Try Burning this One… Asshole!

From “Leon Golub Paintings 1987-1992”

“How dreadful knowledge of the truth can be when there’s no help in truth!”
– Tiresias in Sophocles’ “Oediupus the King”

I. Slouching Towards Thebes

“America moved from the archaic stage to barbarism and missed the Renaissance altogether”
– Unattributed quote used by Leon Golub

He paints sphinxes. he paints rednecks. He paints violence’s victim’s and horror’s witnesses. What links Leon Golub’s subjects is that whether mythical, realistic or archetypical, each is half human, half beast. From within, divided against himself. From without, divided against his brothers.

Golub, who is seventy this year, has for his half-century as an artist demonstrated that this consistent affection/aversion – done dare call it love-hate – for golems, whether they be hovering over his holocaust-themed “The Charnel House” 1946, or the swaggering riffraff taunting, “Try Burning This One…” 1991.

Like many Chicago-born artists before and since, Leon Golub haunted the Field Museum, fascinated by the dramas inside its natural-history dioramas and the arcane relics from archaic cultures. During a career that progressively took him from Chicago to Paris to New York, the young painter, inspired by primitive images evolved into the mature artist intrigued by psychological primitivism in contemporary man.

In American art’s triumphant years of abstract expressionism, nonobjectivism and minimalism, virtually all of Golub’s contemporaries struggled with painting’s existential controversy – to represent or not to represent? For his own part, Golub struggled with the less parochial and more immediate question: how, in a world where he is diminished, can art represent man?

Since his work didn’t fit the movement of the moment, Golub toiled until he was nearly sixty in that artistic limbo of respected-but-rarely-exhibited. He was a member of a select and belatedly heralded group of artists (one that included his wife, Nancy Spero) seeking to create art that engaged issues outside the artworld. Of his failure to fit in, Golub shrugs, “Artists talk radical freedom but the artworld demands conservative loyalty.”

It wasn’t until the late ’70s and early ’80s, when abstractions’ 30-year hegemony began to wane, that a coincidence of events led to the artworld’s rediscovery of Golub. “New Image Painting” at New York’s Whitney Museum and “A new Spirit in Painting” at London’s Royal Academy both highlighted the work of representational artists. Media millionaires on both sides of the Atlantic – most visibly S.I. Newhouse and Charles Saatchi – extensively collected these figurative painters, putting their imprimatur on a movement loosely described as “neo-expressionism.” It was in 1982 that Golub enjoyed his first solo exhibition in a New York gallery, after an absence of nineteen years.

Observers promptly manipulated Golub’s work to illustrate various popular theoretical positions. Thus his canvases were deconstructed. And celebrated as embodiments of Marxist and Maoist principle. Indeed, Mao’s observation that “Power comes from the barrel of a gun” might be a plausible slogan captioning any number of Golub works. Curiously, of these paintings refreshingly free of -isms and remarkably full of schisms, few have noted Golub’s considerable power as a dramatist.

Trained both in the history of classical art at the University of Chicago and in painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Leon Golub is a tragedian. Although during the ’70s Golub would paint the gargoyle faces of Francisco Franco, Nelso Rockefeller and Frank Rizzo, unlike, say, Sophocles, today Golub isn’t so much interested in considering the tragic hero as he is in listening to the commentary and watching the fisticuffs of the hoi-polloi. Golubs’ canvases are populated with characters who from their peanut gallery razz the heroes on stage. These onlookers and occasional casualties are not so much a Greek chorus and Golub’s geek chorus.

II. Horror’s Witnesses, Passive Voices

“In a certain way the penultimate definition of realism is that record that civilization keeps of itself.”
– Leon Golub, 1969 (interview with Irving Sandler, quoted from “Golub”, Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 1984)

They are up against the wall, literally and figuratively. Collapsed, as are the “Three Selected Black Women,” 1987. Crushed as are the mourning quartet in “Threnody II” 19987. Cornered, like “Prisoners II” 1989, four captives subdued by a faceless guard’s automatic machine-gun. Cul-de-sacked, as are the two men in “The Conversation” 1990, contemporary African-Americans dwarfed by the heroic ’60s black power image on the wall behind them. Concerned, contrite and contemptuous, as are respectively the white bureaucrat, his two flunkies, and the black bystander contemplating a dead body in “The Site” 1991.

