criticismExhibitions
Wednesday, August 1st, 2001

An Orgy of Violence


Leon Golub: Paintings (1950-2000), was at the South London Gallery and at the Albright Knox, Buffalo, and continues at the Brooklyn Museum til August 19, 2001

Leon Golub White Squad V 1984, acrylic on canvas, 120 x 161 inches, The Broad Art Foundation

Leon Golub, White Squad V 1984, acrylic on canvas, 120 x 161 inches, The Broad Art Foundation

“Every virtue resides or is symbolized in the flesh together with all humiliation, threat and squalor”. So wrote the British art critic Adrian Stokes in his 1967 Reflections on the Nude. And although no discernible virtue is symbolized in flesh as Leon Golub paints it, humiliation, squalor and threat are present, in abundance. This is Art Brut on a monumental scale. The people he creates are monsters, unable to escape the confines of a claustrophobic stage setting. Many critics and curators have noted how Roman and Greek sculpture influenced Golub’s male figures, particularly those found in the Gigantomachy series. Golub also shares a leading theme with Roman art; the contrast between authority and submission. The imperfections found in his paintings are reflections of our own. Not only is the artist’s view of humanity bleak, however, but the range of emotions expressed by his flattened-out figures is severely limited.

The typical Golub painting succeeds at reminding us of the ugliness within, the failures of the species as a whole. Skin is agony, scraped paint. Smug, sneering and gloating mercenaries and soldiers prepare prisoners for torture or set innocent people within the sights of their guns. Victims’ eyes are turned away, covered with tape or closed. Like an Expressionist set designer, Golub provides a minimal amount of details to suggest a specific environment. His distorted and cartoonish figures cannot compete with the images of violence which inundate us on a daily basis. The later works, filled with bits of text, pornography and allegorical objects such as skulls and wild dogs, remind me of pictures high school-age illustrators might paint on the back of their denim jackets. Heavy-handed symbolism replaces politically tinged nihilism. Women are portrayed in mourning (Threnody I) or as victims (Interrogation III) in this heartless, macho universe. The late allegories are either too obscure or just plain hokey. Golub is a stoic and a nihilist, and this is strongly reflected in the work done from the 1960s to the present.

The abstractions and paintings of heads that he did in the 1950s are brimming with connotations, and in my opinion, are more interesting. Although his attempt at realism was inspired by the cruelty and violence in the world, he failed to turn moral outrage into great art. Artists who reject pure abstraction, and decide to paint what is actually seen, whether in life, films or photographs, still need to think long and hard about how to transform all aspects of the pictorial surface into an interlocked and cohesive whole.

Leon Golub Head XXV 1959, details and credit to follow

Leon Golub, Head XXV 1959, details and credit to follow

In the 1950s Golub was an interesting abstract painter. In the ugly and profound painting The Bug (War Machine), 1953, smears of off whites and dark browns, black line drawing, and highlights in an institutional (think lavatory walls) green coagulate and become a central spine shape with lashing tendrils. There are patches of shiny lacquer and dry, scraped paint. Colors are spread around this grotesque surface like slabs of butter. The abstract shapes exude aggressiveness and generate ripples of collective violence. Ambiguous forms, they suggest many things. Prince Sphinx, 1955, lacquer and oil on masonite, is filled with moody violets, greens and deep red browns. Golub returned to this theme later in life. The mythological subject matter is augmented by the complex application and layering of pigment. Golub evokes a sense of the primordial, by blending together animal and human forms. The sphinx is in a pouncing position; it threatens us and is a symbol of the inevitability of death. Birth III, 1956, another interesting early abstraction, has an architectural flavor to it. Severed limbs and a distorted face transform into a weird building. The human anatomy is wood-like; the earth tones, red browns, black outlines, and thin washes of pigment suggest the natural world and artifice. Human beings are the building blocks of civilization, even when progress means tearing limb from limb.

Gigantomachy II, 1966, an orgy of violence, a swirling mass of naked men pouncing on one another, is colored feces brown. The men seem to be composed of earth, the soil. The notion that violent impulses are inherent to the species isn’t startlingly original. The monumental scale increases the distortions and the naked forms seem speckled like rocks. The flesh is nuanced but made of putty. The sensuality is removed but at what cost? Painters like Philip Pearlstein, Lucian Freud, and Gustave Courbet manage to remind us of our mortality, the fleshy casing we carry through life and the perpetual longing for the other, but Golub’s figures do not capture our gaze, attention or thoughts with their carnality. If he wanted to desensitize us and use the human figure to play a clever game in which the viewer becomes either victim or accomplice he has succeeded.

The acrylic on linen painting, Napalm Flag, 1970, is really two separate triangular fragments stuck together to form a rectangle. Without mentioning any political content, the museum label next to the painting emphasizes how the work is reminiscent of Abstract Expressionist canvases. Smearing a sloppily made simulacrum of the American flag with gobs of blood red pigment, isn’t the most sophisticated way to express your disagreement with your country’s foreign policy. Perhaps Golub, who did not conceal his negative feelings about the New York art scene, was flipping his finger at the most famous flag painter of all, Jasper Johns. The image of an American flag, torn in half and splattered with blood is undeniably powerful. This is an angry and heavily textured painting.

