One wouldn't want to walk unaware into a room full of Leon Golub's paintings: It's like taking a bruising blow to the head or a truncheon to the groin, or maybe more like expecting to be shot with one of the pistols or automatic weapons the heavyweight figures in the paintings -- soldiers, mercenaries, interrogators -- sport like toys.

There are five such rooms in the Golub retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the really demoralizing part of the experience, after one has recovered from the initial shock, is that one gets used to the environment in the most curious and terrifying way: One begins to identify with the victimizers as well as with the victims. The implications of this complex attack upon one's complacency form the core of Golub's uncompromising vision. These brutes are recognizably human, unashamed of the shameful social roles they play, and we are, inevitably, voyeurs at their horrible party, at once potential victims and potential collaborators.

A primary reason Golub's art is so insidiously successful is that many of the paintings, as paintings, are extremely beautiful. There are few places in the world where the shifting natural light is kinder to painted surfaces than the Corcoran's skylit galleries, and Golub's surfaces -- from the flat red oxide he sometimes deploys as background to the scratchy, dry patchwork of luminescent hues he often uses for clothing and skin tones -- shimmer gloriously in the Washington light.

The irony, of course, is fully intended. Golub's technique more than fits his subject -- it is part of the subject. He paints these huge unstretched canvases on the floor, starting with figures outlined in black and adding layers of color before dissolving the paint with a solvent and scraping away at the surface with a meat cleaver. He repeats this process in a sequence of adjustments until, as he says, the canvas is "eroded" and has a "raw, porous appearance." Critic Lawrence Alloway observed that even in early Golub works "the texture is not a decorative display but a mode of iconography. Its content is the pathos of time's passage and the dissolution of human identity."

Golub, 63, has passed through several impressive stages as an artist, each succinctly chronicled in this intelligently selected show of 41 paintings. Born in Chicago and educated there, he was, in the 1950s, one of the chief fathers of the rough, tough, idiosyncratic Chicago mode of figurative painting. Postwar existentialism took root in Chicago, and Golub, a World War II vet, was one of its principal gardeners.

The Holocaust and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki "provided Golub with the theme of violence around which much of his student work revolved," we are told in the catalogue -- an extraordinary fact in itself. (Nothing like this was happening in the major studios in New York and Washington.) One can see in early paintings here other important early sources: the raw figurative paintings of Frenchman Jean Dubuffet (again, an influence pretty much confined to Chicago in this country), a Dubuffet-like interest in the art of the insane, and an intense awareness of art from Africa and other non-western sources, which Golub and his fellow painters were absorbing at the Field Museum.

In the mid- to late 1950s, Golub extended his range of interests to include Roman and Hellenistic sculpture, and his interpretations of the themes produced expressive paintings such as the "Reclining Youth" of 1959, based on a photograph of the famous "Dying Gaul" of Pergamon. Golub's figure, massive and heroic despite being scraped at as if being excavated from the surface, is a stupendous postwar icon. In "Combat I" (1962) and, especially, "Gigantomachy III" (1966), these visceral, and yet still classical, figures begin to move and to fight each other, as if engaged in some compulsive, ritual, deathly dance. Golub can never be accused of following a fashion. "Gigantomachy III," for instance, painted after he moved to New York, was definitively out of sync in the age of Pop Art, Op Art, color field painting and minimalism. Yet its expressive force, like that of the somewhat later paintings of Philip Guston, puts to shame much of the Neo-Expressionist painting that today is de rigueur. In the late 1960s Golub, using the same Everyman figures, turned his artistic attention to the war in Vietnam in powerful paintings such as "Napalm I" (1969). But at some point he became less an allegorist and more a reporter: His figures acquire individual identities along with the up-to-date uniforms and weaponry of U.S. troopers.

Despite their searing intensity, Golub's Vietnam paintings don't strike quite the right chord, perhaps because, by being so "real," they pale when compared with the horrifying television and newspaper images of the first "media war." (Perhaps, too, this is because his American soldiers, though victims, too, are very definitely the evil-doers.) His more convincing work in the realist vein are the sequential portraits he made in the 1950s of powerful men -- Nelson Rockefeller, for instance, or Generalissimo Franco -- studies that are at once cooly distanced and psychologically penetrating.

"Golub has been working with the notion of power and vulnerability, for him the axis of human existence, since he began making art in the mid-1940s," curators Ned Rifkin and Lynn Gumpert tell us in their illuminating catalogue essay. With his "Mercenaries" series, begun in 1979, and continuing in the series of "Interrogations," "White Squads" and "Riots," and in paintings titled "Horsing Around" (in which the actors in the episodic dramas are shown during relaxed moments, just "having fun"), he has attained a distinctive, edgy, thoroughly unsettling balance between the generalized universal and the realistic particular. The figures are contemporaneous, recognizable, individualistic, and therefore "real," and yet they could be anyone and their actions could -- insidious thought -- take place anywhere.

The scale of the paintings, slightly larger than life, makes a meaty forearm a truly threatening presence. By contrast, the candor in the way the figures disport themselves is disarming: On occasion they'll catch one's eye, and smile. And there are subconscious ways in which the viewer's complicity is elicited: In "Interrogation III" (1981) viewers may indeed experience, as Rifkin and Gumpert suggest, "a disconcerting need to align themselves with the clothed interrogators who are in control of the situation," despite the violence they do to the naked victim.

In Golub's paintings, as in Baroque art, the action is always just about to happen, with the crucial difference that in Golub's compositions the impending action is sure to have harmful consequence. This, and their obvious contemporaneity, ensures that these paintings represent authentically 20th-century dilemmas. By witnessing what Golub calls "the face of the modern world," we are asked to contemplate the issue of power and its attendant responsibilities, and most of all we are enjoined, as Rifkin and Gumpert state, "not to surrender our power to the painting, in order to avoid becoming its victim." It is a challenge that carries over into the real world.

The exhibition, organized by the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, continues at the Corcoran through Sept. 8.