Richard Diebenkorn's exquisitely balanced, luminous, landscape-based "Ocean Park" paintings are high on everyone's list of contemporary American masterpieces. Museums line up for them.

Yet the enormous respect commanded by this West Coast artist is not solely due to these masterful abstractions. Back in the 1950s Diebenkorn earned a reputation for stubborn artistic integrity by rejecting the empty orthodoxy of late abstract expressionism. Along with a small group of other San Francisco artists, he turned back to painting the human figure.

The story of this regional rebellion and its second-generation adherents is the subject of "Bay Area Figurative Art, 1950-1965," at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. It's an appropriate venue considering that Joe Hirshhorn was a pioneer collector of these works.

Organized by guest curator Caroline A. Jones for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the handsome show includes 88 works (eight from the Hirshhorn's own collection) by 10 artists. Paintings and drawings predominate, but there are six sculptures by Manuel Neri and one by painter Joan Brown, who represent the final flowering of this significant American movement.

As in any historically determined show, there is a good deal of marginal work by secondary figures. But the artists central to the movement -- David Park, Elmer Bischoff, Diebenkorn, Nathan Oliveira and Brown -- hold up extraordinarily well. Ridiculed by critics and artists committed to the New York School, these Bay Area painters forged a bold, new approach to figure painting.

They maintained the large scale, the ambition, the bravura brushwork and bold color of the abstract expressionists. But their subjects were drawn from life. Circulated throughout the country in the late '50s and early '60s, their works had an enormous impact on young art students fed up with teachers who slavishly bowed down before the pieties of the abstract expressionists.

I know -- I was one of them. When I first saw the works of Diebenkorn, Bischoff and Park in a memorial show for Park, who had died from cancer in 1960, I was so impressed that I left Chicago to attend summer school at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA) in San Francisco, where Diebenkorn and Oliveira were teaching.

If the Bay Area figurative art had a focus, it was around this charming, slightly seedy hillside school. During the late 1950s, Bischoff, Diebenkorn, Oliveira, James Weeks and Theophilus Brown were teaching there. Neri, Joan Brown and Bruce McGaw studied there and eventually became faculty as well. (It was there that Neri and Brown embarked on a passionate love affair that eventually broke up both their marriages and resulted in a child as well as some very intense art-making.)

During the glory days of the CSFA, the atmosphere was truly electric. The Bay Area artists wanted it all -- meaning, form, historical significance. Perhaps Oliveira puts their aims best: "an awareness of contemporary painting language, a recognition of paint for paint's sake, action painting ... interpreting a form of reality, somehow trying to combine all of these aspects into a language that would represent modern figure painting."

The movement erupted in 1950 with David Park's gesture of defiance against the prevailing abstract expressionist aesthetic. In this age of pluralism and multiculturalism, it is hard to imagine the decades-long hegemony exerted by the postwar New York School. The "ab exes" were America's first world-class art stars, and everyone paid them homage. Every art school and university art department in the country hired sycophants who brutally imposed the party line.

The CSFA had the genuine article, though -- Clyfford Still, the chief representative of abstract expressionism on the West Coast. Hired in 1946 fresh from a successful New York show, Still reinforced his position by bringing in Mark Rothko to teach summer school in 1947 and 1949.

Abstract expressionism, as represented by Still's huge, bombastic paintings and arrogant posturing (students called him "The Holy Roller" behind his back), swept all before it. Park, Bischoff and Diebenkorn all practiced varieties of ab ex in the late '40s.

Chafing under Still's overweening egotism, Park (1911-1960), a charismatic teacher and amateur jazz pianist, was the first to make the move. In 1949 he started painting scenes from life, employing the hot colors and broad brushwork of his abstract work. "Kids on Bikes," a 48-by-42-inch canvas, caused a sensation in 1951 when it won a major award at the San Francisco Art Association Annual.

Installed in the Hirshhorn Museum, "Kids on Bikes" looks, at first glance, more endearing than revolutionary. In a strongly cropped foreground image, a young boy grips his handlebars nervously. In the distance an older boy, seen from the back, speeds away on his bike. The colors are dramatic -- brilliant red, ocher, black and white.

