PRINT October 1974

Leon Golub: Art and Politics

As the Vietnam War wound down, the campuses and ghettos cooled; the riots after the Cambodian invasion and the killings of Kent State were the last major eruption. Quiet set in partly from sheer exhaustion and also because violence promised to bring ever diminishing returns under the Nixon Administration.1

THIS VIEW, IN TIME magazine, of the causes of dissent being swept under the rug, confirms the status quo and draws the boundaries of protest in the wrong place. By restricting the argument to media-recognized violence, the writer(s) conceals the real base of American dissent. The radicalization of culture, while it was exacerbated by some of Time’s listed events, has a much broader base. A more accurate response to the present situation is probably to be found in the preface Lewis A. Coser added in 1969 to a book originally published in 1965. In the interim, American life had changed sufficiently for him to write:

The movement of protest against American involvement in Viet-Nam has assumed proportions unprecedented not only in America, in fact in all of modern Western society. It probably surpasses in intellectual consequence both the abolitionist movement and the French Dreyfusard campaign, and it certainly surpasses them in terms of numerical size. It is too early to say whether the alienation between intellectuals and the men of power which the war has brought in its wake will last for a long time, or whether it will subside once this horrible episode is brought to a close.2

The end of the war, however, was ambiguous and did not satisfy most of its critics. The gulf between those intellectuals willing to legitimize the war and those who continue to reject it does not, despite Time’s optimism, show any signs of closing. If we take it that “politics is primarily about competition and the confrontation of interests,”3 there really is no sign of reconciliation between intellectuals, including artists, and the present forms of constituted authority.

Though the arts in general have supplied a few practicing politicians, an ambassador or two (St. John Perse, Octavio Paz), a minister (André Malraux), a mayor (Aimé Césaire), a senator (Max Bill), office is not the only or indeed the main form commitment takes. An adversary role is more usual. At least three art movements of the earlier 20th century set out to bring radical politics into art, either as subject matter or as an extension of art’s audience. Constructivism is inconceivable in its origins without the revolutionary politics of the USSR, and Surrealism, at a later phase of communism, attempted to align politics and poésie. The Social Realists of the ’30s in the United States attempted not only the visualizing of revolution-inducing scenes, but also changes in the distribution of art (murals, for instance, and cartoons, both echoes of agitprop).4 It is significant that these occasions have been minimized in the history of 20th-century art as written to date. The idealizing phase of Constructivism, represented by Gabo and Pevsner, with its classicizing and international features, was stressed; its political and cultural roots, as in Tatlin, have only been recently revived. Surrealism’s debt to Freud and its uses of unconscious fantasy have been discussed far more than its political ambitions, though, to take one instance, a poem like Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal5 is inconceivable without Surrealism. The Social Realists have been neglected both because of a critical preference for abstract art and because of qualms about outwardly declared political content. The present interest in Realism is attributable not only to a revived interest in figuration, though that is part of it, but also to a willingness to regard art in a political context, without the defense of withdrawal or transcendence. Leon Golub’s latest work is relevant here, as we shall see.

There are dual strands of activity in Golub that can be shown to be aspects of a comprehensive definition of politics. On one hand, there is the iconography of his paintings since 1954, when he painted the first group of Burnt Men; and, at least since 1957, he has been concerned with the problems of legibility in public art. On the other hand, in 1964, when he returned to the United States from a stay in Europe, he joined the Artists and Writers Protest, a group formed to dispute the war in Vietnam. A vigil at the United Nations was one of the first actions that Golub took part in. In 1966 he acted as one of the organizers of the New York contribution to the Los Angeles Peace Tower, a send-in Christmas-tree kind of a display of dissenting, peaceful artists: Golub’s studio was the collection center (as often later). In the following year he acted again as an organizer, this time of the collective Collage of Indignation which was part of the largely downtown Angry Arts Week. With Artists and Writers Protest he helped to build large floats for a peace march. This is not the place for a calendar but Golub’s support for a range of political exhibitions, forums, and demonstrations has been resolute. Indeed, it was his absence from these occasions that was remarkable, such as the 1968 Martin Luther King memorial exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in which the negotiations of one of Sidney Janis’ sons, acting on behalf of the exhibition committee, succeeded in extinguishing even Golub’s political fire.

