Leon Golub was a great American artist. End of story. That’s what popped into my head the moment the elevator doors at the Met Breuer slid open to reveal “Gigantomachy II” (1966), his enormous unstretched canvas crammed with nude men pummeling each other into pulp.
“Gigantomachy II” — a recent gift to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts, with the support of the artists’ sons — sets the stage for Leon Golub: Raw Nerve, a “selective survey” (as the introductory text puts it) seeking to shed light on the little-known corners of the artist’s body of work.
But as the exhibition demonstrates, “great” does not mean perfect, and in fact, the imperfections in Golub’s art underscore the qualities that inform its greatness. And “American” is not a qualifier, but a testament to his distinctiveness.
Start with “Gigantomachy II”: the unvarnished power of this work, nearly 25 feet long and 10 feet high, is simply overwhelming. Seeing it firsthand is to realize just how painted-from-the-gut it is. The figures are a flurry of abstract marks streaming from a storm of emotion; the direction and opacity of the brushstrokes — in pink, blue, black, and white, with touches of red oxide, Golub’s signature color — merge into arms, legs, fingers, eyes, noses, and teeth. The combatants’ glistening muscles seem less bruised than flayed.
If anything, Golub’s surfaces are worked. His preferred method, until illness in his last years forced him to adopt a more straightforward handling of the brush, was to apply his medium — lacquer in his early work and acrylic thereafter — and then scrape it off, leaving stains and scabs over which he would reapply and re-scrape successive layers of paint. His late canvases are thinly and dryly painted, maculated by streaks and smudges.
In other words, Golub was never one to luxuriate in paint, the effect of which would undercut the violence and inhumanity he relentlessly depicted. His ascetic application, to my mind, also suggests an American pragmatism at work, with its innate distrust of the sensual for its own sake. Golub’s reduction of his medium to films of pigment trapped in the tooth of the canvas is so pervasive that, in “Dead Bird II” from 1955, in oil and lacquer on board, the curdled knobs of paint poking off the surface come as a shock.
“Dead Bird II” hangs in a gallery with other early works, including a pair of undated etchings of heads that display the same kind of distressed surface Golub would employ throughout his career. The room also features the immensely powerful “Colossal Torso III” (1960) in lacquer on canvas, based on a Roman sculptural fragment, and the horrific “Tête de Cheval II” (1963), an acrylic painting derived from the Hellenistic Gigantomachy frieze of the Altar of Zeus at Pergamon. There is no way that a reproduction of these works could convey their compacted materiality.
“Dead Bird II,” “Colossal Torso III,” and “Tête de Cheval II” are emblematic of Golub’s mindset on politics and art, though none are specifically political, in that they cast the West’s Greco-Roman heritage not as a reflection of reason and order, as painters from Raphael and Poussin to the Pre-Raphaelites and Picasso have done, but as a manifestation of its latent savagery. (“Dead Bird II” looks less like a dead bird than the mangled corpse of a gladiator.)
These early pieces prefigure the exquisite tension that will work its way to the surface of Golub’s art in his White Squad paintings of the 1980s, namely the beauty of classicism — with its associations to the Enlightenment in general and the founding of the United States in particular (see Jean-Antoine Houdon’s marble statue of George Washington) — at the service of barbaric acts.
Golub’s equation of the Roman and American Empires begins with his use of red oxide, a rusty maroon that provided the ground for Imperial Roman frescoes. In his Gigantomachy paintings, it represents bruises and blood; in the works the artist made in protest of the Vietnam War, it represents bruises, blood, and flesh blistered and charred by napalm.
In the White Squad series, he uses red oxide the way the Romans did, as a backdrop, with brilliantly colored figures confronting the viewer as they abuse another abject, objectified victim. There is only one painting from this series in the show, “White Squad VIII” (1985), but it’s a stunner, unusual in its near-monochrome of red oxide figures and columned background, with the exception of the floor, which is defined by black paint on raw canvas.
A mercenary wielding a rifle swings back his foot to land a kick on a bare-chested man sprawling on the floorboards. The victim’s plight is underscored by the painting’s formal inventions: horizontal brushstrokes flatten his lower body like a steam roller, while diagonal lines to his left and right cross the floor in reverse perspective, isolating his form and squeezing the space he occupies like a vice. His tormentor, rendered in translucent strokes of red-on-red, becomes a phantasmal presence whose only reality is the kick.
Offering a single painting from the White Squad series is the exhibition’s one serious misstep. It is impossible to comprehend Golub’s breadth without an understanding of these epic works and the related Mercenaries and Interrogation paintings. Last year I had the opportunity to see four pictures from these series, along with two from the same decade, “Threnody I” (1986) and “Wounded Sphinx” (1988), as part of the exhibition Creature at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles. All six paintings, each on the order of ten feet across, were hanging in a single room, and their cumulative impact was unforgettable.
