Mary Ann Caws
on Leon Golub

Leon Golub, Gigantomachy II, 1966. Acrylic on linen, 9 ft. 11 1/2 in. x 24 ft. 10 1/2 in. © The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Leon Golub 1—March 6, 2018

GIGANTOMACHY II (1966)

Of course, in 1966 it would seem to require a necessary immensity to portray, in any possible way, the alliance of myth and antiquity: the battle of Greek gods and human giants against the background noise of Vietnam, so iconic and gigantic as they appear in Naples and Berlin, where I well remember gasping in front of the Pergamon frieze in the Pergamon Museum. The godly heaviness of the presentation at the great altar almost knocked me over. At the time, to show the relevance of this male nude battle to the anti-Vietnam Artist and Writers Protest group we were all a part of, a big space and a big representation was, of course, urgent.

I felt the urgency then, and now, in 2018, again. Then, in my graduate classes, I wore a black armband and had actually taken on British citizenship in protest, swearing allegiance to the Queen on a Bible covered in cellophane, which, I assumed, did not undo the swearing. And now, after the ghastly truth of Brexit and of our present national situation here—for I remain American also—all the horrification of war and battle and the impossibility of not protesting seems again to call for the Gigantic, just as the Harrowing of Hell in various cathedrals marks the mind.

Still, as a very short observer, standing in front of this enormous expanse of scraped away and repainted layering, and its moving representation of pain and redoing and repainting as repaining, I was affected by its very largeness. The male requisition of a Big Space reminded me of Robert Motherwell’s repeated insistence that he needed a whole wall for his Reconciliation Elegy (1978), and how, right there in the right corner, as he showed me in his studio, he needed to add something. No matter how gigantic the event, someone needs to add something.

Leon Golub 2—March 15, 2018

So, I went back to the Golub, certain that the overpowering size and scraping away of the gigantic figures that welcome you so staggeringly on the initial viewing would alter—if not their aspect, then my own upon a re-seeing. No matter that the rendering of Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue” (Your Golden Hair, Margarete of 1980) had lingered with me between my viewings. Indeed, I had not been able to stomach (and that is the right word) the anguished and anguishing Artaud-inflected Vietnamese head of 1970 on a bloody spike the first time, nor the relevance to the contemporary. By the time we read again Artaud’s “they will torture you my friend,” above its bloody encircling of a body, we have seen enough (made complicit with the album Conspiracy: the Artist as Witness). As for the glowering human head against the blue-stained background of 1988: I felt observed by it now, and even, going back to the Tête de Cheval of 1963, with its recall of the Great Altar of Pergamon but also of Picasso’s Guernica (1937) and Dora Maar’s all-engulfing photographs of Picasso working at it. Retracing my steps, I couldn’t bear the black leather “witch’s bridle” of The Brank (1984) with its donkey ears—sending me back to that excruciating 1944 Salvador Dali novel called Hidden Faces with its ghastly witnessing of an epoch. Standing in front of All Bets are Off (1995) we continue to witness an unknowing future and a present where witnessing is too much.

Leon Golub, All Bets are Off, 1994. Acrylic on linen, 89 5/8 in. × 8 ft. 3 3/8 in. (227.6 × 252.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Intended Gift of Jon Bird, 2017
© The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Contributor

Mary Ann Caws

MARY ANN CAWS is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in twentieth-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.

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