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Leon Golub

By Robert Storr

After life’s struggle, and especially after protracted illness, it is customary to wish that the person who has died might rest in peace. Yet as much as one may share this common sentiment after a friend’s death, one never wishes it for an artist much less for his or her art. Words and pictures, gestures and forms that have passed, subtly or forcefully, from one imagination to another should never come to rest. And given that their maker is inextricably bound up in things made, then he or she too will remain an unsettled and unsettling presence in our collective consciousness, which, so far as we can possibly know, is the only dimension in which life continues after death.

This restlessness is inescapable if the artist has made indiscriminate death and intimate brutality the primary subject of his art. That violence, in all its registers, from the systematic to the spontaneous, the cynical to the passionate, is at the very core of modern existence, and, overtly or covertly, everywhere at the center of public policy is constantly brought home to us. We need only read the papers or turn on the news. And, depending on how fortunate or unfortunate we are in where we live, it is there when we open our door to the street, or when, in the dark of night, a door is broken down and terror enters. At no time in recent memory has the world been less at peace and more threatened by perpetual war and everything that wars do to corrupt civil society and reduce human nature to its basest instincts and most craven denials.

Looking out over the blasted horizon left by fascism’s near annihilation of European culture, Theodor Adorno famously said that after Auschwitz there could be no more lyric poetry. Yet, while one might share his sense of desolation, he was wrong, as the Holocaust survivor Paul Celan demonstrated when he wrote his “Death Fugue,” a lyric poem about the extermination camps from which he himself barely escaped. Indeed, to many in the generation that came to age during and just after the Second World War, the future of art seemed to hinge on the ability to depict the horrors through which civilization had just passed as well as those which awaited it either in the Third World War—nuclear and definitive—or in harrowing big power brinkmanship and interminable smaller wars fought without restraint.

An unblinking witness to a world seemingly bent on self-destruction, for over fifty years Leon Golub was a leading light among those of his contemporaries who sought to give critical substance and expressive form to the feelings of dread, anger, fascination, and complicity that the disasters of the Twentieth Century inspired in them. Although best known for the work made in the mid-1970s on, Golub’s artistic origins stretch back to the 1930s when he took art classes sponsored by the WPA and first saw Picasso’s “Guernica” at the Arts Club of Chicago. An undergraduate degree in Art History at the University of Chicago made him one of the small but growing number of practicing artists with a solid academic grounding in their discipline. It also prepared him for a second career as a pugnacious debunker of conventional art world wisdom that in the name of dubious formal and historical teleologies disparaged work, such as his, that attempted to address social and political realities. To put Golub’s maverick stance in perspective, it may be useful to mention that although they differed on basic aesthetic matters, Ad Reinhardt, his American colleague at the Iris Clert Gallery in Paris in the early 1960s, also trained as an art historian, was also unapologetically a man of the Left, and also penned stinging polemics directed against the pieties of “mainstream” modernism in mid-century America.

Military service in England, Belgium, and France in World War II was followed for Golub by a graduate degree in painting from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1950. After that came a decade spent mostly in the Windy City during which Golub created his first publicly acknowledged body of work—dense pictographic or iconic images of essentialized human figures informed by archaic sculpture, ethnographical art found at Chicago’s Field Museum, and by the work and ideas of Jean Dubuffet, whose aggressively material paintings were exhibited at the Arts Club, and whose lecture on “art brut” impressed many artists in the Midwest at that time. They included Nancy Spero, who married Golub in 1952, initiating one of the most sustained, complex, and fertile artistic dialogues in this country’s recent history.

In 1959, along with Pollock, de Kooning, Bacon, and Giacometti, Golub counted among the featured painters in Peter Selz’s exhibition New Images of Man at the Museum of Modern Art. It was a dramatic leap into the spotlight for an “out-of-towner,” and a bruising one. Defenders of Abstract Expressionism and of the New York School more broadly defined scorned Golub’s gritty humanism as rhetorical and retrograde. William Rubin, who eventually replaced Selz at the Modern, was one of the chief accusers, and the degree of antipathy that Golub’s dissenting style provoked was so intense that twenty years later when I proposed a new work of Golub’s for acquisition at MoMA, Rubin emerged from retirement to denounce him again. Rubin was not there five years later when, with the help of a generous patron, I finally succeeded in breaking the embargo.

