and tension -- a critical point.

With a major architectural commission under her belt (in Bethesda), Yamaguchi has moved into a more expansive mode in this show, creating three pieces that are larger and more mural-like, freer and more colorful than any we have seen before. Less intense, they are also broader in emotional range, reaching from the exuberant "Man in Space," in which a series of narrative dashes suggests movement and progress, to the somber "Man in the Memory," a highly personal piece that includes a head, an offering box and two wooden spoon-like objects with heart-shaped bowls. Together, they hint at the loss of a beloved and nourishing figure, perhaps a father.

Talent notwithstanding, the swiftness of Yamaguchi's ascent must be credited, at least in part, to the new sophistication of every aspect of Washington's art establishment: her high-quality graduate training at the University of Maryland (with Martin Puryear's influence playing a major role); the eagerness of commercial galleries as well as alternative spaces like WPA to spotlight emerging talent; and the relatively new (and one hopes permanent) openness to area artists on the part of the Hirshhorn's contemporary curators, who have here performed a function once left wholly in the hands of curators in New York.

Surely in part because the Hirshhorn's interest has garlanded her reputation in a way that really matters, the one segment of the city's art apparatus that rarely activates -- the buying, collecting public -- has sprung to life on Yamaguchi's behalf. Her show was nearly sold out before it opened last week, and in Washington that's news.

The show at Gallery K, 2032 P St. NW, can be seen through Nov. 10. Hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 to 6. Prints by Un'ichi Hiratsuka

Twenty-two years ago, famed Japanese woodblock artist Un'ichi Hiratsuka came to Washington to visit his daughter, artist Keiko Moore, and never returned home. Now 88 -- and officially named a National Treasure in absentia by the government of Japan -- he says he will return to Japan this spring, making this weekend's annual private show and sale of his powerful woodblock prints, new and old, a bittersweet event and one of major importance.

It is also the sort of event collectors are likely to kick themselves for missing. Next year a major retrospective of Hiratsuka's work will be launched in Los Angeles, kicking off a nationwide tour that is bound to bring, at last, the sort of recognition in America that he has had in Japan since he helped launch the 20th century revival of traditional Japanese woodblock printing. His mountain scenes and seascapes of Japan, along with cityscapes of Washington, have graced too many gallery and museum shows here to mention, and they will be on view -- and on sale, along with works by Keiko Moore -- today and tomorrow at a private residence at 10202 Fleming Ave. in Bethesda. Call 530-3412 for directions.