Leon Golub’s paintings speak truth to power so acutely and matter-of-factly that I felt an immediate sense of urgency for a full-blown retrospective. We need this work now! We need to live with it, to see it more fully, and to understand more deeply what Golub discovered and never lost sight of: the power of representation to arrest the uninterrupted flow of the present, to interrogate the human condition, and to produce art as a lifelong act of resistance.
Borrowing from the austere brutality of late Hellenistic sculpture, or from Goya’s staggering depictions of mutilation and carnage, or from atrocities closer to our present-day—his historical dexterity fuels an awareness that, as he once put it, “the nightmare of history has no beginning and no end.” Flayed figures, their skin scoured down to bloody sinew, the prey of interrogators and death squads; crews of mercenaries at their leisure, between kills; portraits of corrupt dictators that showcase their depravity—all bespeak of violence that’s hard to fathom and yet, it’s so familiar.
Anonymity and savagery take up permanent residence in the early works from the ’50s and ’60s. Deeply, under the formal influence of the ancients, Golub’s paintings dwell on fragments of bodies worked-over beyond recognition. The monumental Gigantomachy II (1966) the gift to the Metropolitan Museum of Art that occasions this selective survey, shows a messy frieze of bludgeoned, burnt bodies in the throes of a bloody massacre. Giving it bite, Golub’s technique for distressing the surfaces of his unstretched, unprimed linen canvases enlivens the realism.
His technique involved relentlessly painting and scraping—a simultaneously productive and destructive action. Such baroque levels of activity bring attention to the literalness of process, paint, surface, and gesture, thus setting up a critical alliance between the violence done to the body of painting and the metaphors of violence and torture that abound in his work. His abraded surfaces are, in a manner, like living skin, mangled and damaged; they are catalysts for an embodiment that ricochets from the expressive image to the actual surface and to the viewer’s body itself. This deliriously charged reciprocity delivers its punch. In his large empty paintings of the ’80s and ’90s he ups the ante. We imaginatively enter into their big, wide-open spaces and meet the men of war. There are scant details, place is non-specific, sometimes it’s just a color. Noticeably, the compositions always seem to leave room for us.
Over the arc of his practice, Leon Golub amassed a rogue’s gallery of molesters and murderers whose identities are assembled with a heavy assist from his vast clippings archive. Portraiture finds its way into the picture, often with journalistic clarity, confronting us with a sense of deja-vu. We grapple with the disturbing familiarity the figures seem to possess, as if we’ve seen them before or know their type. The spark of recognition is subliminal. Perhaps it’s due to Golub’s use of actual photographs to model faces and bodies and to compose groups. He might use a photo of a moment in a soccer match as the template for a battle scene. “Soldier of Fortune” magazine was a reliable source. You might have read about death squads in Central America, but do you know what that looks like? Well, here, step right in. You’re one of us now. How long does it take to hit us? We are complicit. After all, here we are, loving to look at his beautiful, restrained, out-of-bounds paintings that are imminently desirable and that depict unspeakable horror.
If Golub’s art was simple social realism, then ho-hum. But he’s a master at drawing us into massive contradictions, without any intention to assuage the suggestion that both pleasure and pain motivate his work—and our engagement with it. In his late last works, Golub explored sexual lust and seduction, all within the shadow of his own imminent death. Some figures are worked in luscious pigments and show variously a hunky Bacchus, a frenzied satyr, a silver and blue erotic nude, a she-centaur in agony. Repentant skeletons join the cast of immortals, too, pleading for mercy. There he was, at the end of his life, still prowling through the bones of art history, still working those surfaces, and giving it all up to eroticism and the unknown.
Note: the quote from Golub was taken from a wall text at the exhibition.