According to the artist, the Vietnam War transformed his imagery. Army fatigues and automatic weapons began appearing and the paintings became didactic. He felt the need to include elements of the contemporary world. Mythological references and traces of ancient art began to fade, but would eventually return. The people in the paintings done in the 70s and 80s are composed of exposed tendons and muscle. Their skin is scaly. The innards are all gushy. The painting process is labored. Golub paints flesh in a staccato style, and his marks look like they were made with colored pencils or magic markers. Most of the male figures hold their guns as if they are trophies or aim them at other people, grab their crotches, or beat or get beat by other men. Items of clothing look pasted on, like Colorforms, a toy first marketed in the 1950s. This toy consisted of a Colorform playboard that children could press paper-thin plastic decals on to and peel off at will.

Vietnam II, 1973, a large scale political cartoon includes figures which are flattened out by excessive white highlights. The distorted facial features and misshapen anatomies undercut the seriousness of the subject matter. The images of Asian civilians and American soldiers are a strange blend of abstraction and specific detail copied from photographs. Most of the figures in Golub’s work are amalgamations of details taken from any number of photographs in the artist’s personal archive. Without having seen the photos the artist makes partial copies of, he appears to be “quick at seizing a characteristic trait without seeking much empathy.” Some of the figures have no necks, are stubby, and have arms as thick as thighs. Feet are cut off at the bottom of the picture. These rigid emblems of the atrocities of war are placed on the opposite sides of a large area of unmarked linen. The bad guys, the American soldiers backed by a tank, take up the left side of the picture, and unarmed Asian civilians take up the right side. The gulf between the two groupings will not be bridged. Social Realism and overwrought modeling make strange bed fellows. The torn bottom edge does nothing to complicate this obvious political statement. An Asian man’s head, with the mouth gaping wide, looms in the foreground and confronts the viewer. Although we might wonder if he is screaming or in shock, what is about to happen to him and his companions is not a mystery. We can easily imagine the death and carnage that ensues, but that is as far as this painting will take us. More complex examinations of the Vietnam War have been presented in Hollywood films. There is no dynamic between oppressed and oppressor, and representation of the power struggle is simplistic.

I agree with Donald Kuspit when he writes: “The problem with Golub’s work is that it implies that there is no socially feasible alternative to the all-powerful, totalitarian figure.” Golub presents human relationships in an ugly light, in an emaciated language of form. The two blue collar males in Try Burning This One, 1991 are stereotypes. Two contemptible white males with no redeeming qualities, stand in front of a yellow brick wall. Although the leering and crotch grabbing white trash might inspire the average college educated museum/gallery goer to have feelings of superiority and contempt, this painting as a whole, is little more than a joke.

The portraits Golub painted of political figures and the wealthy and powerful, Nelson Rockefeller and Ho Chi Minh among others, in the late seventies were meant to bring these figures down to earth. The artist said that he painted these famous/infamous people in order to knock them off their pedestals. It is a relief to see these portraits, because we finally have the opportunity to gaze at human faces without being spoon-fed reactionary politics or stilted allegory. Although Golub displays delicate handling, from a technical standpoint these works do not rise above the typical output of street portraitists, who help tourists spend their vacation money. Also, the opposite of what the artist intended has occurred. These portraits cannot escape a particular context, they will always be very dear art objects on display, and Golub’s tribute helps to deify these figureheads instead of deconstructing them. It makes sense that Golub was destroying older works and searching for a new direction during the period in which these portraits were made. It is unfortunate that he did not see any value in the looming and mysterious heads he painted in the 1950s. These lunar landscapes deserve further exploration.

Bits of writing appear in the later works (The Blue Tattoo, 1998 and Prometheus II, 1998). The phrases Golub incorporates into a number of later works are shallow and smart-ass. The artist is daring us to make more of them. I admire Golub for going against the grain and making figural art when Minimalism and Conceptual Art was all the rage. Golub, not unlike Giacometti, pecks away at surfaces. Both artists express existential angst, but Golub fails to imbue his figures with any dignity or grace. The effects of his expressiveness are transitory because they are not, to quote Adrian Stokes once again, “richly integrated throughout the formal relationships on view”. We suffer trauma in isolation, something Giacometti was well aware of, and the aftermath of violence is complex. The element of ambiguity and mystery is missing from many of these paintings. We know that the torturer will start torturing the prisoner again, and we know that the murderer will slam the car trunk down on the crumpled corpse (White Squad IV (El Salvador), 1983). We are prevented from reading into the actions in terms of inner emotions, and cannot project more intensity into the gestures. Golub unsuccessfully tries to create images that are historical and universal simultaneously.


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