In the center of Leon Golub’s searing 1981 painting, “Interrogation III,” is a woman with her eyes and mouth taped shut. She is stark naked, her long legs spread open, and while a bald man in green fatigues in the foreground shoves her head down, a man to her left struggles to tighten the rope that binds her hands. The two men—secret police, death-squad mercenaries—are huge and awkward, all muscle and ligament beneath corroded skin. The woman, whose black hair and grayish olive skin suggest she is Central American, is thin and wiry, hardened by privation. Although she is about to be raped and murdered, she is formidable, as though inwardly refusing the physical suffering and humiliation being inflicted upon her. The figures in “Interrogation III” are pushed so far up in the picture plane that their feet disappear beneath the lower edge of the canvas, and all three seem to be slung together off the largely blank canvas into the liminal space of the viewer. The emotions contorting the face of the interrogator on the left are complex and ambivalent: contempt, mockery, and anticipation, but also fear and perhaps even embarrassment. His one visible eye is not, as one would expect, focused on what he is doing, but has wandered off, as though he is aware that he is being watched from outside. The beholder of “Interrogation III” is placed in an uncomfortable and compromising position. He is inevitably an impotent witness and anxious voyeur, gazing directly at the woman’s abused, naked body, at her exposed and carefully rendered sex. Like many of Golub’s strongest paintings, “Interrogation III” is difficult to contemplate with anything like neutral, aesthetic distance.
Leon Golub: Paintings 1950 – 2000, currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, is a streamlined, 35-work survey of paintings spanning Golub’s productive and refreshingly belligerent 50-year career. The show also includes a catalogue, “Leon Golub: Echoes of the Real,” with an essay by the show’s original curator, Jon Bird, which is lightweight when compared with a monograph like Donald Kuspit’s dense “The Existential/Activist Painter: The Example of Leon Golub,” but is still lucid and informative. Born and raised in Chicago, educated at the University of Chicago and then at the Chicago Art Institute, Golub first gained attention as one of the instigators of the “Exhibition Momentum” in the late 1940s and as the pivotal figure in the “monster roster” of tough Chicago figurative painters. Golub was inspired early on by Picasso’s savage, fauvist “Les Demoiselles D’Avigon,” and more crucially by “Guernica,” but Golub’s influences encompass less fashionable modernists like Max Beckman, Jean DuBuffet, Georges Roualt, Chaim Soutine, and the Chicago artist Ivan Albright, all of whom, like Picasso, remained essentially figurative painters throughout their careers, insisting on making art that is unambiguously about concrete, sweaty, mortal, and often ugly human beings. Although the current show suffers from limiting itself to paintings (Golub’s drawings are of great interest, as are his early experiments with etching), the most illuminating aspect of Leon Golub: Paintings 1950 – 2000 is its selection of rarely exhibited paintings from the 1950s.
To be an aggressive, unabashed figurative painter in America in the 1950s was to go against the grain of the increasingly normative New York School Abstract Expressionist style and the ideological prescriptions of Clement Greenberg. Greenberg, after all, called Abstract Expressionism “American type painting,” as though there were no other valuable strain of American art. In a wall statement for a solo show at the Artist Gallery, New York, in 1954, Golub asserted, “The creative act is a moral commitment transcending any formalistic disengagement,” making it clear that he was not interested in fashioning pure forms, nor in exploring the rarefied vicissitudes of metaphysics, but instead in confronting issues of urgent human and moral concern: inhumanity, violence, suffering, death, birth. Horrified by the Holocaust, the ravages of the Second World War, and the alienation and insidious impoverishment of subjectivity in postwar life, Golub questioned abstraction’s capacity to assert concrete, public values: he clearly understood the risk of “pure” abstract painting becoming mere decoration or degenerating into empty, decadent esotericism. “In-Self” (1954), like “The Bug (War Machine)” (1953), is nearly abstract, and shows the impact of de Kooning’s women and of Pollock’s archetypal pre-drip paintings. Huge, vacant, glowering eyes and a skeletal hand emerge from the slathered, encrusted oil and the chaos of circles, squares, and slashes which seem part of a tortured, interior machine: “In-Self” is not an introspective painting, but instead one that dissolves the boundary separating an immaterial interiority, the friable, mortal body, and an increasingly repressive and technologized society.
