on Leon Golub
I have asserted a kind of history painting in much of my work. I think it has an American look and the figures cross the canvas in typical American stance… Perhaps my work will be more easily acceptable because it will be possible to say “that’s how it was in the twentieth century,” even while ignoring artists in the twenty-first century who may be imaging equivalent subjects because it is too close at hand. It will be possible to coat the immediacy of my paintings with an historicism which will ease the impact. But the work is so up front that it can only be partially co-opted. Dare I infer that we will be more crucial in the future in the recognition of what has occurred in our time?
-(Leon Golub in Leon Golub and Nancy Spero: War and Memory, MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, 1994, p. 48)
It is a thrill to see Leon Golub’s in-your-face paintings on the brutalist walls of the Met Breuer. During his lifetime, American painter Leon Golub received little institutional recognition—particularly from museums in the US. Other than a 2001 travelling exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum and the Albright Knox Museum (which were smaller versions of a show that originated at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin), Golub has had no major American museum retrospectives. Since his death in 2004, the only significant presentations of his work have been at the Serpentine Gallery in London (2015) and, recently, at the Fondazione Prada in Milan (2017 – 18). Leon Golub: Raw Nerve, then, is a long overdue opportunity for American museum goers to witness firsthand this critically important, under-celebrated voice of 20th century American painting.
The exhibition is a stirring and authoritative testimonial to the formidable strength and sustained relevancy of Leon Golub’s art. Viewers are initiated into the artist’s lifelong critique of masculinity, violence and the physical and psychological abuses of power as soon as they step off the elevator. They are confronted with Gigantomachy II (1966), a 24-foot long, jaw-dropping, gut-wrenching, unstretched canvas of nude warriors enacting an epic battle between giants and gods. The painting hangs loose from nails that stick through metal grommets across the top of the canvas—fitting for the work’s larger-than-life, ruthless subject matter and raw surface physicality. Its gift to the Met by “The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts with the support of the artists’ sons, Stephen, Philip, and Paul” was the catalyst for the exhibition according to the museum’s press release. Gigantomachy II, along with other recent and promised gifts of Golub works to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, largely shaped the exhibition. Vietnamese Head (1970), a stunningly grisly, severed head on a stick, given “in loving memory of the artist,” by friend, Dan Miller, is a precursor to Golub’s eighty or more political portraits from the mid-seventies. His political portraits (1974-76) of malevolent, corrupt and debased leaders comprise a searing, definitive condemnation of power and its misuses. It’s just too bad that four heads of one relatively unknown Brazilian leader are the show’s sole representation of the array of infamous rulers and tyrants in Golub’s extensive inventory.
The show is comprised of numerous drawings, prints and paintings that bring nuance and breadth to Golub’s penetrating and sometimes humorous insights into man’s depravities and vulnerabilities. There are omissions, however, that keep the exhibition from being a definitive survey of the artist’s work. The 1980s was Golub’s most celebrated period. During that decade, he executed a large number of breathtaking canvases that focused attention on death squads in Latin America and South Africa as well as covert cells of power at the peripheries and structures of civil injustice that sanction authorities to kill unarmed citizens. Horsing Around IV (1983), White Squad VII (1985), and Two Black Women and a White Man (1986), are stunning selections from that time in the show but are too few to adequately convey the significance of this commanding body of work as the dark chronicle of the age that it was. Over much of his career, Golub’s personal figurative style and focus on male posturing of power and aggression ran counter to the more idealized positioning and commodification of mainstream abstract art movements Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Conceptualism. During the 80s, however, his Mercenaries, Interrogations, Riots, and White Squads series, collectively, hit a deep cultural chord; it was one of the few time periods in which his work was actively part of the art/world dialogue and had commercial success.
Seen today, Golub’s paintings are unnerving foreshadowings of the current political landscape rife with the social injustices and racial conflicts that tolerate murders of black youth by police. Chronicles of the past, warnings for the future, Golub’s paintings unleash his rage against man’s inhumanity to man. Shortcomings aside, Leon Golub: Raw Nerve is a long-awaited presentation of the artist’s oeuvre to a new generation that can apprehend the gravity of its subject matter. Above all, the exhibition is a decisive declaration of Golub’s legacy as one of America’s most authentic and compelling history painters.
SUSAN HARRIS is co-president of the Board of the International Association of Art Critics, United States section (AICA-USA). She is an independent scholar and curator. Her most recent project is Managing Editor, Unfinished Memories: 30 Years of Exit Art, Steidl, 2016.