Brad Holland's portfolio lies open on the loft floor and, from the depths of an old butterfly chair, the illustrator is providing a rambling commentary.

There's the portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini, eyes burning from the page, that Holland painted for Time's Man of the Year cover in 1980. "The last time anyone saw it, it was in the ladies' room at Time," Holland sighs.

He has never sold an original of the highly recognizable and widely admired illustrations he produces for virtually every major magazine in the country. So his pieces have a tendency to disappear from art departments.

Like this one, also missing in action, of three debating bishops for a New York Times Magazine cover on Catholicism. "I had to go rent this ecclesiastical get-up," Holland remembers. "There's this store two Jewish guys run; they handle the garb for the archdiocese. So I dragged [the robes] home one July day. I had my assistant and Judy [Pedersen, Holland's wife] pose on the roof." He painted the cover in a day, using acrylics because oils wouldn't dry fast enough -- a not unusual pace for an artist who currently has 15 assignments in various stages of completion and is today groggy voiced and droopy eyed because he was at his drawing table all night.

But the portrait, done for Playboy, of the glowing Madonna-like face with the cocaine-smudged nose lies safely stashed in a 17th Street warehouse where Holland stores 20-odd years of sketches and paintings. Though illustration is a largely anonymous trade -- its products seen by millions, of whom only a handful notice the signatures -- this page is what people in graphic arts, who follow his work with intense interest, have in mind when they talk about "a Brad Holland."

"A little bit of surrealism," says J.C. Suares, creative director at Prentice-Hall, who in the early '70s helped cement Holland's reputation by putting his pen-and-ink political drawings on The New York Times' op-ed page. "Always some strange, magical thing going on, finding things where they don't belong, finding things smaller or bigger than they ought to be." Holland has created men whose heads are unraveling balls of yarn, skies clouded with pastel breasts, sphinxes with computer terminal faces.

"An eerie quality," offers Washington artist Susan Davis. "You don't want a Brad Holland hanging in your home; you want to close the cover and come back another day."

The screaming ape, for example, keening over the body of its young against a hellfire-orange background, that Holland painted for a Science 84 story on infanticide. Even Brad Holland doesn't want that Brad Holland on his wall.

The brick and plaster walls of the SoHo loft he shares with Judy Pedersen, who's also an illustrator, are instead a gallery of less violent, though still unsettling, Hollands: a bald man staring blankly from a window in "Office on the Alley," a pregnant nude slung in one of these very butterfly chairs in "In a Room."

Holland will be showing slides of many of these tonight, at a lecture sponsored by the American Institute of Graphic Arts and the Smithsonian Resident Associates (6 p.m. at the Hirshhorn Museum auditorium). He's supposed to speak, he says, about his development as an artist, a saga that began when he was a teen-ager hopefully mailing his pictures to Walt Disney and that finds him at 41 an undisputed star of American illustration.

But will he mention the airy house on five acres that he and Pedersen have just bought in rural Connecticut, the waiting stockpile of canvases, the new brushes lying on a table top? Or explain that this summer, even art directors who manage to get his unlisted number will reach only his assistant -- who will have been instructed, Holland jokes, to speak French to all callers, causing enough confusion to buy him several months' uninterrupted painting in his new retreat?

Maybe not. For one thing, Holland has fathered a whole school of imitators who appropriate his style and sometimes his ideas. It's made him uneasy about discussing the future, the possibility of a book, the poster about to be distributed by Springdale Graphics.

For another, Holland for years has adopted a seeming diffidence toward certain measures of artistic success. Craggy and shaggy, he still looks and sounds something like the underground cartoonist whose drawings appeared in the East Village Other and the New York Review of Sex 15 years ago. He's never signed with a gallery, for instance ("I'll have to do that one day; people keep calling"). He's never had an agent either; agents encourage artists to do "dumb advertising stuff" like the recent offer to portray "a bunch of people worshiping a giant cup of yogurt." Until two months ago, he'd never been on the cover of The New Yorker; that required approaching its art director with submissions, while Holland usually waits for the phone to ring. Moreover, he's never bought the notion that the distinction between commercial and fine artists is worth remarking, or even that it exists. A real artist, he likes to say, is someone who doesn't care whether he's a fine artist or a commercial artist.

So it might be a bit awkward, in speaking to an audience of colleagues, to appear to be searching or striving. He doesn't want to be stereotyped: the illustrator turning at last to Serious Art. "Growth is one of those middle-class cliche's," growls Holland, who already feels quite serious. "You just get ideas. They lead you off, sometimes in unexpected ways."

Other illustrators look at Brad Holland's work and murmur Goya, Rembrandt, those shadows, those dark darks; he must be classically trained.

In fact, Holland isn't "trained" at all, except for borrowing how-to-draw books from the Fremont, Ohio, public library. He gave up on public school art classes when the curriculum turned to belts and ashtrays, experimenting on his own, amassing hundreds of drawings in closets. When one of the books mentioned drawing with charcoal, there was no one to tell him not to try it with a barbecue briquette on shirt cardboard, so he did.

He finished high school -- Walt Disney Productions had returned the box of drawings he sent at 15, enclosing a Mickey Mouse rejection letter -- and took a bus to Chicago. For two years he was the consummate starving artist, living in a flophouse, working at a tattoo parlor, a tiny studio and a supermarket, noticing derelicts by day and drawing them at night on a board propped against a chair back as a makeshift easel. When the poverty intensified, Holland, then 19, got himself hired at Hallmark in Kansas City, Mo. He was illustrating books, rather than birthday cards, but it was nonetheless a stunning mismatch. Finally, at 23, he had enough money to come to New York.