As I mentioned above, Raw Nerve peers into the little-seen corners of Golub’s oeuvre, including two art-brut oil-and-lacquer portraits from a series inspired by the colossal marble statues of Emperor Constantine, one of Abraham Lincoln and another of an unnamed philosopher, both from 1957. There are also a number of works depicting African Americans and black South Africans, one of which, “Two Black Women and a White Man” (1986), is among his most vividly colored and incisively rendered images. And there are his tiny but eye-popping late-in-life oil transfer drawings exploring the themes of Eros and Thanatos.
Still, the inclusion of only three major paintings from the 1980s (“White Squad VIII” and “Two Black Women and a White Man,” along with “Horsing Around IV,” 1983, a portrayal of a mercenary in his leisure time grabbing the breast of a seated woman) — and only one, “White Squad VIII,” depicting a scene of violence — means that a significant stage of the artist’s work has been skipped over.
The thorny verisimilitude of “Two Black Women and a White Man” is also distinctly American — a brass-tacks description of the human body’s swells, ruts, bumps, and hollows that flows from Social Realism, American Regionalism, and the latter-day traditions of funky, Guston-esque caricature. Golub’s incisive exploration of form, coupled with his psychological acuity, allows his classicism to address a theme like racial tension in the cold light of day, without tripping up on nostalgia or didacticism.
In a review of the group exhibition Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s at the Whitney Museum of American Art (January 27 – May 14, 2017), published a week after the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, I wrote the following about Golub’s “White Squad I” (1982), one of the highlights of the show:
Golub has cast his gun-toting, khaki-clad thugs as the dominant characters in the scene, leaving their victims virtually anonymous, and all but forcing the viewer to identify with the perpetrators. This standpoint operates collectively and individually, spotlighting the culpability of a free and prosperous electorate whose tax dollars are funneled to support atrocities south of the border, as well as the genetic propensity of the human species to abandon mercy and reason for animalistic, tribal instincts. In Golub’s cool-eyed worldview, evil prevails; there is no uplift beyond the painting’s mesmerizing formal strengths. The only vulnerability of power is the extent of its overreach.
Golub, hand in hand with his wife Nancy Spero, who is overdue for a major retrospective of her highly original and inflammatory work, equated the making of art with the exposure of the virulent ecosystem of greed and violence at the root of hegemonic societies. Like Shakespeare’s history plays, his paintings are repositories of imagination and interrogation that supersede the murk of reality to embody a wider truth. We may not remember who General Ernesto Geisel was, but if we look at the four paintings Golub made of him in 1977 as part of his Political Portraits series, Geisel‘s arrogance, corruption, and malevolence are on full display.
In a 1986 commencement address at Rutgers University, where he was a longtime teacher, Golub stated: “Artists manage extraordinary balancing acts, not merely of survival or brinkmanship, but of analysis and raw nerve.” The phrase “analysis and raw nerve” — the source of the exhibition’s subtitle — perfectly summarizes Golub’s creative ethos, characterized by a piercing intellect and an audacious spirit. At all times, he leads with passion. If he falls short, it is in those works, fueled by the urgency of his image-making, that evince signs of haste: the unconvincing brush marks depicting the pike that pierces the neck of the decapitated “Vietnamese Head” (1970), or the undercooked portrait of General Geisel, in which the Brazilian dictator’s suit jacket is dashed off with a few sketchy lines that fail to excite the figure/ground relationship — especially when compared with its solidly painted companion piece, in which a smirking Geisel thrusts his chin forward in a gesture we recognize all too well from our own crypto-autocrat.
Golub’s analysis of the cycles of history propelled him on a headlong rush through a chain of modern horrors — from the Vietnam conflict to the proxy wars in Central America, from the legacy of slavery in the US to the injustices of apartheid in South Africa — encapsulated in the title of another exhibition, Leon Golub: While the Crime Is Blazing, which was set to open at Cooper Union in New York City on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
The opening was canceled. But Golub lived long enough (he died in 2004 at the age of 82) to witness George W. Bush and Dick Cheney manipulate the emotions unleashed by 9/11 to gin up support for an imperial war on Iraq — a crime whose aftershocks continue to rattle the world stage to this day. Maybe it’s weirdly appropriate that this retrospective feels incomplete; as the cycles of history spin out of control, threatening the foundations of constitutional democracy itself, Golub is no longer around to monumentalize them.
Leon Golub: Raw Nerve continues at The Met Breuer (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 27.