It's been two years since the doors opened to the Getty Center, a billion-dollar temple to art, research and conservation in Brentwood, and on a day like today--the fall air is sharp, the California sun blinding white, and not a sound drifts up from the highway below--it is hard not to succumb to the pure splendor of the place.

Rising before you as you step off the tram that deposits visitors at the Getty's mountaintop aerie is a four-story-high sculpture of steel tubing rounded into a webbed profile of a human head, a new addition from Washington-born artist Martin Puryear. From here, the Pacific glistens electric blue to the west. To the east, downtown Los Angeles looms gray and monolithic, a distant Oz. Richard Meier's spare, modernist architecture gleams its pristine white blocks above the wild, spiraling garden by artist Robert Irwin, which in two years has grown into a riot of azaleas at its center and overflowing bougainvillea on treelike steel frames along its rim.

The crushing crowds of December 1997 are gone, but the Getty has continued to hoist itself toward its goal of becoming a world-class art institution. After wrestling with the complications of its initial success--not enough bathrooms, not enough parking, impossible-to-get reservations--the Getty has now turned its focus to getting art worthy of its spectacular location and critically praised building.

In the past two months, the Getty has acquired several astonishing works, including a monumental painting by impressionist master Paul Cezanne of a young Italian peasant woman leaning pensively on her elbow. The work, whose estimated worth is about $30 million, went on display early this month in galleries painted brown for the occasion. The seller, still anonymous, sought out the Getty in October. Why offer it here? Because the art world knows that this is an institution with steep ambitions and a $5.5 billion endowment: The Getty seeks, the Getty finds, the Getty pays.

The new sculpture on the plaza by Puryear is one of only four contemporary pieces commissioned by the Getty. "I'm still in shock, seeing it up here," says Puryear, a soft-spoken sculptor wearing a backpack. He was in town for the unveiling of his piece, "That Profile." The handmade piping is a rough-hewn contrast to the modernist architecture by Meier and a departure from the Getty's collection of pre-20th-century art, drawings, sculpture, illuminated manuscripts and decorative arts.

"We're not collecting contemporary art," explains Steve Rountree, executive vice president of the Getty Trust, presenting the Puryear to a small group of reporters. "But as we were building this place in the '90s, we realized this was a huge opportunity to engage visitors with contemporary art."

It's probably not the last contemporary piece this non-contemporary museum will commission. The Getty, say the people who run the place, is a work in progress.

Deborah Gribbon, chief curator and deputy director of the Getty Museum, is well aware of the art world's eagle-eye focus on her institution. As the rich kid of the museum world, the Getty is a fat target for both scrutiny and envy, and it's trying to mind its manners.

But mostly the Getty has been busy responding to demands of the public. The center added bathrooms to the entrance area to deal with complaints over the lack of facilities; officials have mollified neighbors angry over rogue parking by visitors without reservations. (Reservations are necessary because of the Getty's limited parking.) Most important, perhaps, is that demand has slackened so much that the Getty hopes to phase out the need for reservations starting early next year.

"This is the first moment we've really gotten to look each other in the eyes and catch our breath without fires having to be put out," Gribbon says, in a chilly, glass-walled office that looks out toward the Pacific. She is tall and elegant, dressed in a forest green suit, an East Coast sophisticate on Los Angeles' casual West Side. "We still have very large crowds, but it's not uncomfortable. The site can take large numbers of people."

The Getty planned on about 1.6 million visitors its first year. Two million came, with a huge number coming in the first three months. By the end of this year, another 1.6 million will have walked through the museum's portals.

Most of the first-year reservations were impossible to get and the Getty had to run an anti-attendance ad campaign to stem the flow; now visitors usually require only one day's notice (possibly because most people still think reservations are unavailable).

After an initial push to attract Angelenos of all socioeconomic backgrounds, the Getty now finds its audience has boiled down to a traditional museum-going cadre: 60 percent tourists, and skewed to a population that is older, well educated and Anglo. Gribbon says the museum continues to work with community groups to try to attract a more diverse crowd.

But generally speaking, she says, "I feel good. We've set out to build a site that would attract people. It's too early to know if we've contributed something significant and lasting to the city. But there's no way you can sit here and not think about how far we've come. . . . The museum does have critical mass of an important and interesting collection of art."

She adds, "Are we there, at an endpoint? Absolutely not. We have to grow."

Gribbon notes that the Getty, which until 1997 was confined to a cliffside villa in Malibu, has only been collecting art actively since 1983, with the arrival of director John Walsh. Oil magnate and amateur collector J. Paul Getty -- who was known as a miserly recluse during his lifetime -- left his fortune to the museum rather than his children (or five ex-wives) when he died in 1976. His antiquities and decorative arts collection was previously housed in the Malibu villa, now closed for renovations.

Gribbon's specialty is 19th-century French paintings, and she called the decision to buy the Cezanne a "no-brainer." The portrait is as modern an object as the 19th century produced. Though an impressionist painting, it isn't just a glimpse. Its structural solidities predict the cubist revolution still to come. Pivotal paintings aren't cheap. This one probably cost more than the Getty's entire annual budget for acquisition, reliably estimated to be $25 million (the center does not officially reveal these figures). But, says Gribbon, "it was not an anguishing decision. This painting knocks you back. You remember it."

