Remember the first time you saw Jasper Johns' "Gray Alphabets," or "Booster" by Bob Rauschenberg, or David Hockney's lithograph portraits of his pals Henry and Celia? Remember Roy Lichtenstein's "Peace Through Chemistry," Frank Stella's "Star of Persia" and Claes Oldenburg's "Soft Screw"?

These prints, when brand new, were on sale in this city. They kept us up to date with the hottest artists working in New York and California. It seems like only yesterday.

"Gemini G.E.L.: Art and Collaboration," the big and shiny print show opening in the National Gallery's East Building, is full of de'ja vu.

Gemini G.E.L. (for Graphics Editions Limited) is part private club, part factory, part finely tuned machine. Its printers and technicians, its lithographic plates and stones, its presses, inks and acid baths have been brought together -- at 8365 Melrose Ave. in sunny Los Angeles -- for one reason only: Gemini is there to help important artists make limited editions of important works of art.

Usually the National Gallery shows Art From Days Long Past. But the Gemini exhibit gallops right into the present. Almost all its prints come from the still-expanding Gemini Archive established at the gallery in 1981. None of them predates 1966.

Remember the '60s print boom? Everyone could play. Even if you couldn't pay for a combine by Bob Rauschenberg, or a black painting by Stella, or a real, wall-size oil by Ellsworth Kelly or Sam Francis, you could still go down to Fendrick's and buy yourself a print.

Remember the '60s art-and-technology movement? The printmakers at Gemini were among the kings of California High Tech Macho. No difficulties fazed them. So what if a single Stella print -- "Double Gray Scramble" (1972-73) -- required 150 color pulls? So what if Richard Serra wanted giant sheets of paper 21 feet square? No sweat. So Edward Kienholz needed 60 Datsun doors for his "Sawdy" multiples, so what if Rauschenberg required 55 electrified canoe paddles each covered with gold leaf? Hey, no problem. This is Southern California. We just went to the moon.

In 1971, when Claes Oldenburg conceived a "sculpture that moved by itself" -- a motorized object, 18 feet in diameter, called "Ice Bag-Scale A" -- he first carried his proposal to Walt Disney Productions, for Disney, after all, had made Abe Lincoln speak. When Disney turned him down, Oldenburg went to Gemini. Hey, no problem. Oldenburg's Ice Bag, heaving grandly, is included in this show.

In 1975, when Keith Sonnier decided to make prints on disks of handmade paper 6 1/2 feet in diameter, he went, of course, to Gemini. Though the shop had never manufactured paper, it lit into the chore. The Gallery's Ruth E. Fine tells us in her catalogue that "a macerator for beating the pulp was acquired, and an aluminum pour-table with approximately 2,000 drainage holes was built. Vats with a 300-gallon capacity for pulp were found in an aircraft industry scrap yard."

Remember the print workshop movement? For a while there it seemed there was one in every city. The best in Washington was Lou Stovall's, on 21st Street. Usually the National Gallery shows Art From Days Long Past. But the Gemini exhibit gallops right into the present. Stovall was willing to teach screen printing to anyone who showed willingness and patience and a precisionist turn of mind.

Gemini, however, was vastly more exclusive.

You couldn't just walk into Gemini's shop on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. You had to be invited. You had to be anointed. Gemini was special. Gemini was known for its Oriental rugs and its bowls of fresh-cut flowers. The shop was run by Ken Tyler, a master printer, and his two imaginative partners Sidney B. Felsen and Stanley Grinstein. The artists they invited were the very best.

Remember the art establishment? It is celebrated here. The printmakers at Gemini were determined from the start to recognize its power and serve its biggest names. They offered their facilities only to the major art stars of New York -- and of California. Rauschenberg, Kelly, Johns, Hockney, Johns, Francis, Lichtenstein, Oldenburg and Stella all get little one-man shows in this exhibition. Of the approximately 40 artists who have made prints at Gemini, 31 are represented in this show. About half of these now live, or once lived, in California. The rest are New Yorkers, gifted, famous artists drawn to Southern California by Gemini's technicians -- and the winter sun. There is a lot of America between New York and Los Angeles, but no one who lives there is included in this show.

Gemini's Sidney Felsen knows "that being in L.A. is an advantage. If you check when East Coast artists come to California, it's fairly heavily loaded between November and April."

Gemini's prints cost plenty. At one time prints were little more than inexpensive throwaways. The first European prints were sold as souvenirs to medieval pilgrims; Du rer's splendid woodcuts when new cost so little that they were often tacked by peasants to rough farmhouse walls. Daumier's lithographs, though costly now, once arrived, like comics, with the Paris papers. Gemini helped change that. The shop has published more than 1,100 images since 1966, and few of them were cheap. The 491 "Characters," those intaglio collages, no two quite alike, which Rauschenberg produced in China in 1982, were issued with a retail price of $5,000 each.

A Timex may tell time, but it isn't a Rolex. A VW bug is transportation, but it isn't a Mercedes. Southern California, in its prints as in its cars, likes the glitzy glint of quality that shines throughout this show.

The history of American printmaking will not graph out smoothly. It's full of nodes, clumps, groupings. One thinks of the 19th-century etchers suddenly inspired by Whistler's example, and of cheap prints mass-produced during the Depression by the WPA. One thinks of the many new intaglio techniques explored in Paris, and later in New York, at Stanley William Hayter's Atelier 17. And one remembers, too, all the antique prejudices that not so very long ago still ruled the realm of prints.

