Leon Golub Paints Lasting Protests Against Grisly Brutality

Written by Christian Viveros-Faune on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.


A
recent discussion with a colleague produced a seemingly self-evident formula:
"The best way to make political art is to make good art." Getting into
the spirit of things, we rifled through the ages in an attempt to assemble a roster
of our favorite politically minded artists. The acerbic, skeletal work of James
Ensor was in, William Blake’s muscular, anti-Enlightenment angels were out
(too simple and moralizing). The historical tragedies of David and Delacroix made
the cut, the Civil War paintings of John Singer Sargent did not (like his paughtraits,
he couldn’t help dressing up armed conflict). On the strength of a single
painting, Guernica, Picasso ascended to the pantheon of great political
artists alongside Goya and his The Third of May, without question the greatest
protest painting of all time. The bellicose glorifications of futurist painters
like Gino Severini and Giacomo Balla, it was decided, were works we could just
as well live without.

Approaching
our own time, specific pieces by artists like Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg,
James Rosenquist, Philip Guston and Edward Kienholz made the list, pushing aside
other works by more committed, less effective artists. But when looking at the
art of the last two decades–a period in which explicit political statements
have played a far larger role than at any other time in recent memory–considerably
fewer names came to mind when thinking of successful artistic challenges to the
inchoate realities of power. No matter. First on that curiously shortened list,
it was unanimously decided, is the powerful work of the American painter Leon
Golub.

For
some five decades now Golub has made great art that is also robustly, significantly
political. Long considered a dark horse in the art world stakes, Golub began his
career by painting the wrong thing (figuration) in the wrong place (his native
Chicago, where he studied art on the GI Bill) at the wrong time (the abstract
expressionist 1950s). Having served in Europe during World War II, Golub was deeply
affected by the events that summarize its gory psychic aftermath like a litany–the
Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki–and made an early commitment to figuration
that was for him critical, ethical and artistic.

Golub,
influenced by the primitivism of Jean Dubuffet’s "Art Brut," the
screaming popes of Francis Bacon, the existentialist thin men of Alberto Giacometti
and, perhaps most importantly, by the distance separating him from New York’s
formalist triumph, developed a unique brand of expressive figuration that pointed
up, in the manner of a gadfly, the road not taken by successive postwar artistic
movements. Built up through layers of pigment, lacquer and later acrylic the artist
literally scraped away with a meat cleaver, Golub’s canvases embraced the
human form, contained discernible content and sought to capture, in the words
of critic Lawrence Alloway, "an heroic imagery of man vulnerable…to interference
by violence, time, death."

Among
the work currently on view in the Brooklyn Museum’s abbreviated retrospective
of his work, "Leon Golub: Paintings, 1950-2000," are coruscated, classically
derived works the artist made in Europe in the early 1960s. Golub moved there
with his wife, the artist Nancy Spero, partly to escape Chicago’s provincialism
and partly to find an audience more receptive to his figurative work. He found
himself inspired by two unlikely, premodern sources: the ruined monumentality
of Late Roman and Hellenistic sculpture and the communal scope of French historical
painting. Depicting warrior-like figures involved in mythic struggles, Golub’s
paintings acquired many of the characteristics that became, in time, his signature.
There were the oversized figures enacting ambiguous narratives, the informal,
unstretched presentations, the surfaces scoured down to the nub of the canvas.

On
his return to the U.S. in 1964, Golub found his country in turmoil. The Kennedy
assassination was barely a year old and the first coordinated student protests
against the Vietnam War were in full swing. Impatient with the lack of connectedness
his work had to the period’s dramatic events, Golub replaced his paintings
of allusive, battling figures with epic-scale canvases of gun-toting U.S. soldiers
and terrorized Vietnamese civilians. The move, characterized by critic Donald
Kuspit as one "from an inner awareness of violence to an articulation of
social violence," proved to be fundamental. After several Vietnam pictures
and an ensuing dry spell, Golub was ready for the gut-wrenching, revelatory paintings
he made during the 1980s.

Golub’s
paintings of smirking, anonymous mercenaries, interrogators and torturers, far
sturdier and more documentary than anything confected during an age filled with
thin, overconceptualized political art, were the perfect artistic purgative to
the Reagan era’s white-shoe, neo-colonial ethos. Painted nearly twice life-size
and silhouetted starkly against red oxide backgrounds like Roman frescoes, Golub’s
two-dimensional, uniformed irregulars committed the crimes many suspected their
governments of perpetrating. His rag-tag soldiers and cops engaged in fictional
atrocities, reveling in kidnappings, beatings and murder, while state functionaries
from Washington to Witwatersrand anxiously screened real crimes behind the dense
walls of official rhetoric.

Located
simultaneously in the flat, nowhere space that nurtured abstract expressionism
and in a shallow, narrative arena that suggested Latin America or Africa, Golub
drew his images from a welter of sources, including art books, clippings from
Soldier of Fortune magazine and a cache of press photos he collected through
the years. Golub’s men, facing front or at other times sideways in nearly
Byzantine profiles, pummeled their victims, held guns to their heads, dragged
them across floors by their hair and urinated on them with disturbing collegiality.
Pictured smiling, trading jokes or engaging in displays of male bravado, as in
the painting Mercenaries IV, the men incongruously presented a friendly
front, greeting the viewer complicitously with good old boy bonhomie. It was then,
and only then, that we noticed that the artist purposely obscured the victims’
faces. Objectified to the point of nullity, the painter had brilliantly turned
our sympathies on their ear, allowing us to confront and ultimately empathize
only with the faces of his criminals.

"We
are in a world in which misery condemns some to death and transforms others into
monsters," writes Ryszard Kapuscinski in his new memoir The Shadow of
the Sun
. Mining similar thematic terrain in newer paintings that feature illusionistic,
shifting space, the ghostly apparitions of skulls and skeletons and graffiti-like
text, the now 79- year-old Leon Golub continues to fashion immensely durable work
that conjoins sophisticated art with equally sophisticated politics. His canvases
are lasting protests against grisly brutality and its uncomplicated apprehension,
and dare us still to finish their statements, to "complete" the horror
on the canvas with something infinitely worse: the imagined manipulations of the
human mind.

"Leon
Golub: Paintings, 1950-2000," through Aug. 19 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art,
200 Eastern Pkwy. (Washington Ave.), Brooklyn, 718-638-5000.

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