I think of myself as a kind of reporter; I report on the nature of certain events. I think of art as a report on civilization at a certain time.
Leon Golub: Riot at Hauser & Wirth, in New York, presents a long overdue opportunity to see Golub’s paintings gathered together from several different bodies of work spanning a four-decade period. Showing Napalm I (1969) and Riot V (1987), Vietnam-era paintings, and several fine examples from his late Mercenaries series, this exhibition offers a chance to view Golub's rough-hewn, infinitely tactile, and large-scale works the way the artist intended: full-on, confrontational, and unmediated.
Encountering Napalm I, which fills the first gallery, T.S. Eliot comes to mind: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned./The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” Yes, of course mere anarchy is always loose in the world, but if one might select an artist of passionate intensity, that might be Golub—and if there was ever an example of a twentieth-century artist of conviction, Golub was the very definition of it. Why does this work evoke such paradox? Perhaps it is Golub’s subject matter and painterly method colliding on the canvas before us.
Leon Golub, Napalm I, 1969, Acrylic on linen, 117 1/4 x 213 in
Created between 1968 and 1969, the Napalm series represented a pivotal moment when Golub's subject matter shifted from the mythological to the political, advancing its relevance and urgency in relation to contemporary life. These paintings are the first to reference the Vietnam War and are part of what Golub himself described as an "overt political effort." In Napalm I, he depicts the sheer vulnerability of the human body. Two figures are entangled in a rust-stained landscape. As one fights to extricate himself, the other lies mortally wounded with an open, blood-encrusted chest. Golub’s treatment of this wound in paint reminds one of de Kooning's wrinkly-skin paint skeins in his Clamdigger series of the 60s; paint no longer depicted desiccated flesh, it became it. In a repetitive process that required weeks of demanding physical work, Golub dissolved his pigments, soaked the canvas in solvents, scraped away paint with a meat cleaver, and rendered surfaces as eviscerated, porous, and raw as the violence that a human body suffers in scenarios of duress and agony. Our unease is a result of seeing this process—bodies created then eroded, laid out before us. Their faces, death-mask rictuses, evoke no emotion from us; rather, our response comes from the tortured figures wrestling in front of us.
Interestingly, another artist who comes to mind when viewing these pieces is Francis Bacon, roughly Golub’s contemporary for a time. Bacon freely appropriated T.S. Eliot’s highly theatrical poetry for his own highly theatric orgies of flayed flesh. Like Bacon, Golub’s attacks on the figure were clumsy, physical, inelegant—and most of all sincere. Both drew on the Classical, conflict, and, possibly, underneath it all, an attempt to resurrect a type of religious painting, via Grünewald, which both vociferously denied.
Golub struggled through his early Classical phase, his Vietnam period, and (not in this exhibition) a series of head studies of political leaders in the ‘70s before recognition for his work finally caught up with him. From the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, Golub created his most celebrated works, with the series Mercenaries, Interrogations, White Squads, and Riots. Depicting scenes of coercion, torture, terrorism, and urban unrest, these paintings portray the aggressors as men who perhaps are not so different from ourselves. In these years Golub focused on power and its abuses, giving particular attention to American military activity in such places as Latin America. It is at this point that Golub turned his painting into a kind of reportage, distancing his process in favor of a kind of Christopher Isherwood-like objectivity:
I think of myself as a kind of reporter; I report on the nature of certain events. I think of art as a report on civilization at a certain time. It tells about the confidence of hierarchies, how hierarchy is expressed: who is included and who is not…Perhaps for the first time in history, with the exception of Goya and a few others, there is an art that does not celebrate state and church power. If I paint mercenaries, whatever else I am doing, I am not praising state power and the success of arms. I am reporting on the state of our society, how we use force, and how men act out their roles.
Leon Golub, Riot V, 1987, Acrylic on linen, 120 x 155 in
Riot V shows a gang of men in paramilitary garb, caught in mid-action—cheering, attacking, recoiling. The image retains an element of ambiguity. We become the focus of the gesticulating, leering group, and, for a moment, become either victims or complicit in the action. These works, though strong, seem mediated—mediated through the source material that Golub collected, mediated through period clothes and weapons, mediated through our own exposure to the same imagery. In some ways, through all this mediation, some of Golub’s uncanny ability to depict power dissipates. Not to say that these are lesser painterly achievements, but rather, they are to depictions of power and struggle what a drone strike is to a boots-on-the-ground soldier. Equally lethal, emotionally distant.
Leon Golub, Love in Art School III, 2004, Oil stick and ink on vellum, 10 x 8 in
The exhibition also includes a selection of monoprints that Golub began in 2000 and continued to create through the last four year of his life. Intimate in scale, these works employ the technique of oil transfer and revisit earlier themes, referencing mythology, eroticism, and violence. They call to mind the monoprints of Eric Fischl, the modern master of the medium. In some ways their lightness and humor provide a tonic for the heaviness of the paintings. The symbol of the sphinx returns in Alerted (2003). Part man and part beast, the sphinx is an ideal metaphor for the struggles of humankind seeking both gratification and civilization. A Satyr (3 Legged Satyr, 2004) and a sketch of a Centaur (The Wounded Centaur, 2004) are a sly nod to Matthew Barney; and two standing figures fucking (Love in Art School III, 2004) parodies late-period Picasso à la Tracey Emin.
Leon Golub, Fallen Warrior, 1968, Acrylic on linen, 65 1/2 x 83 1/2 in
The painting Fallen Warrior (1968) is the masterpiece of this exhibition. Its fallen, broken figure is echoed in the cut and abraded scrap of canvas it barely inhabits. Approximately life-sized, this image combines Golub's early affinity to the Classical with the news of the moment circa 1969. It is timeless, nevertheless, as we see today with ISIS torture and African atrocities. Golub, like Courbet or Delacroix or Goya, managed to create an image of man, who despite centuries of civilization, is still slouching toward Bethlehem.
(Image at top: Leon Golub, Riot, Installation view at Hauser & Wirth, New York)
The website will be permanently closed shortly, so please retrieve any content you wish to save.