Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg -- are they masters still?

Ignore, if you can, their looming reputations. Forget, for a moment, their famous early paintings. See their new work freshly, try to judge it in the present. How good are they now?

It takes an act of will to even pose the question.The 36th Corcoran Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting -- which goes on public view tomorrow -- is an intimidating show. One questions it in whispers. The artists boom their answers. They paint with huge authority. They overwhelm our doubts.

Each of the five men selected by the Corcoran's Jane Livingston is strong enough to stand the strongest competition.

That does not mean posterity will judge these men as we do. The future has a way of demoting once-great figures, of altering the rules. Consider, for example, the odd case of De Kooning. His paintings are among the most surprising in this show.

De Kooning in the 1950s was thought a peer of Jackson Pollock's. They both did "action paintings," their names were twinned in art talk, they were seen as the two stars of the new New York art. In retrospect we wonder why were we so blind?

Pollock's dripped-all-over paintings now appear predictions of cool '60s abstract art. De Kooning painted scary, big-toothed women. Pollock, instead, open, airy fields. De Kooning's countless imitators flared, then fell from fashion. By contrast, those who followed Pollock's lead seemed to soar. De Kooning seems, in hindsight, a latter-day Dutch painter, a man less closely tied to Pollock than, say, to Frans Hals.

And where we once praised abstract expressionism's violent energy, today we notice messiness. De Kooning in the recent past at times seemed to flounder, to imitate his early work, to paint as if by rote.

His astonishing new pictures seem to me as fine as anything he's done. Never in the past has he been more abstract. He no longer shows us women or East Hampton seascapes, though his colors sometimes bring to mind the body and the beach. His newest works, particularly "Number One-1978," are structured by a sort of lattice, a kind of free and flowing grid.

His room seems to me the most stunning in this show. In its brilliant, mocking, knowing way, that given to Roy Lichtenstein is comparably impressive.

His recent sculpture seems to me some of the finest of our time. His new paintings have an almost blinding gleam, and a kind of witty weight, one could not have predicted.

Jasper Johns, in contrast, shows us enigmatic paintings that are, for the most part, dense, oblique, obscure. There is a secret message in them, a message about order, that we cannot quite decode.

Unlike his early paintings of flags, maps, letters, numerals and light bulbs, these works have no comfy references for the viewer's mind to rest on. But stare at them awhile and you will discover that their magic is immense.

Johns works with encaustic, a paint that's mixed with wax. Though admired for his prints, no graphics could present the textured richness of the paintings in this show. Some of them seem almost hostile to the viewer, so bilious are their colors, their jarring streaks of purple, orange, green. Yet on of them, a small three-panel picture that Johns has titled "Usuyuki" (Japanese for "thin snow"), is made with subtle pastel colors whose delicate, warm beauty take the breath away. If I could have my pick, that little work by Johns (it is as right, as monumental as a still life by Morandi), the Lichtenstein called "Stepping Out," and that grand De Kooning, "Number One-1978," would, of the 30 pictures here, be the three that I would carry from the show.

Bob Rauschenberg once seemed the terror of the formalists. Their tidy minds were blitzed by his explosive innovations. He was prodigal, prolific. He could pick up anything -- a chicken or a goat, a newspaper, a clock -- and make of it high art.

The "Spreads" that he exhibits here are, despite their scavenged parts, their mailbags and bed quilts, pale, ordered elegance. They summarize and conjure other works by Rauschenberg that we have seen before. But where once his pictures blurted, his new works sweetly sing. He is, at every turn, in absolute control.

So is Ellsworth Kelly. His subtle new shaped paintings, each a single color, could not be more refined. One edge of each picture is a segment of an arc. The others are straight lines.

These Kellys look like Kellys, these Rauschenbergs like Rauschenbergs, all the painters here are building on foundations layed many years ago. They were applauded once for their stunning innovations. Today, instead, we honor them for the authority with which they paint and for the steady mastery apparent in their work. The Corcoran Biennial will remain on view through April 8.