I had the honor of joining Leon Golub and Nancy Spero to preview a Max Beckman show one evening in 2003. Leon needed help physically getting around at this point in his life and I was honored to lend him a shoulder to lean on. We walked around together, me at a loss for words, Leon mostly interested in following the waiter with the bacon-wrapped shrimp. As we quietly perused the paintings, Leon would throw in a sly comment about Beckmann’s narcissism. Behind me, I could hear Nancy chastising Leon in a high-pitched voice about his heart condition. This brief brush with two of my heroes has stayed with me as comic relief when thinking about the serious nature of their work.
Originally, I was going to premise this essay on the idea that the New York art world is too timid these days to revisit Golub’s paintings. To my surprise however, there is an exhibition currently on view at Hauser and Wirth entitled “Riot”. It’s odd to see Leon’s work in this uptown, squeaky clean, posh neighborhood. Nonetheless, I am excited to visit these mammoths again.
Upon entering the gallery, I find that my busy thoughts evaporate. My merely human eyes attempt to inhale these gas giants, these looming figures caught in violent, still frames. Some are unstretched on raw canvas, hung with grommets. They ripple slightly in the silent, circulating air: skins from a different time.
Golub’s paintings are mesmerizing, haunting, encrypted with a visceral reality that reflects both our fierce and flawed characters. Starting in the late 60’s, they tread close to the atrocities of war, particularly Vietnam. In various places, large chunks of canvas are violently gouged out, occasionally taking parts of the figures along with them. They are monsters and I can never quite comprehend them in their totality, can never absorb enough of them through merely looking. It’s joyously frustrating.
The first painting that immediately springs toward me is entitled ‘Napalm I,’ from the Napalm series that Golub created in 1969. It is massive, measuring 10’ tall by 18’ wide. Paint is brutally applied as if history has moved its cracked fingers across the surface of the canvas. Two male figures barely touch: one horizontal, writhing on the floor, the other kneeling with one arm stretched out, palm open. The two men’s bodies are built up from a network of painted marks that describe an anxious circuitry of exposed muscle and bone. Stains of red and grey intermittently mark the browning canvas. With a bit of imagination, you can feel Leon’s process of working on both wall and floor, rotating these hides around, scraping their painted bodies to remove the beauty in the mark and the material. Their disproportionate limbs are not easy on the eyes. They are clumsy, awkward, and heavy. An arm is disembodied, painted barely to the edge of the canvas, as if the frame has snapped it in two. This series of paintings was done right before Leon became self-conscious of a gap he felt between his painted figures and the escalating war. Soon after, he began to clothe the figures and include modern weapons to be more relevant to the times. But, looking back at his career, I find a personal fascination with the timeless quality in this series, as they speak of the dark history of Man’s violent inner brutality, both tragically and compassionately.
It’s invigorating to see such honesty, and discovery in painting. By comparison, our current art universe feels a bit deficient, obsessed with spectacle and craft. Now more than ever, violent power structures within our civil society, and around the world, continue to eat away at human rights. Since artists still purportedly care very much about these subjects, why does it seem that this artistic generation has abandoned concern for the politically, or psychologically uncomfortable? Could it be that our wings have been clipped? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that younger generations are mired in student loan debt, and that studio rents have become too expensive and too small to exercise such an expanded and controversial vision? Whatever the reason may be, the art world has grown exponentially in numbers of artists and market interest but, by comparison, our bite feels timid.