In these images, the figures are the peanut gallery responding to incidents that have taken place “offstage”. The walls behind these characters serve a double role in that they trap the figured, then shove them into the viewer’s face like actors on a thrust stage. Consider the two dramas unfolding here. Regrouping after an act of violence, the victims implicate the viewers, casting us as the “offstage” victimizers/voyeurs. Is that our mitt brandishing that automatic, resigning “Prisoners II” 1989 to their brooding silence? Golub, dramatist, sets up this first conflict between subject and viewer. And then there is a second conflict between representation and abstraction, a painterly drama being played out in many of his canvases. Starkly realistic figures in the foreground clash with background so abrasively brushed that they recall the nonobjective paintings of Franz Kline or Hans Hoffman.

On two levels, both narrative and formal, this suite of Golub paintings addresses war’s casualties. Not those who have been killed, but those who have been widowed, wounded and taken hostage. And also those painting idioms, representation and abstraction, locked into hostility and hostage-taking for as long as Golub has been a practicing artist.

Two dialogue/confrontations are taking place in “The Conversation” 1990. One between young urbane men dwarfed by a black power poster, and another between the potent representational poster behind the first man and the lyrical pink abstraction behind the second. Unlike the tensions in classical dramas, these are not resolved.

Many of Golub’s witnesses are black. Curiously, in the painter’s newest works, blacks are multifarious and whites reductive and stereotypical, reversing assumptions about racial representation in the visual arts. Since the viewer is the assumed perpetrator in these five dramas, perhaps what Golub means to elicit is white shame. This is an evolution from Golub paintings of the early ’80s depicting unrepentant white imperialism in Central America and Africa.

These witnesses don’t need voices for the viewer to hear them in their peanut gallery. Their mutely eloquent body language says volumes. Bent knees and fatigued gestures, the “Three Seated Black Woman” 1987 have had everything taken away from them but their dignity.

The black bystander in “The Site” 1991 the one with the seen-it-all, heard-it-all droll expression on his face, enjoys the show as perplexed white functionaries try to explain this inconvenient corpse to their bureaucrat/boss. The bystander’s mitts are hooked in his waistband, hidden in his pocket; why dignify this charade by shaking hands with the “suits”?

Hands have even more dramatic impact in “The Conversation” 1990. Two men confront the upraised fist of a black power salute preserved on an abandoned urban wall. Arms crossed passively, the yellow-jacketed man looks at the other, as if to ask, “Do we care about the challenge posed by activists in the past?” The second man studies the image, hands pocketed.

Is he hiding his fists?

III. Violence’s Victims, Active Voices

“When Voltaire was asked why no woman has ever written a tolerable tragedy, ‘Ah (said the Patriarch), the composition of a tragedy requires testicles’.”
– Lord Byron

“Is my work an anatomy of masculinity? It is the anatomy of a bare-bones, macho point of view which moves all the way from sexual polities to real polities. Basically, it’s about how men face off against each other.”
– Leon Golub

Golub, married for 41 years to feminist artist Nancy Spero, considers the inevitable question.

“Why do I paint guys? My joking answer is that Nancy and I divide the world between us. She has women; I have men…. My non-joking answer is that, basically, men run the show. I’m not interested in a nice image of a man and woman sitting down at a table having lunch, you know?” (Nor, for the record, is Spero, whose images certainly disprove Voltaire’s crack about the inability of women to create tragedy.)

Golub’s dramas are not, it should be pointed out, restricted to guys, not this artist who painted the haunting “Interrogation III” 1981 – of a naked woman, her eyes and mouth taped shut, roughed up by two policemen – one of the most compelling feminist images ever made by a masculinist.

