Okay, so here's your chance to be an art critic -- and to critique a show at one of America's better-known art museums, no less. Hirshhorn Museum Curator of Paintings Judith Zilczer has stated in no uncertain terms that your suggestions about and opinions of the exhibit "Comparisons: An Exercise in Looking" will be considered carefully and, where possible, acted upon.

This intriguing and educational show, which juxtaposes two works each by 13 well-known painters and two sculptors -- Jackson Pollock, Mary Cassatt, Ben Shahn, Giorgio Morandi and others -- invites its audience to consider the similarities and differences between the pieces and, in an accompanying brochure, asks very specific questions about each pair. Observations about the exhibit may then be written down on provided cards and submitted for Zilczer's perusal. Thus far, Zilczer says, more than 600 completed cards have been received, and of these, at least one repeated comment has resulted in swift, decisive museum action.

In answer to the last of three questions on the card -- "Do you have any suggestions for improving other visitors' experience of this exhibition?" -- one anonymous writer responded: "As an artist and educator I feel exhibitions like this are useful. ... One suggestion: Provide benches. One can only truly appreciate a work of art when seated." A number of other respondents have also requested places to sit, but this was the only one I saw that made it perfectly clear why it was necessary.

Take heart, dear viewers. The benches have materialized. You may now sit and appreciate to your heart's content.

In fact, Zilczer has done a fine job of putting together what amounts to an art-appreciation seminar, and most of the responses I've seen appear to concur. A number of the respondents have even suggested making the exhibition a permanent one, rotating the works on a regular basis. I'll second this suggestion. Not merely informative, but truly educational exhibitions of this sort are rare, and they go a long way toward getting the viewing public involved with developments in both modern and traditional art, as well as initiating visitors to some of the aesthetic judgments artists go through to create.

As one viewer wrote on the back of a questionnaire: "Enjoyed it immensely! For nonartists, this helps very much. No one expects a novice to appreciate higher math, but too many galleries leave the layman to wonder about the merit of what they are viewing." Indeed, this was the sentiment most commonly expressed on the response cards. Yet another enthused: "I thought it was very interesting. Gets viewers involved for a change. Makes one think about art! Hope to see more exhibitions of this kind! Good job!" Still another: "Yes Yes Yes! Even with {an} art history background, this made me think of a lot of new things!"

Whew! Just kind of makes me want to write the rest of this in italics with lots and lots of exclamation points! But I'm getting carried away.

Although a few malcontents complained that the questions in the brochure and posted next to the works were too "technical," others that they were too "elementary" and several that they were "patronizing," "sophomoric" or "didactic," suffice it to say that Zilczer should have few doubts as to the success of her curatorial enterprise. (Chances are that most of these overly knowledgeable types are artists.) One laconic foreign viewer replied to the three questions on the response card (the first two being "Was the exhibition interesting?" and "Were the written materials and questions helpful?") with a terse "Oui," "Oui" and "Non."

The "Comparison" works have been chosen to illustrate, to a varying degree, different periods in each artist's work, or different styles, techniques and compositional approaches to different (or similar) subjects. The brochure questions, while not the sort you'd expect in a philosophy of aesthetics course, are aimed at directing the eye to various elements of the works.

For example, the viewer is asked of two landscapes of the Hudson River by American realist George Bellows (1882-1925), one of which depicts a sunset and the other a stormy day: "In each canvas, does the pattern of colors and light lead your eye over the whole painting, or is your attention focused on one particular area?"

While there are many more questions that might be posed about the abstract works in the show (Dame Barbara Hepworth's sculptures included), the ones posed by Zilczer do provoke viewers to consider some important, if basic, notions of art for art's sake. Concerning two of Josef Albers's famous concentric colored squares, for instance: "Do the colored squares in each painting appear to come toward you or recede away from you?" Of two Pollocks: "Does one area stand out, or do you find yourself looking at the overall pattern in each work?" To a novice trying to understand field painting for the first time, few questions could be more pertinent. (Meanwhile, I was trying to locate the "cigarette fragment" supposedly part of "Number 3, 1949: Tiger." I was unsuccessful, and I think I shall fill out a card to say so.)

In conjunction with the exhibition, Zilczer will give a talk on "the issues and subtleties of judging art" Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. Those who have questions about the questions will have an opportunity to put them to her then.

For what it's worth, the only real criticisms this reviewer has of the show are these: There should definitely be more sculpture offered for consideration. And it wouldn't hurt, as several respondents have pointed out, to have more information regarding the historical circumstances particular to each artist's work, so that viewers would be provided with some sort of context. Both would improve the show. Overall, though, the exhibit is an excellent idea, and keeping it, or something like it, as a permanent feature of the Hirshhorn would be better still.

Comparisons: An Exercise in Looking, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, on the Mall, third floor, through April 21.