Over at the drawings collection, curator Lee Hendrix lovingly handles two exquisite pieces she has acquired in the past two months. One is a grease crayon drawing of a sleeping bacchant--a baby-faced youth with grape leaves on his head--from 1847 by Gustave Courbet. "This tells you most of what you need to know about Courbet," she explains. "About his transforming the everyday into mythic status, but about preserving the gutsy, real nature of his subject. When I saw it I just fainted."

The other is an equally heart-stopping neoclassical nude by 19th century artist Pierre Paul Prud'hon, black and white chalk on heavy blue paper, sketched in thousands of tiny strokes evoking shadow and form and female sensuality. The work is both a technical and an aesthetic wonder and one of the centerpieces of an exhibition about the nude that opens this month.

Buying art may sound like fun, Hendrix says, but it's very hard work. "If you knew how many hundreds and hundreds of drawings I look at in a year. Sometimes you just see something and go, 'Yes.' These are those kinds of drawings. I just said yes." She's still looking for a great Georges Seurat figure study; she would go for an important drawing by Paul Gauguin.

"When you find the right one," she says, "you don't have to convince yourself."

Gribbon agrees. "As a collection takes shape, you can't predict what will come up," she says. "Our guiding principle is to buy the greatest works by the best artists in the best condition."

"They are trying to build a first-rate collection, and they're doing a first-rate job," says respected gallerist Mark Brady, of the New York gallery W.M. Brady. "The way the pictures and drawings collection is being formed seems to be fairly systematic to achieve a collection on the lines of the Frick Museum. They're buying great masterpieces and near-masterpieces that illustrate the development of Western art. I think it's fair to give them another 25 years and see what they become."

Meanwhile a debate, both internal and external, continues over the Getty's physical and metaphoric place in the Los Angeles community. Most architectural critics agreed with the architect's decision to distance the Getty from mundane existence by making visitors take a tranquil, five-minute tram ride up to the museum from the parking lot. Visiting the Getty requires a dedicated effort and planning ahead--plus you get to meditate before you arrive.

At the same time, the emphasis of the museum is clearly on educating the lay public. Some art experts have criticized the Getty for a schoolmarmish approach, particularly in its temporary exhibits. Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight savaged the Getty's first antiquities show, "Beyond Beauty," for virtually ignoring the art in favor of making a point about classical society and art's authenticity. Others continue to criticize the Getty for overexplaining its works, saying the explanations--called "didactics"--sometimes overwhelm the art itself.

"Some of the 'didactics,' people feel, are somewhat condescending," says Constance Lewallen, senior curator of the Berkeley Art Museum and, overall, a fan of the Getty. "Didactics should not explain everything to the point where art doesn't become an experience of exploring and looking and coming to your own conclusion. It should lead you to a piece and give you something to hang on to, but it shouldn't explain it away."

Asked about this, Gribbon says the museum is made for the public, not for art professionals. "That's who we want to come here. We don't need to tell our colleagues anything. They can ignore the interpretative materials we provide. . . . I feel very strongly that we're a public institution serving the general public. I make no apology in providing them help. But our intention is not to lay down the law about a piece of art, it's to try to provide lots of different ways of looking at it."

Still, Lewallen points out, there is some inherent tension in the Getty's remote location and its popular approach to art. "In a way there's kind of a paradox going on there. On the one hand there's this educational emphasis, on the other hand it is kind of setting itself apart. It presents a dual message. . . . It's signified in their location and their building, in the sense of being apart from the museum community, in a funny way. . . . I know people who are Getty Fellows. They complain that once they're up there they don't leave and come back. It's like a very elegant minimum-security prison."

Gribbon responds: "I don't know if I'll ever get a clear view of that. The building makes an interesting metaphor, but the reality of Los Angeles is lost on people elsewhere. Here people have cars, and we're near a freeway. But there is tension in the things you describe; there's no right answer here. It makes the whole experience more interesting, and more provocative."

In the back rooms of the Getty's conservation lab, Cezanne's Italian woman is posed quietly in her simple, worn gilt frame, a piece from the 17th century that Getty curators found in storage. The frame was practically the only change curators needed to make after buying the painting a few weeks ago; it was in pristine condition, but had a linen mat and a frilly French frame around it. The simpler, rougher replacement suits perfectly the bold geometric shapes of Cezanne's woman in a white peasant blouse, navy skirt and yellow shawl. Beneath the thick paint, the neon blue traces of the artist's outline of the figure--an element of his forward-looking technique--are plainly visible.

Mark Leonard, conservator of paintings, sighs a bit as he awaits the painting's imminent removal to the gallery. "We'll miss her," he says. He glances again at the lyrical pose of the woman cupping her face in one hand. "It's our last few hours together."

Gribbon launches into her own explanation of the painting, but stops herself before she is accused of being too didactic. "It is so affecting," she says finally. "It really allows us to project humanity and melancholy."

The Getty is still far from the institution it will become over the ensuing decades, as it continues to build its neophyte collections and lure coveted artworks from around the world. This month, curators did not have to move any paintings in the Impressionists gallery--already home to Van Gogh's "Irises" and Ensor's "Christ's Entry Into Brussels in 1889"--to make room for the new Cezanne. But the artist's farm-girl probably won't be lonely for very long.

Says Gribbon: "We have to build a program. It's not just about acquiring. It's about installing, exhibiting, and explaining things in a meaningful way."