"Of course!" you wanted to say. "How long can anybody go on living like that?"

Not that Frederick Hart's death last Friday was the self-destruction of another 20th-century artist consumed by the fires of irony, dread, fragmentation and alienation.

Quite the reverse.

You could see he wasn't the ironic or alienated type by looking at the West Front of Washington National Cathedral, where mankind arises from nothingness in his mammoth tympanum titled "Ex Nihilo." Or at the three bronze soldiers who stand staring at the black wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Or at the man himself--a jovial guy who seemed incapable of keeping any distance from anything human or aesthetic, hence the absence of irony. He went toe-to-toe with everything, from failure to success. He was an endearing man.

His eyes always seemed to be refocusing with a new thought. He went at things with a benign and even innocent ferocity. Behind the ferocity was frustration at his solitude in defending artistic tradition, and behind that, it seemed, was a touch of sadness that made you think of a boy who might have grown up trying and trying to contain his energy--the sort of artistic syndrome we might cure nowadays with Ritalin and graduate schools.

(As it happens, with no high school diploma he went to the University of South Carolina, where he was expelled in 1961 after he was the only white student to be arrested with 188 blacks protesting segregation.)

If you knew him, you wondered how much longer his mastiff body could carry the load of his lonely hopes, ambitions, frustrations and stubbornness, along with his beliefs in beauty, destiny and the glory of man.

At the age of 56, when he died of lung cancer, and at the height of his fame and fortune as sculptor and anti-modernist, he'd already gone through heart surgery and then a stroke that made his left hand useless--and left him terrified that if he couldn't sculpt, his Virginia horse-country life would collapse.

The son of a bureaucrat and public relations man, he'd built himself that sort of life by the time he died. With his wife, Lindy, and their two sons, he lived in a huge Georgian mansion he designed in Hume, Va., an hour west of Washington. He had recently moved the graves of his father, mother and sister to an estate they never could have imagined.

"I wanted the house to be a landmark in reactionary architecture," he told a writer for Washingtonian magazine. He paid for it with the millions he made from sculptures in Lucite--frequently nude figures locked inside blocks of the material and soaring into some ethereal realm.

He bought a box to watch the orgy of hunt country gentry at the Gold Cup race. He was learning to fox hunt. For a frontispiece portrait in a book called "Frederick Hart--Sculptor," he wore an Edwardian beard, a tweed jacket, vest and necktie decorated with hunting motifs, and posed with a dignity that reminds you of artists' self-portraits of a century ago, before public rejection and bohemianism became the criteria for respected artists.

Hart spent years being rejected and unknown. He was a leading lounge-lizard among the artists of the Dupont Circle scene. (Preferred bars: Childe Harold and Tasso's.) He became a small legend for apprenticing himself to a stonecutter at the Washington Cathedral when no sculptor bothered to learn the manual-labor rudiments of the trade.

All the time, though, he was working with a focus that seemed DNA-driven, or even insane. Who would want to learn the art of chiseling and grinding drapery and folds into statues of human figures? Even another figurative artist would have made clay maquettes and let workmen expand them into the enormous stone of the cathedral figures or the metal of the Vietnam trio. Hart learned stone first and clay later--learned his craft backward, in other words.

He once said he would have been "a far more compatible personality" if he'd been born in the 19th century. "I envied that world, which adhered to the values I believe in--beauty, decorum, elegance and classicism." And like Evelyn Waugh and the English intellectuals who loathed the modernism of the 1920s, he was a convert to Catholicism.

He was also given to aesthetic oddities: In his idealization of the human form, he seized on the same muscular, high-breasted, hollow-cheeked ideal that keeps gymnasiums in business. For all his romantic fight on the side of classicism, and his admiration for the agonized thumb-hollowed drapery of late-19th-century sculptors along the lines of Rodin, Hart gave his surfaces a smoothness that made you think of comic books and plastic.

Shouldn't this have won him the approval of those who approved of Warhol and Lichtenstein?

Instead, he was called "vulgar" and "kitschy."

Playwright Tom Stoppard once said that "contemporary art is imagination without skill." Critics have said the reverse about Hart--no one attacks Hart's craftsmanship.

In an introduction to the book about Hart, J. Carter Brown, former head of the National Gallery of Art, addresses these issues with care: "The risk of sentimentality, in addition to the threat of literalism, continuously threatens those who dare take this approach."

"He captured a contemporary ideal," Tom Wolfe said yesterday, adding that at the same time, Hart "had a very clear vision of what sculpture should be. It was part of a religious view of the world that he had, that we should strive for perfection."

Wolfe was one of his allies in the very small guerrilla army fighting modernism and its progeny.

Hart fired off the occasional artillery round in this war. Some typical public statements:

How nasty and midget-like are so many of the products and so much of the philosophy of contemporary art.

Art must again touch our lives, our fears and cares. It must evoke our dreams and give hope to the darkness.

Hart may have died of the toll his philosophy had taken on him. If so, his death was one of triumph, not self-destruction, at least to his friends and admirers--triumphant death being the sort of old-fashioned idea Rick could easily understand and obstinately embrace.

CAPTION: Frederick Hart in 1997, working on "Daughter of Odessa," with a full-scale model of "Ex Nihilo" in the background.

CAPTION: Hart in 1983, at work on a clay model of the bronze statue that now graces the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.