Golub’s canvases of horror’s witnesses make the most dramatic and compositional sense when the viewers imagine themselves as the protagonists to whom the figures react. Significantly, as in the classical Hollywood movie in which men are active and women reactive, women are most likely to appear in Golub paintings as witnesses rather than as perpetuators. The reverse is true in his paintings of violence’s victims, a suite of works as aggressively masculine as a cockfight. Focusing on the victimizers, these are works that put the men into menace and the viewer into the position of victim.

In “Night Scene II,” “Night Scene III” and “The Prisoner”, all 1989, the skewed compositions with their testosterone brushwork make the most dramatic (kinesthetic) sense when viewers realize they are experiencing the action from the victim’s vantage point. Interestingly, while the “witnesses” are seen in the full light of day, it is by night that these two-fisted men come to prowl and to pummel.

The absence of light heightens the drama, because what is more frightening, more disorienting, than to sense that someone is being whacked but not be able to see it?

Not surprisingly, these paintings of agitation have plenty of surface agitation. Unlike the “witnesses” suite, here there is no clearly-demarcated foreground and background. These all-male face-offs transpire in a pictorial no-man’s-land: ground is visible through the almost-transparent figure that permits the painting’s surface to emerge. Golub is drawn to opposites. His “Witnesses” are protagonists. His “Victims,” antagonists. Where his “witnesses” are paintings of lucidity and passive reflection, his “victims” are canvases of ambiguity and action.

“Men run the Show,” Golub asserts in interview. Men run from violence, too. But then again, other men court it.

IV. The Boys in the Chorus

“Don’t you think the young Elvis looks like an American approximation of Praxiteles’ Hermes? The glorifications of Greek youths in the classical period aren’t so different from the glorifications of Elvis. Later, Elvis matured into a decadent Greek sculpture, all softened up.”
– Leon Golub

America’s Vietnam saga marked a startling shift in Golub’s subjects, from timeless warriors to topical adversaries. Similarly, the Desert’ Storm episode of 1991 inspired him to turn his attention away from metaphorical mercenaries and toward those realistic American patriots populating his newest paintings, “Try Burning This One…” and “These Colors…”, both 1991.

Glorification or caricature? Redneck or true-blue? There’s an ambiguousness to these guys who stand nearly 1,0-feet tall, guys who swagger while standing still.

They are anti-heroes, heroically scaled, American ambassadors whose undiplomatic messages are worn like billboards on extra-large tee-shirts that barely accommodate bull necks. They are the boys in the geek chorus, antagonists taunting those center stage, those who might not agree with the geeks’ reductive interpretation of America: My Country, Right or Else! In these two paintings, one citizen masturbatorily fiddles with his waistband, another grabs at his crotch. The third patriot, the one wearing the flag on his tee, snickers at the crotch-grabber while surreptitiously shoving his own hands deeper into his pockets.

Priapism equals patriotism in these portraits. Next to the fellow whose eagle-inscribed shirt reads, “These Colors Never Run,” Golub smears a phallus-like arrow, further emphasizing the connection between sexual and military exploits. There is also a possible visual punning here: these penis-obsessed men are, in the vernacular, pricks.

These paintings furthermore represent Golub’s relatively recent foray into iconographic motifs. One character chooses to symbolize himself with the eagle, which, apart from being a predator and the insignia of U.S. army colonels and naval captains, was also the military standard of the Roman Empire. All these resonances are summoned by this carnivorous great-beaked bird that, in Golub’s intricate brushwork, practically looks tattooed on the man’s flesh. (In his most recent painting “Born Free”, April 1992, it is tattooed on the man’s chest!)

In the two-figure painting, the crotch-grabber is represented by the skull pendant he wears, a macabre reference duplicated in the man’s skull-like visage, perhaps suggesting a numskull sensibility? Next to him, a patriot literally and figuratively wraps himself in the U.S. flag.

