NEW YORK -- If you passed him in the gallery -- that compact man of 51 smoking a cigar -- you might never think Frank Stella an art historical projectile. He doesn't look the part. His tennis shoes are scuffed, his cotton pants unpressed. His hair is going gray. Only when you note the deftness of his movements, his flat, absorbent gaze, and the intimidating, focused quickness of his thought, can you begin to fit the painter to his art.

His car is a Ferrari. His horses race to win. With his lacrosse days behind him, Stella now is half in love with the intricate finesse, the calculated angles and blurring speed of squash. Even when he's standing still, swiftness spins about him. Stella's abstract pictures are beautiful, projective, generous and dazzling. Thirty-eight are now on view in his partial retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. It takes an act of will to look at them as static, so compelling is their sense of hurtling advancement. They're made of aluminum and canvas, ground glass, etched magnesium. They zoom out from the wall, they send tracers through the memory. They're audacious as a moon shot. The man is rightly named. Stella is a star.

It's Stella's bigness that amazes, the bigness of his daring, his visual intelligence, his ambition and his will. He is, there is no doubt, the most far-reaching and important abstract painter of the space age. For nearly 30 years he has been driving abstract art into realms no one had glimpsed before. And he has taken us along.

His first show made him famous. He was 23, a recent graduate of Princeton, when, in 1959, his "Black Paintings" appeared in the "Sixteen Americans" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Nobody had ever seen abstract pictures like them. It was their "thingness" that astonished. Their hand-painted, black stripes, each obedient to its neighbor, seemed utterly straightforward, and yet the works themselves had a gravity, a grandeur, that stopped you in your tracks. Stanley Kubrick might have been thinking of their presences and loomings when, some 10 years later, he placed that black slab on the moonscape of "2001."

Looking at his first works, you couldn't help feeling that's it, the end of painting. Stella had painted himself into a corner. He had sealed off his exits. He had no place to go.

Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt, as Goya had before them, had reached that deathlike blackness, that aura of finality, only at the end of their lifelong struggles. But that's where Stella started. And it wasn't an end at all.

First he turned to color, to coppers and aluminums and strange metallic greens. Then he shaped his canvases and let them sweep the wall. He said, "All I want anyone to get out of my paintings, and all I ever get out of them, is that fact that you can seen the whole idea without any confusion ... What you see is what you see." But it wasn't quite that simple. His edge-obedient stripes were right there on the surface, but they somehow opened distances, and spaces that were vast, intricate or bent.

Each time Stella made a move, it was as if he'd hit a wall -- until you saw the paintings. The walls kept disappearing. It was like being a kid waiting for the new Beatles record. You couldn't imagine what they were going to do next, until you heard the music. Stella's progress in the '60s now seems preordained, straight ahead, relentless. It didn't seem so then. Each time he'd exhibit he'd astonish us again.

Early in the '70s he left his peers behind. He once seemed to belong to a circle that included Ken Noland, Larry Poons, Jules Olitski, Jasper Johns. Johns' handwriting is lovely still, but his mind games have become ingrown, self-indulgent, arch; and Larry (these days Lawrence) Poons is building clots on canvas, and Noland's work is clotted, too, and Olitski's at his gels as he has been for years, and Stella is alone.

He has never stopped advancing. His newest paintings at the Modern -- say "Loomings" (1986) or "The Lamp" (1987) -- are among the most dramatic, most amazing pictures he has done.

In 1984-1985 Stella was invited to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University. His subject was the crisis, the dullness of the space, the growing enervation of wholly abstract art. Stella sought an answer in the art of the Old Masters, in the dramatic space of Caravaggio especially. His lectures have been published in a book that he calls "Working Space." It treats, with near contempt (though his name is never mentioned), the critic Clement Greenberg's insistence upon flatness. In working up his lectures, Stella somehow came upon another fuel for his onrushing art.

His flight path hasn't changed. It is as if he has reached into the past, deep into the past, far beyond those "Black Paintings" that once seemed his only launching pad. Stella's art has always had within it a sort of implied narrative. Looking at his pictures, you could almost always see within them the works that stretched away from them, both the seeds that gave them birth and the blossomings to come. The French curves found in "Loomings" are allies of his older tools, his protractors and rulers, but the metal wave that spills over that great picture summons simultaneously the drapes of Caravaggio's "Madonna of the Rosary" and the curtains of Vermeer.

It is the greatness of Stella's reach that makes this exhibition somehow ... insufficient. It isn't big enough.

Its 38 big pictures, all made since 1970, could have been 400. This show excludes his smallest works, his drawings and maquettes, and all his superb prints, and consequently truncates his accomplishment. I wish that MoMA's Lawrence Rubin had pulled out all the stops, and given Stella what his art deserves, its full breadth and variety and all its pointed history. As Picasso did before him, Stella, without boring us, could easily have filled the entire museum.

Rubin seems to justify his show's imposed restrictions by arguing that the artist's work falls into two phases, one "Minimalist," one "Maximalist." I don't buy it. Stella's works have always jutted from the wall, and have conjured engineerings and logical extension. He has always let the viewer share in his rich theater.

He wrote of Caravaggio's grand pictures: "An effective painting should present its space in such a way as to include both viewer and maker each with his own space intact." That fits these Stella's, too.

Looking at these newer works, as at the "Black Paintings," you somehow live their making. They do not hide their bones, you see how they were built. Their materials are not gussied up. His brushwork never wholly hides the metal grounds beneath it. Those scavenged, engraved printer's sheets that show up in such paintings as "Marsaxlokk Bay" (1983) -- with their ghosts of packages designed for bread and ice cream -- have the same industrial factuality found in the black house paint that Stella chose to use in 1959.

It's been said (by Hilton Kramer, as well as doubting others) that the recent works "aren't paintings," that the artist has "abandon{ed} painting for sculpture." That's only partly true. "Sculpture," wrote Stella, "{is} limited by its inability to be more than one thing, to do more than set one scene."

These paintings offer many. Though made to be perceived head-on, they allow a constant browsing. Looking at a picture such as "Welkom" (1982), with its bolts and welds and honeycombs -- looking at it from the side -- is like looking at the drama, without forgetting the proscenium, from the privilege of the wings.

A number of these pictures are free of added color. They're like actors without makeup.

That sense of nothing hidden, of seeing the whole thing -- its making and its sources and its hints of what's to come -- is core to Stella's drama. What the viewer can't explain is the source of the pictures' vitality, their life.

What Stella writes of the "great painters" applies to him as well. "Their work has a seemingly endless potential for growth; even after they are gone, we sense that their work is expanding and that new things are to come."

A $450,000 grant from the PaineWebber Group Inc. helped pay for "Frank Stella: Works From 1970 to 1987." The show will travel to Amsterdam, Paris, Minneapolis, Houston and Los Angeles after closing at the Modern on Jan. 5