The perspective and foreshortening are violently exaggerated, giving credence to a Freudian interpretation of the back wheel of the older rider's bike, which dangles between his legs like an enormous appendage. But the canvas is tame indeed compared with today's East Village cut-and-thrust narratives.

At a time when portraying the figure automatically consigned one to the dust bin of history, Park's friends were understandably alarmed. Bischoff called it "a pretty flat-footed painting ... a sort of outlandish, goofy thing." Diebenkorn, Park's junior by 11 years but a good friend nonetheless, didn't like it at all. As for the hard-core abstract expressionists at the school, they accused Park of "a failure of nerve."

If Park suffered from a failure of nerve, it was with respect to his content. Was he aware that the painting lends itself to an interpretation as a symbolic portrayal of sexual awakening? Did he care? Certainly he never openly admitted any narrative content in his works.

Part of the abstract expressionist ethos was the idea that form and color alone should carry the emotion. The lingering influence on Park and Bischoff of this prohibition of biographical and literary subject matter ultimately became a real stumbling block, leaving them prey to a mushy romanticism in place of a full articulation of the conscious and unconscious themes of their work.

But that lay in the future. Park's growing mastery of the figure proved liberating for both Bischoff and Diebenkorn, in spite of their initial reaction. The catalyst for Bischoff's switch from abstraction late in 1953 was a new teaching job in a small California town northeast of San Francisco. Although the landscape crept into Diebenkorn's abstractions several years earlier, it wasn't until the summer of 1956, when he built a new studio behind his Berkeley house, that the younger artist decisively turned to figuration.

While the three friends were agreed that abstract expressionism was exhausted, their aims were quite different. For Park, making figure paintings was a way of thumbing his nose at Still's intellectual affectations. For Bischoff it was a way of responding to things outside of himself that he cared for. And for Diebenkorn it was a way of testing his painting, of keeping it rigorous.

These differences were crucial to the evolution of the three artists. Initially, though, their art seemed very much in synch. Responding to the scintillating light and color of the Bay Area, all three celebrated the visual delights of painting the figure under the deep blue Northern California sky.

Looking at their paintings from the perspective of the 1990s, I feel a sharp twinge of nostalgia for their innocence. That was what initially attracted me to their works. Painting the figure in blissful harmony with the landscape continued an American tradition that reaches all the way back to the early 1830s, when Thomas Cole discovered transcendence in the fall foliage of the Catskills. They may have been the last generation of American artists to feel at one with the physical world.

In Bischoff's sensuous "Woman With Dark Blue Sky" (1959), nature is so abundant that the sunlit figure, wandering through waist-high verdure, can pluck flowers to her heart's content. In fact, the implication of the painting, owned by the Hirshhorn, is that the woman belongs to the garden rather than vice versa.

Park's masterpiece in the exhibition (and in his career as well) is "Four Men" (1958), a large, horizontal beach scene. As in "Kids on Bikes," he plays with perspective, direction and movement. A man in a boat rows toward three men standing on the shore. Placed at different perspective depths, the three stare out impassively, ignoring the approaching boat. The strong colors and thick paint of water and light powerfully back up their assertive stance.

More knowledgeable about European art and more distrustful of his own impulses than his two colleagues, Diebenkorn avoided the too-easy romanticism that animates Park's and Bischoff's paintings of nudes in nature. Instead he subjected his every painterly move to the most intense introspection. The tension shows in his work; nothing is left to chance. This quality of rigor is what transformed Diebenkorn into a great painter.

A splendid selection of Diebenkorn's works in the Hirshhorn show reveals the wide range of his European sources. The frontal stare of the bald man in "Coffee" (1956) is reminiscent of Beckmann, while Matisse is an obvious influence on the mysterious "Interior With Book" (1959). Both paintings project a tense emotional aura that belies their classically composed space.

As in this latter work, which combines a shadowy interior and a brilliantly sunlit exterior, Diebenkorn loved to set himself the most difficult problems. He played with outdoor and indoor light like a virtuoso. "Cityscape I" (1963) combines urban and rural vistas in a steeply vertical painting that defies perspective logic in its complex orchestrated space.

"The conflict between the conception and how to realize it helps keep the ball rolling," he has said, "it creates a struggle that is important to painting."

