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Art In Conversation

LEON GOLUB with Chris Martin

Portrait of Leon Golub. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

(May 30, 2001)

Chris Martin (Rail): You are known as a painter of darkness. How do you account for your fascination with evil, or the violent side of humanity?

Leon Golub: It’s all over the place, struggles for survival, struggles for dominance. It’s a power game, not just evil itself, it’s about control, irrationality, anxiety, and so on. In a hierarchy, or some form of governing body, it’s about how to maintain control over their far-flung interests, the prevailing power, and who would have the most at stake in what’s going on. For example, during the Reagan and Bush era, the Iran Contra Affair and the Nicaragua Crisis. We are funding those countries and setting them up knowing that they couldn’t survive without us, so why are we doing it? It is not just corruption; it’s a kind of ass-backward idealism that has gotten all screwed up. What’s the purpose? They perversely claim that they kill for the good of society, the good of the future, but in the widest sense, it is done at the expense of other groups outside the hierarchy. There are consequences we are sorry about. Still we must kill more. That’s the way it goes. A struggle for dominance and who gets to be on top, who reaps the rewards. I’m trying to tell how it is. It’s Realism, who does what to whom, who gains, who loses?

Rail: Speaking of Realism, do you feel that your paintings have the possibility of changing the situation?

Golub: No. No painting is going to change anything, but what one can do is reveal some of what’s going on. You can make some comment for the record—the record of our civilization. Different artists stake out different territories.

Rail: Do you think that Abstraction is a viable art form?

Golub: Abstraction has been the basic mode of 20th century visualization. I most admire the art and architecture of the early soviet years. Abstract art, especially in recent years, tends to defer a great deal to technology, but it is obviously still totally viable.

Rail: What you have just said—that different artists stake out different territory—in your case, would the subject of your work reflect your own experience as a person, or perhaps your early upbringing?

Golub: Where does it come from? Who knows? At some point along the line, one develops points of view and one approaches them rationally, irrationally, intuitively, all at the same time, and gradually it becomes larger in intention and context and perhaps even obsessional.

Rail:  I talked to a young painter, Jennifer Skoda, at the show, and she said that what struck her about your paintings was that they are about individuals, not so much about ideologies. So, who are the people in your paintings?

Golub: You and me. You can be on one side of the other. You can be on the ground as a victim or you can be the guy holding the gun to the victim’s head. Given the circumstances, any of us could play different roles. Let’s say you’re twenty one years old. You live in Guatemala. Your family is poor. You can barely make out, but you have a cousin who has a little influence and he gets you a job as a cop. That’s a big thing. Now you have the power or authority of a uniform. Okay, you’re a traffic cop and one day you’re told to go with a bunch of your fellow officers to some building and they throw a man or woman down the stairs and kill them or drag them off. What are you doing? You didn’t commit the act, but you are right there with them. Now, if you slack behind they’re going to be suspicious, so you have to become one of them. You have to participate. So, over time, that’s how people get into things.

Rail: During the political turmoil in the ’60s, you did take action and a position against the Vietnam War. Could you talk about that specific period? How did being a participant and organizer of political protests prompt a crucial shift in your work, especially when you began the Vietnam paintings? You went from painting more generalized classical mythology to dealing with a contemporary reality.

Golub: Well, Nancy and I lived in France from 1959 – 1964, under de Gaulle. There was a huge struggle in France over how things would go. France didn’t want to give up Algeria. The pied noirs had been there for generations. To the Algerians they looked like an octopus sitting on top of them. It’s clear who was doing the lousy work and who was the elite controller. When it appeared that de Gualle was willing to grant independence, General Massu organized a coup against de Gualle, and almost pulled it off. The two foreign legion paratrooper regiments based in Algeria were supposed to lead the invasion of France, but one backed down and the coup failed. The regiment was demobilized from the French army. Most expelled legionnaire officers became the mercenary leaders in such struggles in Africa as in Rhodesia, etc.

Rail: After being in France you then came back to the U.S. in 1964?

Golub: Yes, it was during that time, in the crucial years of the Vietnam War, that I joined “Artists and Writers Protest Against The War in Vietnam.” The group was very active; all kinds of actions.

Rail: Did that involvement with anti-war protest change the direction of your work? 

Golub: A lot. It became embarrassing. I was painting guys struggling with each other; an aggressive, male kind of power, they were nude, not in uniform and fighting with their hands.

Rail: Like in Greek relief sculpture?

Golub: Exactly. They were men fighting, but now we were in Vietnam—guns and tanks. There was a huge discrepancy. Unlike abstract artists, who could protest the war and separate their art from political actions, I was the guy showing violence and aggression, but it wasn’t on target. In 1969, I painted “Napalm I” and that was okay, but the figures still took off from Hellenistic sculptures. In 1972, I painted “Vietnam I,” but the painting was still partially ambiguous as the guy in front was wearing black pants and soldiers don’t wear black pants.

Rail: But they carried M16s, right?

Golub: [Laughs.] Exactly, that’s the compromise.

Rail: But they began to wear real uniforms later. Speaking of Vietnam, the New School in New York City was always regarded as a center of anti-war activism. How do you feel about the current New School president, Senator Bob Kerry, who admitted to shooting innocent civilians in Vietnam? As someone who’s been a keen observer or war and politics, how does the whole incident strike you?