A pragmatist suspicious of over-refined style, Golub’s use of oil and lacquer over the course of the 1950s nevertheless became more aggressive and sophisticated. He built up his surfaces then tore them down with sculpture tools, sometimes pressing canvases together so that the paint would stick and peel. In “Head XXXIII”(1959), and also “Colossal Heads I” (1959), Golub’s interest in late classical sculpture and pre-Columbian art, as well as the influence of Dubuffet, comes to the fore. The flat, jagged profile of “Head XXXIII” barely surfaces through the scarred layers of lacquer and the flecks of beautiful glassy turquoise, but the huge twin heads in “Colossal Heads I,” their faces all but scoured off, stare accusingly, as though the viewer were responsible for their ruin. In the stunning “Fallen Warrior (Burnt Man)” (1960), in which a massive figure, built up out of raw, fleshy pinks and covered with bits of red is collapsing down on his knee, Golub moves from his more static, iconic paintings, toward live figures in motion. Flayed to smears of red-streaked brown, the figure in “Seated Boxer” (1960) is about to throw a punch, but he is seated, off-balance, and has no opponent; his action is empty and desperate. While Dubuffet’s work remains effete, these paintings are heavy, bruised objects, archeological remnants of an annihilating history, and their obsessive ugliness gives them a tragic grandeur.
In the “Gigantomachy” series of the mid-1960s, Golub expanded his damaged warriors, philosophers, and boxers into tumultuous battle epics. Painted in acrylic, the congested titans in “Gigantomachy II”(1966) are based on the friezes on the “Great Altar of Zeus” from Pergamon (180 – 160 B.C.), the third century Roman “Farnese Bull,” and also on popular magazine photographs of athletes. The figures are not so much nude, like ancient Olympians, as skinless, their taut ligaments and muscles exposed, their bodies covered with clinging bits of dirt and dried blood; they are reduced to the mechanisms of physiology, to wet, rotting machines, their faceless faces monstrous and impersonal. Figures swarm the left hand segment of the canvas, some pounding a fallen man, others struggling to save him. There are no heroes here, and no identifiable adversaries; the battle is centerless, unmotivated, and without beginning or end. I think that, finally, the “Gigantomachy” paintings fail, and for several reasons. Golub may have turned to acrylic out of concern that his earlier work overemphasized technique and surface over declarative subject matter, but the stripped acrylic paint dulls and flattens the surface, so that the paintings do not have the inner depth and repulsive sensuality of Golub’s paintings in oil and lacquer. In addition, the huge figures are purely external, their blunt gestures as formulaic as Byzantine icons, making them one-dimensional and static, without the smoldering energy and latent violence of “Seated Boxer.” The fearsome power of a painting like Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937), or for that matter of Goya’s great siege painting, “The Second of May, 1808” (1814), lies in the sense they give of the inner, bodily experience of violence and suffering. “Gigantomachy II” is too impersonal and monumental to have any comparable visceral impact.
The “Vietnam” paintings of the early 1970s should be seen as an attempt to adapt the public, mural-like scale of the “Gigantomachy” paintings to what are in effect contemporary history paintings. Politically charged historical paintings are crucial to the development of modernism—Goya’s “The Second of May 1808” (1814) and “The Third of May, 1808”(1814), along with Manet’s “Execution of Maximilian” (1866), are among the greatest examples. In “The Third of May, 1808,” the French executioners fiercely angle in from the left-hand side of the canvas, the defiant victim, arms out-stretched, directly lit in burnished, golden light. Goya’s use of chiaroscuro makes the scene intimate and full of horror, the beholder, aligned with the spilling, bloody corpses, cowering in the shadows. In Manet’s “Execution of Maximilian,” official violence is rendered even more everyday. While Maximilian is caught at the moment the slugs blast into his body, guns smoking, the focus of the painting is on a figure who seems to be struggling with a jammed rifle. Similarly, Golub’s immense “Vietnam II” (1973) depicts a scene in which American soldiers are on the verge of slaughtering Vietnamese civilians. The canvas is divided between the attacking soldiers and the civilians, a spacious gulf of bare canvas between them. The soldiers’ features are not flayed, like the figures in the “Gigantomachy” paintings. Instead, they are tight, scarred, smudged, and burned, and they move across the canvas in a way that is both aggressive and frightened, throttled by adrenaline and testosterone. The panicking civilians descend off the town canvas, essentially stampeding the viewer.