Personal and Political

New York

Left: Nancy Spero. Middle: Still from Leon Golub: To the Dogs. Right: Charlie Ahearn and Jane Dickson.

Something unexpected happened in the closing minutes of the memorial for Leon Golub in the Great Hall at Cooper Union last Sunday: Robert Storr, speaking rapidly and with increasing urgency, turned a pointedly secular tribute into an almost evangelical call for art-world solidarity with Golub's viscerally political vision, rousing the standing-room-only gathering to thunderous, cheering applause.

Golub died last August, at eighty-two. Like his wife of fifty-three years, Nancy Spero, he stuck to his Old Leftie guns throughout his life, expressing his rage against one state machine after another in paintings that privileged ethics over aesthetics but made powerful visual statements as well.

“It was sometimes frustrating living with such a brilliant guy,” the birdlike Spero said, to appreciative laughter led by her sons Stephen, Philip and Paul Golub. There had been some uncertainty as to whether Spero would appear, as she has been quite frail, but her voice never wavered and she cracked wise as ever. “Leon said he would make a pact with the devil if it meant he could come back and see how the world had changed,” she continued, with a slight turn of the head and a smile wry enough to indicate that it couldn't possibly, not without him.

Hans Haacke was quick to note, at Spero's request, that there was a benefit auction for Steve Kurtz then taking place across town at Paula Cooper. Kurtz is the Critical Art Ensemble member whom the FBI charged with bioterrorism last year, confiscating work that was to go on view at Mass MoCA. When that charge didn't stick, the government indicted him for mail and wire fraud. “Leon would rather have been at the benefit today,” Haacke said, and encouraged others to attend later on.

Left: Kiki Smith. Middle: Ronald Feldman (left), Nancy Spero (middle) and Lesley Dill (right). Right: Hans-Ulrich Obrist.

As Golub told filmmaker Charlie Ahearn, in a powerfully affecting video made just two years ago and excerpted at the memorial, it was seeing Picasso's Guernica when he was fifteen that set Golub on the path he would follow in a career that had more downs than ups. Kiki Smith said that Golub really seemed to come into his own in the 1980s, when her own generation, which she characterized as having a romantic relationship to death, discovered and responded to what she called “the reality of his violence.” Seeing Golub's art, she went on, changed her own into something more subjective. “He doesn't absolve us from complicity in wars we do not like,” she said of his painting, and you could almost hear the “Amens” around the room.

The erotic watercolors in his 2004 show at Ronald Feldman notwithstanding, Golub's angry, violent, monumentally scaled pictures of unbearable tortures and war crimes, painted on unstretched canvases that the artist had abraded and torn with a meat cleaver, confronted human cruelty in ways that were sometimes cruel themselves. More than one speaker made reference to the eerie parallels between Golub's “Interrogation” paintings of the 1980s and the sickening photographs that came out of Abu Ghraib last spring. Yet what emerged from the recollections of curators Jon Bird and Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Irish Museum of Modern Art director Declan McGonagle was Golub's unfailing sense of humor—particularly when it came to his own mortality.

As McGonagle put it, “One thing I learned from Leon is not to go quietly.” Like Barnett Newman, another outspoken letter-writer who called things as he saw them without regard to the consequences for his career, Golub was quick to do the right thing even if it meant defending Tilted Arc by Richard Serra, an artist with whom he otherwise had little sympathy. “There is a tendency not to acknowledge him as a major figure,” Storr said of Golub, telling the crowd to “advocate for Leon” and inciting all within earshot to do as Golub had done: Keep on making art, no matter what, no matter what.