The walls were covered with art, but a reception is a reception, so all the guests turned their backs on the pictures and talked, talked, talked.

"As with most of these occasions, you end up talking to people more than looking," said Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor at the Phillips Collection last night.

Subjects of discussion at the party for corporate members of the collection included things like O'Connor's bright orange and yellow dress. To one friend's compliment she said, "Do I look Arizona? It looks like an Arizona sunset."

Then there was the artist Miklos Pogany, whose paintings, prints and collages were on display.

"Nothing like this has ever happened to me," said Pogany, as people like Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, Agriculture Secretary John Block, PepsiCo Chairman Donald Kendall and Norfolk Southern Corp. Chairman Robert Claytor wandered by.

"For an artist to be involved with an event like this where the very people who support the Phillips Collection can see a show -- it's not exactly the general public," said Pogany. "This kind of thing used to exist in the times of Michelangelo and the Medicis. It doesn't exist so much these days."

Welcoming the latter-day Medicis was Jean Smith, wife of former attorney general William French Smith. She had flown in from California to serve as one of the hosts.

"I can't seem to get unpacked," she said of her adjustment to Life After the Cabinet. "One collects a lot in Washington -- papers and trophies and plaques. I don't know what you do with them."

Those still on the full-time Washington circuit have other concerns. Weinberger, who is scheduled to join actress Kitty Carlisle Hart in a reading from "The Taming of the Shrew" at a Folger Theatre fundraiser tonight, made your basic secretary of defense joke about his upcoming performance.

"That's classified information," he said. "The whole issue is heavily involved in the nation's security and I cannot discuss it."

A highly placed source, however, agreed to elaborate.

"He has come to our rescue because we lost our male lead," said Jane Weinberger. "We were hoping for Jason Robards."

Robards' understudy hasn't had time to study his lines. "I think he's planning to read it to tomorrow over lunch," said his wife. "He complained about the choice. I told him he was lucky we didn't pick 'Romeo and Juliet.' "

This year, the 57 corporate members have contributed $185,000 toward the Phillips 1985 operating budget of $1.8 million. Among the guests last night were Edison Electric Institute President William McCollam, Hamburger Hamlet Chairman Marilyn Lewis and Pepco President Edward Mitchell.

"They have a very good following," said PepsiCo's Kendall, the corporate membership campaign chairman. "I think it's because of their dedication. They don't forget the people who support them. They cultivate them."

One method of cultivation is inviting corporate members to use the museum for their own parties and meetings. Another method is having everyone over for a dinner like last night's.

The 190 guests flowed off the receiving line and into one small gallery, where they quickly ran into friends and formed a black-tie gridlock. Phillips employes tried to get some of them, please, to go upstairs, but to no avail. Until they could sit down in the Music Room under the Degas and Vuillard, they were staying right there.

"I made the headlines way back in the Johnson days by having the Opera Ball in the Museum of History," said former Smithsonian secretary S. Dillon Ripley. "They thought it was absolutely impossible to have spiritous liquor in a museum. The only place you had spiritous liquor was in the back rooms of the Congress."

Mary Ripley said, "No one did it before. It's fun to go and have a party somewhere that's new and different. Museums used to be dead. Today they're not."

And then it was time to eat.