Print snobs used to argue that the only real prints were intaglio impressions, etchings, woodcuts, engravings. Lithography was fine for colored posters like those displayed in Paris by Toulouse-Lautrec. Silkscreening was even lower on the totem pole. Screen printing was for packages, not for works of art.

The American artist knew his place. Occasionally, in Paris, a Picasso, a Matisse, might issue a few prints specially produced by some master printer. But that did not happen often. And it rarely happened here. The professional American printmaker considered it his duty to create his own images, etch his own plates, and then print his editions. Sculptors made sculptures. Painters made paintings. Printmakers made prints.

That creaky situation changed in 1957 when Tatyana Grosman founded Long Island's Universal Limited Art Editions, U.L.A.E.

Grosman was an enormously patient, steel-willed, sophisticated European who loved fine prints and New York art and brought the two together. Some of Gemini's grandest artists, among them Rauschenberg and Johns, produced their first prints under Grosman's guidance at U.L.A.E. Gemini is in debt to her example.

Gemini owes a lesser debt to June Wayne of California, who, in 1960 -- armed with an affection for lithograpy and a major 10-year grant from the Ford Foundation -- organized the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles. Tamarind helped train scores of lithographers. One was Ken Tyler.

Tyler, like Grosman, believed less in teaching crowds than in serving the best artists. Tyler, like Wayne, believed in lithography's art potentials. His two imaginative partners shared both of these commitments. Gemini opened in February 1966.

Rauschenberg's "Booster" is not the most astonishing object in the show. But for the Gemini tradition it may be the most important.

When Gemini opened, Felsen remembers, "we were going for older artists, for the Abstract Expressionists, on the theory that the old-timers were the best . . . We went to see Hans Hofmann, Mark Rothko, Edward Hopper and others. Josef Albers agreed to launch our studio."

Albers' "White Line Squares" are well made and good looking. But they are relatively small, and really nothing special.

"Booster" is different. "Booster" is huge. Six feet high and three feet wide, it has the scale of a painting, not that of a print. And when it first appeared it looked like nothing we had seen before. Parts of it are red, parts are blueprint blue. "Booster's" core image is a black-and-white life-size X-ray of the artist. When the print was manufactured, Gemini did not yet own a lithographic stone large enough to print an image six feet high. Two stones were required. Most prints, before "Booster," had adhered to the intimate scale of the page. Now suddenly the bonds were loosed. From now on prints were capable of gobbling the wall.

Rauschenberg is probably the most inventive printmaker of our generation. He's worked with bamboo, cardboard, gold, gauze and crumpled newspapers. Once he inked an automobile tire, and made a potentially endless print on a lengthy roll of paper. His "Hoarfrost" print called "Preview," one of the subtlest and loveliest of Gemini's multiples, is printed on flimsy silk chiffon. Rauschenberg has even worked with scented Indian mud. The wholly unexpected odors of tamarind and fenugreek rising from his "Capitol" (1975) exoticize the show.

After "Booster" was completed in 1967, anything seemed possible. In 1968, Claes Oldenburg threw down another challenge. Oldenburg wanted a bas-relief of a 1936 Airflow Chrysler, a bas-relief produced in a particular material. He wanted "a translucent material that would be firm but appear soft, be solid but appear fluid, be rigid but flexible enough to give if pressed." Gemini's technicians eventually came up with a poured polyurethane that fit the bill precisely. Though 90 cars were cast, halfway through the run the shop ran into trouble. It seems some tiny error in the mixing of the plastic produced discolorations. There was only one solution. "The pieces already sold," writes Fine, "were recalled true to automobile industry practice."

The show is full of wood blocks, lithographic plates, trial proofs and other traces of the process that produces finished prints. Gemini occasionally goes a little overboard when it comes to High Tech Macho. That huge red round Sonnier, that Rauschenberg of smelly mud, that Kelly of chromed metal, do not wholly justify the extraordinary efforts that went into their production. The exhibit at its weakest suggests Hollywood science fiction films in which the special effects are stronger than the plot.

But this show is not weak often. Rauschenberg, a pioneer, was willing to try anything. Oldenburg enjoyed coming up with memorable multiples that were unusually big and unusually soft. Lichtenstein and Francis both are first-rate artists. Hockney is still the most gifted portraitist involved with vanguard art. Johns' touch is exquisite. So is Ellsworth Kelly's taste. Frank Stella's most ambitious prints, his recent "Swan" etchings, were not produced by Gemini. Still, he is among the most original and intelligent abstract artists now alive.

Gemini, from the start, sure knew how to pick them.

It is picking them still. The exhibit ends with objects from the '80s by Richard Diebenkorn, Dorothea Rockburne, Mark di Suvero, Isamu Noguchi, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, Ed Kienholz, Vija Celmins, Michael Heizer, Jonathan Borofsky and other gifted artists.

The Gallery's Gemini Archive remains open-ended. The shop on Melrose Avenue, though Tyler has moved on, is still busily producing. Fine's show will travel to Seattle, Kansas City, Cambridge and Los Angeles after closing here Feb. 24.