Glass, like water or clouds or the eye, captures light. Two slabs of rich, red translucence, bubbling and blooming to sunshine at the top, sit on a round silver pedestal. The makers call the sculpture "Red Flower." Yet they are wrong to confine this abstract work of art by a name. Every imagination should enter freely and rejoice in the light.

The 1976 sculpture -- conceived, fused in molds of crushed glass, cut and polished by Czechoslovakians Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova -- inflames the National Gallery of Art's "The Art of Glass: Masterpieces From the Corning Museum."

The gallery's first-ever and long-overdue exhibit of glass opens tomorrow and continues through March 17 on the East Building's first floor. All the 121 glass masterpieces are lent from the collection of 25,000 objects of the Corning Museum of Glass in New York, the world's greatest repository of glass, in number and quality.

More than 3,500 years ago, in the deserts of the Middle East, a human created glass of sand, ashes, lime, fire and need. Since then, glass, the obedient material, has been willing to pretend to be shell, gem or stone, in whatever useful shape the hand of the maker desired: beads, bottles, tables, vessels, lamps or barriers against the elements. It has been molded, cast, blown, scratched, diluted, painted and otherwise decorated.

All these manipulations of the material, from a core-formed vase (circa 1400-1350 B.C.) made in Egypt to the pair of brilliantly colored glass thread vessels (1988) by Toots Zynsky, an American now working in the Netherlands, are in the show.

"The history of glass is not a steady progression, but explosions followed by doldrums," David Whitehouse, the Corning Museum's deputy director and curator of its ancient and Islamic glass, said at a preview.

Unlike many surveys, where the old outsparkles the new, this one offers hope that at least glass is becoming technically more innovative and artistically more exuberant. Those who have missed the Renwick Gallery's wonderful exhibitions of glass art by Dale Chihuly and others of the studio glass era, and the landmark show of Czechoslovakian glass at Fendrick Gallery in Georgetown, will rub their eyes at the dazzle of the modern work in the National Gallery.

A sculpture from Chihuly's "Macchia Sea Form Group" (1982) is a tour de force, both of technique and imagination. Chihuly studied glass blowing in Murano. In this work you can see he learned to blow glass to be almost as thin as a bubble. He forms it into watery waves, limpid colors and mottled and ringed beauty spots. No doubt this creature swam up from watery depths. No doubt Chihuly is a master.

"Cityspace" (1981) began as a piece of ordinary Pyrex, originally destined to be shaped into an oven-ready bowl. San Francisco artist Jay Musler, who believes mankind lives on the edge of the abyss, cut, sandblasted and airbrushed the fireproof glass with an oil paint as orange as a harvest moon. The sculpture is a ring of roughness, readable as a skyline, rimming an empty red hemisphere -- a vision of a world destroyed within. Or a planet blasted in two. Or what you will.

Another pioneer modernist of glass, Dominick Labino of Grand Rapids, Mich., is represented by "Emergence Four Stage" (1975), a hot-worked glass veiled with gold particles. The show begins with the monumental, overworked and overwrought "Dedicant No. 8," molten glass, cooled in a sand mold in an annealing oven, chiseled, sandblasted, cut and ground, waxed and gold- and copper-leafed.

The Corning Museum modestly shows only a single piece of its own Steuben glass, "Innerland" (1976-1980), designed by Eric Hilton, who headed a team of five who cast, cut, sandblasted and engraved the 38 pieces put together into 25 cubes. The brilliant glass landscape of lenses, bubbles, carved waves and feathery lines refracts light into lightning and rainbows.

Other pieces shown from Corning, N.Y., but not from the company are a dazzling blown lead crystal plate (1906), wheel-cut, from Thomas G. Hawkes and Co., and Frederick Carder's intarsia vase (1925), color inlaid into color. Other early 20th-century works by Emile Galle of Nancy, France, and Louis Comfort Tiffany (the subject of a recent show at the Renwick) show the transition of glass into art.

The passion excited by the new works certainly would not keep the viewer from admiring the earlier glass. The times and the places -- Iraq, Mesopotamia, Bohemia, Venice, Russia, England, France and some stranger corners of the world -- give diversity to the work.

The first glass objects, Whitehouse said, were perfume and cosmetic vessels. A core-formed alabastron with threaded decoration was made in the eastern Mediterranean in the 1st century B.C. Though it's all of glass, the name comes from the material alabaster, and like the alabaster containers of Greece it was likely used for precious perfumes or ointments. The dear object has tiny little handles, big enough only for an embryo finger.

A Hellenistic cut bowl, perhaps from Alexandria a century or two earlier, has been tilted by the installer so you can see its lovely flying-saucer fins and ridges. A ribbon glass bowl from Syria or Rome in the first half of the 1st century is striped in many colors, much like the Victorian "End of the Day Glass" made up of the glassworks' leftovers of the day. A cover, perhaps for a late 1st-century serving dish, is shaped like a fish and made of a deep ocean blue.

Drink -- especially wine -- has inspired much in the way of glass. A blown wineglass, made in Venice in the mid-16th century, is as simple and modern as any Swedish glass of today. From Venice of the 16th or 17th century, an intricate design of white lines makes a drinking glass so perfect that only a colorless wine should be poured in. The Bohemian drinking vessel enameled, gilded and inscribed in German "The Holy Roman Empire with all its parts" is a good example of 16th-century Germanic taste. A 17th-century blown and molded goblet has a base shaped like a compliant dragon, attributed to Venice. The more sporting taste is well represented with a double-walled tumbler with a scene of a hot-air balloon ascent. The glass -- blown, cut, enameled and gilded with inserted cloth and painted paper from the Bakhmetiev factory -- was designed by Vershinin (1800-1810) in St. Petersburg, Russia.

One of the more remarkable objects is the Russian table of blue and amber with gold feet (1808). A plaque (1908) carved in the cameo technique, devised by layering two colors of glass and cutting away the top is a marvel, as well.

Corning Museum Director Dwight Lanmon and David Whitehouse and curators Jane Shadel Spillman and Susanne K. Frantz selected the objects. The installation, as is standard at the National Gallery, thanks to the genius of Gaillard Ravenel and Mark Leithauser, is handsome and unobtrusive. Gordon Anson's lighting design is the magic dazzler. Lanmon says the glass has never looked so good. The catalogue is a revised and enlarged edition of Robert J. Charleston's "Masterpieces of Glass" (Abrams). The exhibit was seen a year ago at the IBM Gallery in New York.

Tomorrow afternoon the National Gallery will present a free mini-course in "The Art of Glass," beginning at 1 p.m. with an introduction by Lanmon, followed by lectures: "Luxury Glass of the Ancient World," by Whitehouse; "Glass Preservation," by Ray Errett, a conservator and photographer; "The Glassmakers of Herat", a film and lecture by Robert H. Grill, a research scientist; "American Treasury," by Spillman; and "From Tiffany to Today," by Frantz. Oh yes, J. Carter Brown, National Gallery director, confesses that he wrote his master's thesis on the Corning Glass Works when he was a student at Harvard Business School.