Leon Golub’s “Horsing Around IV” (1983), left, and “White Squad VIII” (1985), right (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

What if violence is an elemental force, like wind or rain, or the erosion of coastlines and the all over gravitational suck towards the furious core of the world? This is the counsel given by Cormac McCarthy, who in his novel No Country for Old Men describes savage brutality enacted on human bodies by other human bodies in this way. We cannot escape violence, he suggests. We cannot overcome it or circumvent it or negotiate with it. We only might mitigate its blistering savagery.

Leon Golub, “Horsing Around IV” (1983) oil on canvas (all photos by the author)

The Leon Golub: Raw Nerve exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Met Breuer building, imparts that sense of trouble: mostly he paints bodies in contest, in combat, arrayed against other bodies to break them, strike them down. Looking at “Gigantomachy II” (1966) (which was according to the wall text, gifted to the museum and thus created the opportunity for this selected retrospective) I can hear sirens. Listen to it. You should hear them too. In this work of what looks like and almost mural-sized skein of naked men, constructed out of hashed markings of primarily white, black, and red colors there is the peal and din of emergency. They grasp at each other, lunge and swing. Someone is being injured and they may bleed out. This sense is conveyed through Golub’s technique of layering paint, laying it down, stripping it away and layering it again to make the paint read like skin that’s been stripped off and re-grafted, scarred and ungainly, ravaged and repulsive. This is a country in which old men won’t survive and many young men and women won’t either.

Leon Golub, “Gigantomachy II” (1966) acrylic on linen (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

Yet the violence is generally not seen in a rearview mirror. Rather, it is mostly about to happen. In “White Squad VIII” (1985) a man is being tortured but the tool is still in the aggressor’s hand — a deft use of foreshadowing because most of us know how the story goes. But then Golub gets to the nitty-gritty in “Horsing Around IV” (1983). Here the action of the mercenary/soldier/cop touching the breast of a woman enclosed with him in the composition’s scene might read as playful, but still teeters on the line of becoming coercion, the bottle in his other hand might be a weapon.

Leon Golub, “White Squad VIII” (1985) acrylic on linen

This work makes me want to draw a contrast between figuration and abstraction — because I get a sense of urgency from Golub. Any of his paintings — and all of them — impart a sense of danger. Something is at risk. It’s not the skin, because that’s already been peeled and replaced. Rather, it’s the sense of relentless conflict, even when it’s inherent, as in his “Colossal Torso III,” (1960) in which the struggle is within the body, breaking open at the surface, curuscating and wild. I don’t think the body is at risk, because we clearly don’t respect bodily autonomy.  What Golub is suggesting is that we may not survive as a species. We may not know how to. Is there any other work of abstraction that feels as urgent? I don’t think I have encountered any.

Leon Golub, “Colossal Torso III” (1960) lacquer on canvas

I have learned through studying for a literature degree that there are essentially three kinds of conflict story: human versus human, human versus nature and human versus himself. In Golub I find all three: the treachery, the fear, and the agony and the pain of constantly being ready for the fight, hearing the ambulance wail from several streets away and knowing it may be coming for me.

Leon Golub: Raw Nerve continues at the Met Breuer (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) until May 27.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...