Golub: I’m mixed up about it. Obviously he felt like a scumbag. At the same time, he’s been a decent and liberal guy. He certainly looks better than a lot of them in Congress. Well, you could imagine he was young when he was first sent to Vietnam. He probably was very frightened. It was dark in the jungle. If you’re in that situation, you figure that you could get shot very easily, so your instinct is to shoot first. I’m sure they were all nervous but didn’t want to admit it among themselves—it’s not a manly thing to admit in the military.

Rail: Couldn’t Bob Kerry have been one of the guys in your painting?

Golub: Sure. When I show those mercenaries in my work, they’re not okay guys, but that’s not the point. I’m trying to show them just like you and me in different circumstances.

Rail: These are individuals, you mean.

Golub: That young painter you mentioned earlier was right. I tried to individualize their features. For example, in the “Gigantomachies,”the men, they more or less look alike. They’re generalized. In the later work, I became very insistant on showing individual characteristics.

Rail: Did the shift that took place at that time—the increase of individuality and specificity in their features, as well as uniforms, or even their body gestures—have something to do with photography?

Golub: Absolutely. It’s a specific problem. The Vietnam paintings were painted in 1972, ’73, and ’74. I called them “Assassins” originally. But the ultimate responsibility was in Washington.

Rail: But you changed that later.

Golub: Yes, to Vietnam. I read recently that, when Nixon was running for president, he informed the South Vietnamese that he’d make a better deal with them—that he had a plan in mind to stop the war—but, in fact, he prolonged it and, as a result, another twenty thousand Americans lost their lives. What kind of guy was he? And Kissinger? Kerry is a hell of a lot better than those guys. All the G.I.’s were.

Rail: How about your portrait painting?

Golub: Well, it was partially a way of lowering my expectations. In 1975 I got into a big art crisis. The 28’ long paintings weren’t working! I had to destroy several. What to do? One day I was looking at one of the Vietnam paintings and one of the soldiers looked like Gerald Ford. So I went to a photo agency and rented ten photographs of Gerald Ford for thirty dollars and I tried to carefully draw from them. I tried to make the features look convincing—you know, all of that jazz. To get to their look. The faceless look of the faces of the guys who ran the show.

Rail: You were marginalized or neglected for a long time by the New York Art World. It began in the ’60s with Pop Art, Formalist Abstraction, Minimalism, and Conceptualism—all of which dominated the art world. How did you survive all of those years?

Golub: You’re an artist, aren’t you? You just keep doing what you do, that’s all.

Rail: [Laughs.] In the opening of the review of your show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Grace Glueck wrote something like: “No one has ever accused you of making paintings that are pretty, or for that matter, of painting pretty well.” Is that true?

Golub: What a dumb remark! Come on! To be convincing you better know how to paint! One aspect to this is that I’m physically awkward. A certain aspect of awkwardness comes into my painting. I push the awkwardness to get real! What I’m trying to do is perpetuate that immediacy. My figures can look awkward, but so do people in real life or in photographs. I can imagine what some people would think of my work—monstrously out of the mainstream! Up front and in your face.

Rail: How did you feel in the ’80s, when your work was finally appreciated, especially with the emergence of the Neo-Expressionists, like Clemente, Kiefer, Schnabel, etc. How did you feel about their work?

Golub: I like Kiefer’s work a great deal but I have reservations about Schnabel and Clements.

Rail: You prefer your paintings unstretched. Is there a reason for that?

Golub: Yes, first of all, they’re too big, but that’s not the real reason. I like them hanging, like fragments, a 28- or 40-foot canvas that comes on like a fragment, like skins on a wall.

Rail: Like skins—that’s interesting. To change the subject a bit, how do you maintain your incredible partnership with your wife, the painter Nancy Spero?

Golub: We just get along. We respect each other’s work. We talk about art all the time. After all—what the hell do we talk about anyway? Nancy is because she always gives me straight opinions of my work, and I do the same.

Rail: In your work, the subject is always dominated by male figures. Rarely have we seen female presences in your painting. What’s the attraction?

Golub: [Laughs.] I paint men and Nancy paints women. I paint the guys who act out our psychoses and irrationalites.

Rail: In the second and third rooms of your show, there were some of the interrogation scenes of a woman being tortured, a hanging man. My initial reaction was almost a flinching desire to turn away from such horrific imagery. I suppose most people would rather look at something beautiful, but as I went on looking at the paintings some more, I was able to discover and appreciate a certain awkwardness in your painterly passages. It that something you’re very aware of in your painting process?

Golub: My subject matter isn’t pleasant. But take the painting process. To paint a hand holding a cigarette, it’s got to look right. If it isn’t right, somehow natural, your painting goes right out the window. There’s a real world out there! How are you going to get at it?

Rail: You’re saying that, in your work, you are trying to address the task of bringing the most difficult and unpleasant realities to our attention?

Golub: I’m making a report, a reportage, among other forms of reports about what’s going on. What the hell is going on?

Rail: What would you say to a young painter, especially a Brooklyn artist, today?

Golub: Stay skeptical. I really mean it. That goes for me, too.


Chris Martin

CHRIS MARTIN is an artist based in Brooklyn.


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