Once here, he never lacked for work, but he didn't always take it. Holland early on developed the philosophy that art directors ought simply to turn over their pages for him to fill with what interested him at the time; they often accused him of not reading the manuscript he was supposed to be illustrating and they were sometimes correct. A kind of guerrilla war ensued. "I'm convinced," Holland says, "that Michelangelo would have painted the chapel ceiling differently if Julius [hadn't been] off fighting the French."

He turned to the freer environment of the underground papers, where Suares noticed his work, a few years later bringing him into the Times stable and into prominence. But Holland still sells his work more or less the same way he did 15 years ago.

He keeps a six-inch-thick-and-growing stack of sketched ideas he particularly likes. When the phone rings with an assignment he's not crazy about, he says he's too busy to take it. But if he likes the assignment and the art director likes one of the ideas from his stack and the price is right (ranging from nothing, for an antinuke group in the Northwest that needed a poster, to $10,000 or $12,000 for a high-priced painting), the deal is struck.

"He's so popular now that he can pretty well control his own assignments," notes Roger Black, Newsweek's art director. "He doesn't take art direction, per se. He's willing to give you a few of his ideas. If you like them, cool. But he won't change something to make you happy."

Holland still thinks art directors should give him pages to fill as he likes; the difference, these days, is that many of them do.

The New Yorker is the apotheosis of that philosophy; it's the one widely circulated magazine whose cover art has no relationship whatever to the stories inside. New Yorker covers rarely concerns infanticide or cocaine, however.

Holland thinks his "malevolent" reputation is a bum rap ("most of them are more about relationships," he protests, leafing through the drawings in the portfolio); he's painted cows and diners as well as generals and peasants. But as New Yorker art director Lee Lorenz tactfully puts it, "People familiar with his work might not have thought of him on the New Yorker cover. It may have been a surprise to him."

Lorenz was nonetheless delighted last fall when Holland brought several small paintings to show him. He rejected Holland's depiction of a cardboard carryout container the artist was inspired to render after his third Chinese takeout dinner in a week. But Lorenz liked Holland's painting of an empty-looking garage at Seventh Avenue and 10th Street and put it on the March 10 cover. "Even this has a slight edge of menace," Lorenz says, "but that's part of New York City life, so it's not out of character."

"I'd been wanting to do it for years," Holland says of the garage, in which he sees no menace. "I thought it was pretty neat, one ramp going up and the other going down." Inspired by the experience, he's been casing two city playgrounds "until I'm sure some parent's going to have me arrested," waiting for the perfect light on the slide.

His work has changed since that cover, he finds. He applies the paint differently. His wife notices that his signature has altered. It's not a new style, exactly; in fact, Holland dislikes the very word. "This whole idea that you must have a style makes people look for a trademark, and they do it the way they shop for clothes," he says, rather fiercely.

Having extricated himself from the butterfly chair, Holland is leading a guided tour of his drawing table. It's a vast expanse of paint smears and junk, lighted by a forest of clip-on lamps. "A person could get marooned on a desert island and survive on the contents of this desk," he comments, picking up and then discarding an aspirin bottle, Band-Aids, loose change, a tape cassette of Spanish lessons, a plastic brain the size of a chickpea and a yellow metal reproduction of Christ of the Ozarks, the statue that looms beneficently over Eureka Springs, Ark. Usually the table also contains half a dozen Coke cans, but it's been tidied up.

When Holland first moved into this loft, he was working on a grand scale, using rollers to apply the paint. The paintings he does these days, now that pleading art directors call him constantly, are generally the size of a magazine cover, and often are based on ideas that have been sitting in the sketch pile for years. It is starting to bother him. He's become, Holland says, "like a fat person living off the accumulated ideas of years."

This summer's planned hiatus is a chance "to do something for which there's no deadline or required size or editors to persuade, no politicking . . . It's not a career move. It's not like I'm feeling tied down or burned out or pent up. I just get bored . . . "

Those who know him have been waiting for something like this. Occasionally, an illustrator's name penetrates the public's obliviousness: LeRoy Neiman through his television appearances, Paul Davis with his theatrical posters, Milton Glaser through sheer omnipresence, Folon, Edward Sorel, David Levine, a few others. Except for entering and winning countless professional competitions, Holland has done none of the things that would bring him either Serious Artist credentials or broad public recognition. But he's contemplating steps -- a book, a gallery, a poster series -- that could lead to both.

"Should a good enough gallery take him on, he could be a very successful painter," predicts Tom Staebler, art director at Playboy. "He will procrastinate, but eventually he'll make that hookup."

Holland is uncomfortable with all such talk of goals, ambitions, recognition. At 22 or 23, a transplanted midwestern populist, "I was convinced there should be no originals left in art. They should be destroyed, so only the mass art, the reproduction, remained . . . The whole idea of selling paintings to rich people seemed . . . "

He's unable to come up with a sufficiently evil adjective.

Even now, Holland wonders how it will feel to relinquish his artworks. "I even hated to see old cars go when my father traded them in," he frets.

"There's a sense in which any painting of mine is mine forever," he says bravely. "But it will bother me, I think.

"We'll see. Won't we?"