PRINT Summer 1968

A Note on Golub

SPEAKING BACKWARDS, THE CENTRAL commitment of the artist may be said to be a rejection of current esthetic idiom. None has more diligently forsworn all that is most topical than Leon Golub. His career, which can be viewed in considerable perspective—I, for one, have been aware of his work for some eighteen years now—is marked by this recalcitrance to enter the mainstream. Feature the paradox: he contributes to it without entering it. In fact, his vanguard position is determined almost by virtue of this refusal. Not that Golub’s older paintings are no longer unjudgable by “approved” esthetic standards. One of the surprising features of the older work is that all the once flayed and burned flesh is now (while it was not then) liable to be seen as constantly altered surface. What this means is that Golub’s earlier brackish coruscations are now perceivable as broad and messy big shapes of equal importance. In short they may now be spoken of in terms of “fields”—though that was not what the artist had in mind originally—nor does one see this immediately as an apposite possibility.

Although the passage of a decade and the continuing development of visual experiences and critical vocabulary permit the extraction of concessions even from Golub’s struggling cripples, the stumbling block remains: Golub’s antique figuration. It falls beyond the pale. There are several ways to bring Golub into the present scheme—to my view, all wrong or, at least, specious. The easiest is in terms of his gigantism. The gargantuan (to give gigantism the anthropomorphic and grotesque slant central to Golub’s humanism) may be viewed as part of a superb mid-century malaise which has attacked both figurative and non-figurative painters (the models, of course, are the enshrined names of Abstract Expressionism). Again it is not merely a question of representationalism but of quality which distinguishes Golub from this stream. Alex Katz, for example, also paints big pictures of “real” things, which for all their réclame seem to be, Czerny exercises in Warholiana via the suppression of half-tones (read Manet).

Other critics have sought to solve the riddle in terms of writer’s workshop legerdemain. For example, the Chicago-based critic, Franz Schulze, in assessing the graduate cum laude of the once-celebrated Monster School, inquired of Golub’s pictures: “Are they contemporary painting or a shaggy brand of neo-Classicism?” His answer was finely turned on an essayist’s lathe: “It is quite likely that they are the first, precisely because they are the second.” (Chicago Letter, Art International, XI, Jan. 20, 1967, p. 45.)

It seems to me that the central problem of Golub’s painting can no longer be disclosed by the false clue of Graeco-Roman iconography. The problem is much more intrinsic to the actual act and experience of painting. The secret of Golub’s egg-walking, I believe, owes much to his naive nature—he is a good painter not by design but by inadvertence. Just because he is not fluent, as fluent as, for example, Fairfield Porter or Paul Georges, Golub tends to be a painter of fragments and passages. His best pictures and best passages are exactly those which he himself might feel he did not bring off. Conversely the weakest paintings are precisely those in which he felt he succeeded. Unlike most good painting today, the ideal model of Golub’s pictures exists in an already pre-determined state (e.g., Pergamenian sculpture, late Roman portraiture, nature, etc.). Where he succeeds too well is when his hand presents what his mind recalls. He is better when he gropes, attempts to draw and redraw, paint and repaint, the image, say of a head in three-quarter profile, than when the image falls off the brush easily. Fortunately, Golub is a primitive. Aspire as he will to fluency, it is not probable that his pictures ever will have a free or facile look.

Golub’s recent paintings fall outside topical criticism. But Golub is a Machiavellian and his stratagem will work. As long as he stays a pace ahead, the possibility of locking step with contemporary esthetics is open. As of yet there has been no constant rhythm between modernist principles and Golub’s vindication. On the basis of the testimony of the older painting I believe this will take place. Moreover, his work is organic, tangibly developing, absent of atavistic self-imitation. It is, above all, constantly aggressive.

It seems to me that the touchstone of contemporary esthetics is disciplined seeing. What this has meant, in fact, has been the ability to mount arguments favorable to much that is virtually empty—that is sustainable only in terms of topicality. My view is that Golub’s work demands the same discipline in seeing, if only in order to get through the first level responses to the heroic themes and the patent ugliness. Golub is still ahead because he remains so unintelligibly ugly that even this becomes a ploy. As Gauguin said, “The ugly may be beautiful, the pretty never.” The broad passages of the earlier painting are now concentrated into smaller areas, the drawing is more fragmented and less arbitrary, more firm, dry and realistic, more constantly in line with three-dimensional representation. The boundaries are harder, the masses less saturated, less mopped-up into those dirty fields which once softened the shapes and vitiated the compositions. At the same time, Golub’s new pictures continue to push his compositions toward officially pietistic oratory. He alone will resolve the dilemma of being rhetorical without being associative. This, for all practical purposes, is a tautological dilemma carrying him, at present, through thorny brambles of dimensional overlapping and a too-readily acceptable representation. But all of this conflict is better by far than any false honors accruing to a virtue subsisting as its own reward. The reward of Golub’s virtue is his own unique, peculiar convincibility.

Robert Pincus-Witten