Golub’s rejection by New York tastemakers corresponded with the rise of other challenges to formalist abstraction, notably Pop and Minimalism, but these tendencies were equally inhospitable to him, and so he and Spero, along with their three sons, moved to Paris where they flourished for the next five years. When Golub returned to the United States to finally settle in New York, the social upheavals of the era were already at fever pitch, and the world outside his studio seemed to mirror the strife that he had long been portraying in archetypal terms in his outsized pictures.

Their mural scale doubtless owed much to his W.P.A. education and to “Guernica,” but from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s, Golub fundamentally recast the heroic idioms of the 1930s and dramatically altered the mise-en-scène of the titanic battles he staged in paint—battles among seared, flayed, and otherwise mutilated warriors that he called “Gigantomachies.” He had began to hang his canvases loosely rather than stretched. Then he took to editing them with scissors, cutting large jagged slices from the fabric of the rectangle. Together, these reformattings subverted the conventions of architectonic painting and introduced an unexpected and disconcerting quality of vulnerability, even fragility, at odds with the work’s muscular iconography and gestural manner, as if Western history painting itself had been wounded by the violence described, thereby throwing the tradition into a state of autodeconstruction. That Golub, the intellectually curious artist, was an avid reader of post-modernist theory lends this interpretation weight and in part explains why a man declared arrière-garde by aging modernists should by the 1980s have become a point of reference and a permission-giver for Neo-Expressionist artists half his age.

These formal innovations bear stressing since Golub’s formal concerns are often ignored by fans as well as foes of his work’s fierce content, yet still more striking were the changes in his imagery. Starting in 1972, Golub turned to news photography as his primary source, though classical sculpture would continue to provide the armature for many of his figures. The first instances of this are found in a cycle of paintings dealing with the “pacification” programs of the Vietnam War. Incidentally, cut away sections from these panoramas of fire fights and bombings that were clotted with red pigment constitute his only abstractions, though their collaged-together fragments resembled burnt skin and were anthropomorphized by the overall designation “napalm paintings.”

A few years later, Golub had devoted himself to a series of uncharacteristically small portraits of men of state including Franco, Zhou Enlai, Pinochet, and John Foster Dulles. Given that Golub was frequently accused of being a “political artist” in the narrowly partisan sense of the term, it is remarkable that these pictures evenhandedly depict leaders of conservative as well as revolutionary regimes and are wholly devoid of editorial emphasis or caricature; their subject is not Right or Left, nor even right or wrong, but power.

By 1976, the transformation of Golub’s art was complete, and once again the mural-scale canvases that he made centered on mercenary soldiers and, later, on death squads: in short, surrogates of the powerful, the lower echelons of barbarity’s “professional” class, the ones who do the dirty work in such a way that those who set the policies that mandate their unconscionable acts may retain plausible deniability. In sum, Golub had turned the heroic paradigm with which he began inside out, replacing the tragically conflicted Everyman with his utterly anti-heroic, memorably specific, and unmistakably contemporary opposite number—the ordinary monster. Moreover, he used the unfurling of his canvases to optically surround and enfold the viewer in the company of these embodiments of the banality of evil so that it became impossible to guess their mission, determine the “cause” they served, or judge their atrocities without experiencing the appalling attraction of lawless violence. Bold, harsh, uncompromising in style, and unforgiving of either their subject or their viewer, these graphically unrelenting and morally complex pictures occupied Golub for most of the last twenty-five years of his life. While Golub experimented with digital imaging and produced marvelously angry, ironic, and often erotic works on the theme of old age, the “Mercenaries,” “White Squads,” and related paintings are the ones on which his reputation will ultimately hang.

At intervals since the Enlightenment began, we have been promised an “end to history” signifying that a just resolution of the antagonisms of history has been made. Most recently, the collapse of Communism prompted a new crop of pundits to hail the advent of a peaceful, globally democratic age. However, we have seen just how peaceful and how democratic the 21st Century has been so far. Hence, it is reasonable to conclude that until history ends, there will be history painting. Furthermore, until power acts nobly, we will need a history painting that tells the basic truths about the abuse of power. Leon Golub tackled these problems with a keen intelligence and all the capacities of an artist fully committed not only to his vision of the world, but to his medium. It is a shame to say that with the ravages of September 11th, the crimes of Abu Ghraib, and civil war everywhere from Afghanistan to Iraq to Indonesia to Darfur, the present calls for his talent and insight as much as any through which he lived. We could use him now, but he did his job and is lucky not to be here to bear further witness to the worst that can happen to us, and the worst that we can do or that can be done in our name.

Read by Wayne Thiebaud at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 9, 2006.

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