In 1968 Golub was involved in another kind of political venture, an attempt to persuade Picasso to withdraw Guernica from The Museum of Modern Art. The argument was that American bombing in Vietnam was the equivalent of the bombing of Guernica so that Picasso’s original protest was compromised by being left in American hands. The other organizers, a typical ad hoc grouping of the period, were Bill Copley, Walter de Maria, Max Kozloff, Annette Michelson, and Irving Petlin. Resistance to war and an expanded definition of imperialism underlay such activities, which proceeded in the absence of institutional support (the host of the Martin Luther King show was exceptional). Thus the artists became accustomed to regarding themselves as outside the traditional routes of patronage. The scattered occasions of protest built up an alternative group, at first on the basis of political purpose but later as a politicalization of artist vis-à-vis institutions. In 1969 Golub resumed his Burnt Man paintings in the form of a series of Napalm paintings. It is important to note that in his case there is a continual testing of the relation between action and iconography. The roles of the artist as (1) a member of society and (2) as a professional or specialist are used to test one another. Golub expressly avoids the compartmentalization of the two activities, exemplified, for instance, by Rauschenberg, who, it appears, “secretly financed much of the Artists’ Peace Tower against the war in Los Angeles in 1965,”6 but did not establish a matching iconography until 1969–70.

In 1970–71 Golub participated in some of the actions of the Art Workers’ Coalition, but not in a major role. However, it is another episode in the connectivity of Golub’s sense of the world as he lives in it and its presence in his work as an artist. He picketed the Metropolitan and Guggenheim Museums, and took part in the New York Art Strike as one of those who met with the trustees of the Metropolitan Museum. In 1972, as a member of the Committee for Artistic Freedom, he worked to arrange a benefit for the New York Civil Liberties Union to recompense it for legal expenses incurred in defending the Judson Three from charges of misusing the American flag. This accumulation of specific commitments and decisions is characteristic of Golub’s role in New York protest. His reputation as an artist persisted but often on the basis of earlier rather than his new work. He relinquished his gallery in the mid-’60s and since then has not shown in New York, except for opening his studio in a “New York Downtown” show. In 1969 he wrote a text on Nancy Spero’s paintings referring to war in Vietnam: “The helicopter ingests its victims, regurgitates and shits out blood and entrails, drags and smashes bodies. The planes, elegant and silver-winged, are often emblazoned with mottos or moral injunctions, e.g. K.I.L.L., F.U.C.K., or L.O.V.E.”7 He summarizes: “The eschatological is as real as a Chrysler or a tank and more real than a Brillo box.”8 These words apply with great aptness to his own later work, a group of large paintings begun in 1972. It is a series of Assassins in which, for the first time, there is an overt use of weaponry and uniforms. (He has, in fact, painted the tank, or, more accurately, an armored car.) Golub has been pushed in the last few years to an imagery in which he has found a way to preserve his interest in monumental figure composition and, at the same time, to declare the immorality of the war as unambiguously as he has done in speech and in committee work. It is Golub’s unified politics, found in his opinions and his art, that is unusual in New York where protest frequently operates without leaving visible traces in the art of the dissenters.

Political stands by artists range from rhetoric at a high level of generalization to directed activity at a lower level with momentary goals. An example of the first type is Jean Toche, whose demands on behalf of the Belgian Government in Exile or the Guerrilla Art Action Group have flourished in the heady air of nonimplementation. Recently he exceeded the tolerance that he had enjoyed when C. Douglas Dillon, as a museum trustee, objected, in his official capacity, to Toche’s call for the kidnapping of museum trustees, with the aim of benefiting Tony Shafrazi, who had defaced Guernica.9 Aside from comedy of this sort, and it is not the only example, there are limits to the power of small-group protest, even with the cooperation of the media to magnify them. Not many of the causes pressed by the Art Workers’ Coalition have been realized, as can be seen by comparing the original list of a dozen demands to museums (1970) with the museum situation four years later. This seems to be what Lucy Lippard meant when she noted that “the real value of the AWC is its voice rather than its force, its whispers rather than its shouts.” It is the sum of the AWC’s acts and manifestos, not the record of verifiable victories, that counts, and what it signifies is the increased politicalization of artists in the ’70s. The ’60s was obviously a slack time for revolutionary theory and action and no less obviously this attitude has changed. Hence the importance of an artist like Golub, whose roots in dissent are early and continue to the present day without loss of passion or conceptual obsolescence. For instance, referring to Surrealism, he mentions sympathizing with the movement’s political objectives, “the notion of the artist as a political actor.”11 The ability to call on such comparative knowledge at a time when some of his associates were motivated more by corrosive sophistication or primitive enthusiasm was salutary. It is Golub’s competence in political roles that is important; his strength lies in the chain of specific tasks of resistance attached to his name. It is true that in his early work Golub acted as the type of rebel artist, both in the introspective sources of his art and in his abrasive conduct in the art world. From an early date, however, he demonstrated a capacity to enter situations in terms more productive than simple exasperation. In 1948, he was a cofounder of the exhibition Momentum, in opposition to the policies of the Art Institute of Chicago, and two years later was chairman of the second Momentum. At present Golub teaches at Livingston College, a part of Rutgers University; and, as chairman of the art department, he has been heavily engaged in the disputes of black, Puerto Rican, and white factions. The point is, as I see it, that Golub’s energy has been diverted from the enacting of alienation to the management of change.

