He makes very angry paintings: giant, unstretched canvases scraped nearly raw with a meat cleaver, and populated with mercenaries and interrogators casually at work torturing and murdering helpless victims.

But Leon Golub is not an angry man.

In fact, he is a very happy man.

"The best time for me is now," says the 63-year-old painter, whose retrospective -- the first art-world-shaking show of his long, noble career -- is at the Corcoran through Sept. 1.

It opened to critical raves at Soho's New Museum of Contemporary Art last fall, and has since catapulted Golub from the netherworld of the "formerly famous" to center stage in the trendy New York art world, where he was out of fashion for 20 years. Now much in demand, he is showing at top galleries and selling to museums and important collectors all over the world -- at prices that start at $60,000.

He'd tasted success early in his career back home in Chicago -- but nothing like this. A respected teacher who influenced the Chicago Imagists, he'd had a sideline reputation for dogged devotion to figurative art even in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. There was a Ford Foundation grant in the '50s and a Guggenheim in the '60s, along with private patronage that helped him live in Italy in 1956 and in France from 1959 to 1964.

"I've done very nicely, despite my complaints," says Golub. "I'm a lot less bitter now than I was in 1977, when nobody was paying attention to me." The Artist's Image

Golub doesn't look or act like a political agitator, though he knows how to put on the requisite angry-artist's face for the camera -- all the more striking under his dramatically bald and bony head.

He is, in fact, a gentle, witty, amiable man in black suede Nikes, with an easy, professorial manner and a persistent Chicago twang despite years in New York. He constantly questions his own ideas, peppering philosophical conversation with rhetorical interruptions, such as "Right?" and "You know?"

But he cares deeply about politics and the human condition, always has. "Art can make a lot of difference," he says. "This show makes a difference."

It has certainly made a difference to him, and the question of "why now" is intriguing. "This figurative thing broke out," says Golub, "and the art world changed. There's a lot of figurative work now, and what had long been considered stupid and moronic no longer looked ridiculous. Suddenly a lot of the walls -- what I thought were repressions -- fell down.

"And some people say that my work was better. That's a common opinion. But I wouldn't say that. I'd say I made a connection to real things going on. The earlier paintings dealt more with the abstract concept of struggle. Now it was much more specific, and the psychic content started to interest people."

Must a good artist wait for such an accidental confluence of style, time and taste to find success? "Luck, fortuitousness and accident all play a large part," says Golub. "We always think of art as a ladder, with one thing following another. But that's looking at it through hindsight. When things are actually going on, there's a big struggle, and influential people can affect it one way or another. For instance: Pop Art and Minimalism didn't have to follow Abstract Expressionism.

"There are always struggles of ideas, and when things happen, we always think of them as being inevitable. But I think things are much more accidental in their development." Psychic Mannerisms

He still lives modestly with his wife, feminist artist Nancy Spero, in a loft just a few blocks north of SoHo, on LaGuardia Place, and is not chronically depressed by the political realities that propel his art.

"This isn't all of my life," he says. "I have other aspects, too. Right? And actually the American system has rewarded me very well -- recently . . . Recently is better than nothing.

"In fact, it's also rewarded me in the past too," he allows. "I've had exhibitions, and taught, and people have been interested in my work . . . Many artists have had infinitely less than I've had.

"There've been periods when I sold, and periods when I taught -- about half and half. Basically, I taught till around 1956 in Chicago, and lived from art from 1958 to 1963, averaging around $20,000 a year -- a lot of money in those days. Then from '64 on it became much more precarious, and I began combining it with teaching in various degrees in New York."

In 1970 he took a full-time position at Rutgers, which he still holds. "It's a beautiful position," he says -- a full professor with a pared-down teaching load. "At this point I could stop teaching, because I've earned enough money for the last two years, but I'm not inclined to do so because I love teaching. I love the give-and-take.

"I teach grad students now, and they're optimistic, and have every reason to be. The system still rewards Americans -- not all, but a good proportion of them. The repressions we help visit on other countries, we don't visit on ourselves -- at least not yet.