But by the mid-'60s, Diebenkorn apparently felt that he had struggled enough. After he left the CSFA in 1963, his figurative work became progressively planar and geometric, as in the 1967 "Seated Figure with Hat." The inception of the abstract "Ocean Park" series was coincident with a move to Southern California in 1966, where he began teaching at UCLA. Bischoff also stopped teaching at CSFA in 1963, but kept on painting figuratively until the early 1970s, when he too shifted back to abstraction.

Curator Jones suggests a variety of reasons for their abandonment of figuration, among them the crush of second-rate followers and the call by influential art critics such as Clement Greenberg for formalism and flatness. But the exhibition also suggests that the figurative works of the first generation had inherent contradictions from the very beginning. The use of the human figure involved these artists in unwanted, emotionally-laden narratives when their primary interest was still the way colors and forms worked together on the flat surface of the canvas.

The great value of regional art movements is that they inspire young artists with self-confidence and help them strike out in new directions against the prevailing grain. Certainly their exposure to Park, Bischoff and Diebenkorn at CSFA not only nurtured the talents of Oliveira, Neri and Joan Brown but also encouraged them to develop independent modes of expression. Where members of the first generation avoided personal references in their art and were fearful of seeming egoistic, these artists reveled in subjectivity.

Diebenkorn's and Oliveira's contrasting styles of teaching are revealing. Always formally attired, Diebenkorn would stare gravely at a student work without saying anything. After a few minutes of this, every flaw seemed magnified. Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, Oliveira encouraged pugnacity in the face of failure. "Get in there and fight," he would urge, fists pumping.

The single figure, situated in an existential crisis of nerve, is Oliveira's subject. His protagonists' assertion of self seems the only thing that saves them from annihilation by the threatening spaces that surround them. The way the paint is laid on suggests a state of nervous excitement that contributes to the figures' vitality.

Unlike Bischoff, Park and Diebenkorn, who only hint at sexuality, Oliveira makes his point clear in "Adolescent by the Bed" (1959). Standing next to a bed that looks like a battlefield, the young girl of the title defiantly lifts her slip.

But perhaps it is in Brown's paintings that the promise of Bay Area figuration is brought to its most complete fulfillment. After Diebenkorn, she is the surprise star of this show. Autobiographical and uninhibited, her paintings have an exhilarating exuberance unmatched by anything else in the exhibition. In thick, juicy paint laid on with a trowel, she subdues the raving id of abstract expressionism with wry and humorous insights into the dilemma of being female and discovering the world.

Her "Girls in the Surf With Moon Casting a Shadow" (1962) has it all. The sheer physicality of the paint is joyous and liberating. And the message matches the medium. Two women hold hands and venture into the ocean spray, their eyes wide with the adventure of bathing at night. You know Brown has been there; the emotional transcription is exact.

Regional schools can also lead to to comfortable self-congratulation. Art faculty, protected from the rigors of world-class competition, too often stop short of really punching through their ideas. Bay Area figuration at the CSFA was no exception. Stiff and lacking in finesse, Weeks's paintings of jazz musicians and boxers look large and empty beside the more lyrical and powerful work by Park, Bischoff and Diebenkorn. Theophilus Brown may have been an important figure in "the bridge generation," as Jones calls Brown, Paul Wonner and Oliveira, but his paintings are awkward and naive. One can only guess why Jones included McGaw, currently head of the Department of Painting and Drawing at the San Francisco Art Institute, as the old CSFA has been renamed. His paintings from the late '50s and early '60s have the unmistakable flavor of student work.

Bay Area figuration wasn't the only the anti-New York art movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Chicago's Monster Roster of the '50s gave the impetus to artists such as Leon Golub to explore the figure in mythic and existential situations. And in the following decade the Chicago imagists put their own funky spin on the figure. But the best of the Bay Area painters were as ambitious for their art as it is possible to be. They shot for the moon -- great paint quality and color, truth to retinal experience, expressive power, all in one package. Their failures are instructive. Their successes, although few in number, underscore the one-dimensionality of much of today's art.

The exhibition is accompanied by a scholarly catalogue, excellent in its detailed history of the movement but somewhat lacking in its overall view of the place of Bay Area figuration in recent American art. After it closes at the Hirshhorn on Sept. 9, the show travels to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.