Golub crystallizes the debate about artistic freedom and American freedom in the image of the guy whose American flag-emblazoned tee-shirt reads, “Try Burning This One… ASSHOLE!” Although Golub has for most of his career been more interested with real-world than artworld issues, this painting is where the two overlap.

In this country where the Supreme Court defends flag-burning as a form of “protected speech” but the National Endowment for the Arts considers prohibiting funding of any art that in any way denigrates the stars-and-stripes, this individual embodies the American split personality about the subject. He is the man to whom freedom of expression means the ability to suppress others’ freedom of expression. He is the neo-fascist who sees himself as a democrat, the monster who fails to recognize himself as such.

V. Riddle of the Sphinx

“The riddling sphinx induced us to neglect mysterious crimes and rather seek solution of troubles at our feet.”
– Creon in Sophocles’ “Oediupus the King”

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”
– F.W. Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil”

Sphinxes are multicultural, so to speak, rep¬? resented in ancient Egyptian, Phoenician and Greek art. Half-human, half-beast, the sphinx was to the Greeks (who gave it the lip-curling name) a monstrous agent of the gods. But whether a predatory female who devours men, as the sphinx is in Greek literature, or heroic, as in Egyptian sculpture, the sphinx in all his/her incarnations represents a misfit of human and monster. A primitive image expressing man’s primitive, stalemated self.

“Sphinxes are hybrids,” Golub reflects, “they represent a split between the rational and irrational.”

During the ’50s Golub created a suite of (predominantly male and tormented) sphinxes. In the ’70s, he illustrated a female winged sphinx, sexually poised, her flesh genitalia-pink. A 1988 series including one Wounded Sphinx, the others Red, Yellow and Blue, respectively represent a primal vulnerability in an array of primary colors. Because the visages in Wounded Sphinx and Blue Sphinx resemble Golub’s dramatic bald head, it’s tempting to read them as self-portraits.

“Since the sphinx is such a classical figure, it’s nice to give it a contemporary wound,” Golub says of the “Wounded Sphinx” 1988, which has three bullet holes. As if this wailing creature weren’t already divided between its humanity and beastliness, Golub emphasizes this by giving it two faces, both frozen into a slackjawed roarer. The emotional colors, that genitalia pink against a killing floor of blood red, links the carnage.

A similar hyperemotional red is used in “Red Sphinx” 1988, a work with jigsaw-like elements – both a literal and figurative deconstruction of the creature. There are significant component pieces missing from its midsection – most notably its genitalia and its guts. It is a silhouette, literally a figure without ground. As has been noted, this might represent an archetypal split out of which a cohesive self may be born. In view of Golub as a dramatist, it represents the ultimate postmodernist assault on the classic form.

In “Yellow Sphinx” 1988, the creature is firmly situated against a dramatic cobalt and goldenrod horizon, standing on two feet, his tail poised for fight. After disintegration, it has reintegrated. Finally, the “Blue Sphinx” 1988, with its one paw upraised, shows the creature wading, three-footed, on a lapis-colored horizon, perhaps contemplating both past and future.

In view of the riddle of the Sphinx, an obvious interpretation is that Golub has painted himself/man the monster at various stages of life: learning to crawl, standing on two feet, aggressive, enigmatic, deconstructed. In these works he reconstructs his own answer to the riddle.

“What walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?” asked the Sphinx of travellers to Thebes, destroying all who failed to answer. When Oedipus pointed out that the baby crawls on all fours, the man stands on two legs and the aged person walks with a staff, the Sphinx destroyed herself.

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, Greek poet George Seferis noted, “When, on the road to Thebes, Oedipus met the Sphinx, who asked him her riddle, his answer was: Man. This simple word destroyed the monster. We have so many monsters to destroy. Let’s think of Oedipus’ answer.” In his troubling works, Leon Golub asserts that man is both the riddle and its answer.

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