Tag Archives: Leon Golub

“Leon Golub: Raw Nerve” at The Met Breuer, New York

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Leon Golub, Giantomachy II (1966), acrylic on linen, 9′ 11-1/2″ x 24′ 10-1/2″; courtesy of The Met Breuer; Gift of The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts and Stephen, Philip, and Paul Golub, 2016

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Say this for the brutalist environs of The Met Breuer: its limitations encourage curatorial rigor. When you’re stuck with a shoebox, expansiveness isn’t an option, particularly when the works on display are encompassing in size. Take “Leon Golub: Raw Nerve.” The canvas greeting viewers as they enter the exhibition, Gigantomachy II (1966), is typical, measuring close to ten by twenty-five feet. As a consequence, Kelly Baum, the Met’s Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Curator of Contemporary Art, couldn’t indulge the scope of the artist’s achievement or memory. (Golub died in 2004 at the age of eighty-two.) Choices had to be made. As a retrospective, then, “Raw Nerve” is sharply circumscribed: a rat-a-tat-tat overview rather than a scholarly accounting. Not ideal, you might think, but Golub’s work benefits from the approach. Once he hit his stride, Golub didn’t evolve much as a painter. A career-making turn to political content in the 1970s added density and context, but not nuance or variety. Golub’s art was forever astringent in its pictorial strategies and relentless in its vitriol. His work would be poorer without either, but how much righteous hammering can a body stand?

Numbness is never an enlightening aesthetic response, and, as the exhibition’s title insinuates, Golub insisted on its opposite. “The nightmare of history” was his subject, and the canvases are embodiments of “how power is demonstrated through the body and in human actions, and in our time, how power and stress and political and industrial powers are shown.” The body came before the nightmare or, to be precise, the figure before ideology. Golub never trafficked in abstraction. For an artist coming of age during the heyday of The New York School, this marked him as an outlier, not least geographically. A native of Chicago—he studied at the University of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute— Golub was keenly aware of his hometown’s second city status. Chicago was, in fact, host to a number of painters and sculptors dedicated to an idiosyncratic brand of figuration, including the “Monster Roster”: an informal group that included Golub, his wife Nancy Spero, Seymour Rosofsky, H. C. Westermann, and June Leaf. For inspiration, they looked to artists whose work fell outside the AbEx orbit: Jean Dubuffet, Georges Rouault, Max Beckmann, and the local fixture Ivan Albright.

Golub_2.jpgLeon Golub in the 1950s; courtesy The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts

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Golub was a prickly member of the opposition; vocal, too. He had little patience for the grand claims made about Abstract Expressionism. Writing in 1954, Golub averred that “the creative act is a moral commitment transcending any formalistic disengagement.” Which isn’t to say that Golub rejected everything “formalistic” about The New York School—an argument could be made that he effectively gleaned its brute use of materials and sweeping scale. Golub’s first mature works—cobbled amalgamations of body parts—looked to antiquity and pre-Columbian art for impetus: the former for its majesty; the latter because of its abrupt distillations of form and unyielding frontality. Golub steeped himself in history, making sojourns to Italy in the mid-1950s and later Paris, where he lived from 1959 to 1964. By then a signature manner of working had been arrived at: imagery pitched to a towering scale; terse juxtapositions of figure and ground; and surfaces that were scabby, tenuous, and abraded. Golub’s compositions owe much of their grit to having been repeatedly scraped down with, of all things, a meat cleaver. Not for nothing do his paintings recall the dried skins of animals.

This latter association became more pronounced when Golub began displaying the paintings on unstretched canvases punctured with grommets and hung from hooks. This move added considerably to the work’s potency. For Golub, stretcher bars were too conventional, too polite; a degree of material aggression was required. When the art became political—roughly congruent with his return to the United States in the mid-1960s—Golub’s vision became more specific in focus. Haggard universalism gave way to exegesis on the abuses of political power, inequities in justice, war and its calamities, and, most disturbingly, the tension-filled interstices that can accrue between race and sex. Granted, few of Golub’s paintings fail to underline the moral limitations of mankind. (And I do mean mankind; Golub’s ire was aimed primarily at his own gender.) Still, paintings like Horsing Around IV (1983), with its drunken white protagonist groping at an African-American woman, and Two Black Women and a White Man (1986) are infused with queasy ambiguity—they put into question just how much our own preconceptions might skew the image. Absent a clear-cut target of approbation, these pictures get beyond rage, arriving at places more unsettling.

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Leon Golub, Two Black Women and a White Man (1986), acrylic on linen, 120 x 85″; courtesy The Met Breuer

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Still, the work is unsettling enough, and it’s to Golub’s credit as a painter that the pieces earn their ugliness. The grating play of complementaries in Horsing Around amplifies its synthesis of threat and sexuality. The grubby pinks and yellows in The Conversation (1990), a disjointed composition that is both an avowal of radicalism and an indictment of it, underline its caustic ironies. As Golub aged, he was less physically capable of distressing the surfaces of his paintings. He consequently engineered a manner of working that created a similar sense of wear-and-tear: the meat cleaver was supplanted by a dry brush. Paintings like All Bets Are Off (1994) and Bite Your Tongue (2001) are characterized by expanses of raw linen and washes of paint applied with knowing theatricality. Backtracking from the topical, late Golub opted for doom-laden patchworks of skulls, tattoo designs, propaganda (“Loyalty/ Discipline/ Renewal”), and dogs, all of which are grounded in brushy swipes of black. As compositions, the late paintings are adroit in their making and pat in their symbolism; as elegies, they all but come off as admissions of defeat. Given how thoroughly Golub explored and excoriated the thuggish depths to which the human animal could descend, it’s a wonder he was able to keep at it for as long, and as convincingly, as he did. “Raw Nerve” is testament to one man’s indomitable rage, as well as to its limitations.

© 2018 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the May issue of The New Criterion.