Leon Golub’s Jewish Con­science

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Yev­geniya Traps Yev­geniya Traps is a con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor at the For­ward.

IN HIS OBIT­U­ARY in the Au­gust 12, 2004, is­sue of The New York Times, Leon Golub is de­scribed as “an Amer­i­can painter of ex­pres­sion­is­tic, heroic-scale fig­ures that re­flect dire mod­ern po­lit­i­cal con­di­tions.” His new ex­hi­bi­tion at the Met Breuer, “Leon Golub: Raw Nerve” sug­gests the artist’s vi­sion — vi­o­lent, cruel, red in tooth and claw, pre­sciently damn­ing of toxic mas­culin­ity. The ex­hi­bi­tion’s ti­tle is taken from a line in a 1986 es­say by Golub: “Artists man­age ex­tra­or­di­nary balanc­ing acts, not merely of sur­vival or brinkman­ship but of anal­y­sis and raw nerve.” The new show is cen­tered on the stun­ning, un­set­tling, mas­sive 1966 paint­ing “Gi­gan­tomachy II,” and rein­tro­duces us to a Jewish painter who re­sisted the po­lit­i­cal and aes­thetic ten­den­cies of his own mo­ment (and so never be­came a house­hol d name) and who (de­spite, or more likely be­cause of, this) pro­duced an eerily re­flec­tive, in­sight­ful body of work: in­sis­tently eth­i­cal and vis­ually and emo­tion­ally com­pelling.

In an ex­pres­sion­ist blend of blues, grays and muddy, bloody reds, “Gi­gan­tomachy II” de­picts the strug­gle be­tween the gods and the gi­ants of Greek myth. The vi­o­lence within is re­pro­duced by the vi­o­lence with­out; the gashes and slashes of the paint’s ap­pli­ca­tion on un­treated, un­stretched linen echo­ing the pri­mal bat­tle at hand; the silent wrestling matches of tow­er­ing men, stripped of clothes, adorned by only pride and en­mity. (Golub typ­i­cally achieved his de­sired ef­fect by scrap­ing away lay­ers of ap­plied paint, oc­ca­sion­ally with a meat cleaver.) There is a sense here that this clash is at once con­se­quen­tial and ut­terly with­out mean­ing, driven by an in­ter­nal logic that has long ceased to make sense to its par­tic­i­pants and to their au­di­ence. As is also true of much of Golub’s work, the paint­ing car­ries an im­pli­ca­tion of some se­cret knowl­edge — sup­pressed, buried, nearly but not quite con­quered. It’s a truth that threat­ens to erupt, to de­stroy; it car­ries no com­fort. Golub’s art is meant to jolt. It punches you right in the face, then right in the gut. These are not his­tory paint­ings, though they some­times do de­pict his­tor­i­cal fig­ures. These are night­mares that never stop — have never stopped — be­ing the present.

Golub re­ceived a Mas­ter of Fine Arts from the School of the Art In­sti­tute of Chicago. But there is some­thing in­sis­tently un­tu­tored about his art; the flat­ness of his col­ors; the de­lib­er­ate crude­ness of his fig­u­ra­tions, which ren­der fig­ures rec­og­niz­able yet de­formed. (Is this what the past, which is of course not even past, does to us?)

Golub’s work has a cer­tain child­like qual­ity, even if one would hope a child would be spared such vi­sions. Still, there is an in­no­cence — a pu­rity — in his work, for in it the artist in­sists on look­ing and on see­ing, in­sists on a moral rigor and clar­ity. “Gi­gan­tomachy II” was made two years af­ter Golub be­came a mem­ber of the Artists and Writ­ers Protest Group and be­gan ac­tively cam­paign­ing against Amer­i­can in­volve­ment in Viet­nam, and “Raw Nerve” in­cludes the 1970 paint­ing “Viet­namese

These are night­mares that have never stopped be­ing the present.

Head,” which shows a dis­em­bod­ied head evoca­tive of un­speak­able tor­ture.

But Golub’s in­dict­ment of man’s cru­elty to man goes fur­ther; he de­voted his at­ten­tion to vic­tims of po­lit­i­cal and so­cioe­co­nomic vi­o­lence, whether ex­plicit or im­plicit, as in the qui­etly dev­as­tat­ing 1986 paint­ing “Two Black Women and a White Man.” At once spe­cific and broad, Golub’s work serves as a vis­ual re­minder that in­jus­tice any­where is in­jus­tice ev­ery­where. Golub’s fig­u­ra­tive work po­si­tioned him at odds with pre­vail­ing artis­tic move­ments. Look­ing at the paint­ings now, it’s hard not to see them as protests lodged against aes­thetic norms, against cru­elty, against ba­nal and ma­jor catas­tro­phes.

Acutely aware — as how could any­one ac­tively ob­serv­ing the 20th cen­tury not be? — of the vi­o­lent sleights of hand that (still) con­tinue to take power from the pow­er­less, of the clashes among the pow­er­ful, the artist doc­u­mented the car­nage. The re­sults are raw, un­fil­tered; they took nerve.

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