WHEN WE WENT to San Francisco, no one wore flowers in their hair. This was in the '50s, when "gay" still meant merry, and the hippies who later seized the streets of Haight-Ashbury still were in grade school.

My friend and I were winding up the American youth's obligatory cross-country journey, looking for we didn't know what, except that we knew it wasn't in the button-down East, where we'd grown up. We read Jack Kerouac and hit the road.

The trail led to San Francisco, where the new ideas were coming from. It turned out to be not so much new ideas as a new attitude, and even that new attitude really was a revival of the libertarianism of the original American Revolution. Liberty was a radical concept in the loyalty-oath era.

Social movements pass through the arts on the way to the streets, and the artistic phase of this one began with Bay Area painters who refused any longer to follow the dictates of the New York School. It was a bold move, considering that New York's abstract expressionists were the top guns of the art world, having blown away the School of Paris masters who'd been in the saddle for so long.

What became known as the Bay Area figurative movement is the subject of an entrancing new exhibit at the Hirshhorn. True to their maverick ethos, some of the principal players in the movement deny that there ever was such a school or assert that they never attended it. But curator Caroline A. Jones gives a persuasive account of the rise and recession of the movement, which she dates from 1950 to 1965.

Anyone who was there at the time was aware that the revolt was a real and self-conscious one, and was paralleled in sculpture, writing and the lively arts. For us "old fighters," a visit to the show is a bracing but melancholy passage through a time warp. The old spirit still radiates from these canvases, but time has not been kind to most of them. In hindsight, the "new direction" these artists were taking was retrograde; many of the works seem familiar because they're evocations of the European tradition. They're warm, they're wonderful, and they're on the way out.

Of the 10 artists -- an arbitrary but reasonable number -- whom Jones chooses as exemplars of the movement, only Richard Diebenkorn will be instantly familiar to everyone, and he is not famous now for what he was doing then.

The most memorable of the 88 works in the show are those of Elmer Bischoff, now 74, whose work is classic, not so much in style as in execution. There is a universality to such oils as his "Girl With Towel" (1960) and "Girl With Mirror" (1961) that takes them beyond their context. They are undatable and never will seem dated.

The show, which was assembled by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is likely to leave visitors -- at least those of a certain age -- thinking less about the paintings than about the social changes that took form in the Bay Area, encapsulated in such catch phrases as gay rights, black pride and flower power. A few months by the bay turned my boyhood friend and me into strangers. I came back East; he moved to Mill Valley, became a restorer of old houses, and died of AIDS before it had a name.