"I think of art as a summary report on the state of civilization," says Golub. "That's the way I view it. It says something about how things were at a particular moment in time. You look at Roman art, or Renaissance art, or Manet; what you're getting is a summary position on what things were really like, what things were considered important, and how people looked and walked and acted -- their psychic mannerisms."

Unfortunately for our civilization, that's what his recent paintings have become. Propelled by news photos to which some have now become inured, they somehow revive the reality of the horrific practices of repressive regimes in Latin America and Africa.

At the same time they are sufficiently generalized and layered with meaning to lift them out of the realm of political polemic and into the realm of high art.

"But these paintings are fictional: I haven't been there, you know," he insists in response to those who would call these works political tracts. "But even if I'd been there they'd be fiction because they're made of bits and pieces -- of photographs, what's running around in my head, things I read in the news media. They're as fictional as any novel."

But at the same time, says Golub, "at some level, we are represented by these others. It's part of the American empire out there, like in El Salvador. It's part of ourselves. We're implicated."

He sets out to prove it -- to reconnect political power with personal responsibility -- by a subtle subterfuge. In "Mercenaries V," a white man holds a gun to the head of a prostrate black prisoner, at the same time waving and smiling out at the viewer. Other mercenaries, all seemingly enjoying their work, simultaneously taunt their bound, helpless victims and look out at us, as if they were posing for a snapshot. Largely through this device, Golub involves us by suggesting that we observe such events every day through the media, but do nothing to stop them.

"It was in '79 that people were starting to see the new work and things began to happen," says Golub. "I began to invite certain friends and critics over, and they might respond, or they might not. There was a traveling retrospective show in '79 at the School of Visual Arts in New York, but it didn't make a dent.

"Then gradually, by 1980, people began to show a lot of interest in the work. In fact, there was a show in Washington at Protetch/McIntosh that year -- all portraits, heads, like the ones of Franco and Rockefeller in this show. But it didn't mean a thing in New York."

Then in 1982, Golub had his first New York gallery show in 20 years at Susan Caldwell, arranged by a former student who'd gone to work there, and everything clicked: the new interest in figurative art, political art and content. "There began to be an audience. Critics did their bit," says Golub.

"Also, in '82, I was given a show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, which attracted a lot of attention." Among others, it attracted legendary collectors Charles and Doris Saatchi, who bought the first of five works by Golub. Three are on loan to the Corcoran show. The New Museum show, co-organized by Lynn Gumpert and Ned Rifkin, now of the Corcoran, came next. The Key Word Is Tension

Golub is realistic about the future, but hopeful. "I think there's a wide audience for my work. And I think there's an audience to buy the work too, but that's much more limited. Museums are part of it -- a big chunk of it.

"And there are a lot of lively collectors, but . . . they're certainly not all going to want to put these paintings in their home, even if they have 10- or 12-foot ceilings.

"The collectors who will buy my work will be primarily big collectors who want to have a widely representative collection." That includes the Hirshhorn Museum, which just bought a piece painted since this exhibition opened. "It shows four young black men just sitting and looking out with tension -- that's my key word, 'tension,' " says Golub. "I tried to give it a South African ambiance. Whatever is approaching them, they're alerted."

Says Hirshhorn director James Demetrion -- pointing out that the museum already owns four early Golubs purchased by Joe Hirshhorn -- "I don't know why, all of a sudden, they're paying attention to Golub's work again. But my own response is that there is this disarming combination of formal beauty combined with a kind of tragic subject matter that play off against each other and create a tension. First you say to yourself, 'What beautiful colors!' And then you say, 'What frightening subject matter!' "

Demetrion disagrees that Golub is better. "It's just that in art there tends to be a shifting of values, and people look for different things at different times. Our own concerns and involvement with some of these social, international political issues have brought his work back to attention. He's always been a good artist. Maybe it's just his time right now."