What More Can You Ask of Painting? Leon Golub Did It!

Ronald Feldman Fine Arts October 16–November 15, 2008    

It’s no doubt commonplace to say that selection is an intrinsic aspect of the creative process. Artists make choices and the sum of the choices they make defines them. Someone who has chosen to be a painter, say, rather than a composer, or a poet, or, more immediately, a sculptor, must then choose how to paint and what to paint. It is at this point, if not previously, that the complexities of fashion and the marketplace, the terms of the artist’s engagement with their historical moment, the influences of predecessors and peers, ambition, aesthetic, and philosophical affinities, and probably most importantly, the artist’s notion of the value and function of art, of culture, enter the equation.

Leon Golub, “Night Scene 1” (1988). Acrylic on linen. 120 × 156 inches.Photo: Hermann Feldhaus. Art © Estate of Leon Golub/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

The work currently exhibited in Did It!, a show of paintings by Leon Golub at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, was produced relatively late in the artist’s career, dating from 1984 to 1994. To this extent, the major decisions that have come to be recognized as signatures of Golub’s work are clearly present in the fourteen paintings and drawings that constitute the show. Golub’s commitment to figuration, his intensely physical engagement with paint, his deep knowledge of classical and European painting and sculpture, and his fascination with the revelatory dimensions of violence, particularly political violence, are constellated in these works with the clarity and assurance that are the rewards of a mature and seasoned practice. Most remarkable, astounding might be a better word, are the four large scale works—“The Arrest II” (1992), “Night Scene III” (1989), “Two Black Men” (1989), and “Night Scene I” (1988)—that confront the viewer in the front or south gallery. All four of these large paintings feature heavily worked surfaces dominated by a central color—blue, blue-green, red, and yellow—from within which, or against which, groupings of men, rendered with Golub’s sketchy, but sinuous, highly charged and articulated mark loom and recede.

Unfortunately, from the perspective of the works’ presence in the collections of major U.S. museums, Golub has often been characterized as a “political” artist, which (to the adherents of “pure” modernism or those who mistake commercial acumen for artistic genius, the overwhelming majority of this moment’s curators and critics) has come to serve as a kind of stigma, carrying with it the implication that Golub’s work is somehow didactic or heavy handed. This bias confuses polemics with what is in fact an expansive, sophisticated and highly nuanced political consciousness, and a highly developed awareness of the implications of the deep inequities that are the legacy of our post-colonial age with respect to human identity, behavior, and affect. In truth, Golub is a political artist in the same way that Tolstoy is a political artist, and, like Tolstoy, he employs the poetry of violence and all its attendant motifs—alienation, hatred, resentment, indifference, rage, fear, cunning, depravity, and disgust, among others—to confront us uncomfortably with those aspects of the world we live in, and of ourselves, that have become extraneous to our privileged cultural milieu and to our consciousness of ourselves in relation to the world at large. Even in Golub’s most forthrightly political paintings, including the series he produced in the early eighties entitled Mercenaries, Riot, Interrogation, and White Squad, which seem to allude directly, by virtue of the racial configuration of the participants, to situations in so-called third world countries that might be tentatively identified by avid news readers, Golub never explicitly identifies, through name or image, the putative location of the crimes he depicts. Moreover, because Golub’s images are based on photographs that he collected from a wide range of sources, one can never be sure one is viewing a rendering of a documented event, an image composed of figures drawn from diverse sources, or (as in the painting “Gigantomachy III” (1966), where the image of a group of men in the act of kicking a prostrate figure is based on a photograph of a professional soccer game) an image transposed from a source unrelated to its subject matter. This uncertainty undermines the viewer’s ability to judge the participants of, or even definitively assess the dynamics of, the pictured scene and, by doing so, transports Golub’s enterprise from the realm of polemic to that of art. Violence is a universal language: we have all experienced it. Most likely, we have all engaged in it. And in Golub’s paintings, we are all implicated in it.

Leon Golub, “Three Black Men” (1991). Acrylic on linen. 26 1/2 × 104 inches. Photo: Hermann Feldhaus. Art © Estate of Leon Golub/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

In the four large canvases in the current show at Feldman, which I had just mentioned, the heavily worked and intensely colored surfaces distance the lurking figures even further from any overtly political context. “The Arrest II,” which depicts two uniformed men restraining and handcuffing a fallen figure, while the head of a third uniformed man, his profiled features etched in a rictus of martial intensity, juts up into the bottom foreground of the frame, is, thematically, the radical exception to this distance, but the fog of blood red paint that immerses the figures obscures, if not softens, the immediate horror of the scene. To the extent that the narrative in these paintings is muted, the dramatic, galvanic intensity of the figures, caught up in the rough mesh of pigment, is magnified. While we may not know precisely what they’re doing, Golub’s dynamic rendering lights up their physicality with the crackle of conscious intent. Afloat in the amorphous atmospheric worlds that hold them, the men, in their frozen focus, achieve the majesty of colossi. They wreak their havoc with the same unreflective impassiveness, the same transfigured grace as the tormentors in the great “Flagellation” of Caravaggio in Naples. What more can you ask of painting? Go see this show.


Jonathan Smit