A new form of ideology must be taken into account if we are to characterize the American political scene, compared to, say, earlier European or contemporary Latin American examples. At one level, ideology can be defined as “the body of doctrine, myth, symbol, etc. of a social movement, institution, class, or large group” (Random House Dictionary unabridged). On the other hand, there is the presumption made by Marx that the analysis of rival ideologies is essentially aggressive, a view justified by the fact that no ideology can be neutral. In Marxist terms such ideological analysis provided a tool for the exposure of entrenched positions and attitudes whose roles in sustaining the status quo had not been clearly seen before. Thus the enemies of the people were not only defeated in argument, but exposed in terms of “false consciousness,” the distorting of reality for special interests. What has happened recently is that the improvements in American education and the mass media have created a high level of sophistication, and the conduct of government has created an acute state of distrust and skepticism. These conditions occurring together as they have in the past few years have precipitated a wave of ideological analysis of all forms of institutions, though without a specific political purpose. Thus the program of the AWC is strong on ideological exposure and allegation but weak on workable alternatives. Ideology as floating skepticism could perhaps be termed the logical form of revolutionary impulses in an information-rich society. The rapid acquisition of sophistication is accompanied by distrust and disavowal. The method of John R. Harrison’s The Reactionaries,12 which demonstrates, convincingly, the conservatism of Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, Pound, Eliot, and Lawrence, is relevant here. Early modern literary heroes, examined by a writer requiring left-wing affiliations, are inspected and found wanting. Max Kozloff’s “American Painting and the Cold War” applied a similar form of exegesis to his contemporaries, nominating abstract and Pop artists as the knowing or inadvertent back-up of domestic suppression and foreign expansion.13 With this kind of brutal criticism being applied to those around one it is clear, is it not, that the theory of abstract art falls easily to the test of “false consciousness.”

In this situation of proliferating ideological analysis the role of the political artist will clearly differ from European precedent. There is no sense of the American artist trying to comply with a preexisting doctrine, as some of the Surrealists attempted to come to terms with communism. Nor is there a situation in which artists are able to take over administrative posts, as occurred in the early days of the Russian revolution; nor are major monuments to achieved political goals contemplated, such as Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International. The characteristic form of American protest in the arts is not affiliated with any existing program. It is a loose coalition of liberal, impatient, idealistic, angry, and impulsive people whose specific political achievement, in the sense of impinging on social institutions, is small. On the other hand, this coalition has had an immense effect internally on artists and groups of artists. There is a condition of “leftness” with socialist, communist, and anarchist components but all the actions taken under this wing are short and pragmatic responses to current shocks and abuses, not long-range alternative principles. However, the decline in the prestige of detachment since the ’60s is largely their doing, and it is a remarkable achievement.

The problems raised by the politicalization of art are not confined to specifically political individuals. On the contrary, it has generated ideas that spread contagiously through the existing art world. Oldenburg, for example, has declared himself as “for an art that is political-emotional-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum.”14 What does this actually amount to? I suppose the nearest are his monuments for cities, sketched in the second half of the ’60s, which he began, as he records, ”after a year of travel in Europe and in the US, away from New York.”15 That is to say, the exhibition schedule of a successful artist gave him, and one would not wish to deny it to him, the opportunity to view cities as objects in a vivid, successive, jet-set way. Hence the giant extension plugs, drain pipes, and windshield wipers for appropriate city sites: out of the museum, perhaps, but into the capriccio. The desire to evade the museum turns out to be less an experiment in securing democratic company for his art than an expansion of the scale of his regular iconography (the same but bigger). As if to compensate for this social inutility, Barbara Rose, in her book on Oldenburg, repeatedly attributes radical status to his art as if to cover its absence elsewhere.16 To put his position like this is possible because the politicalization of ideas about art makes one think of Oldenburg’s original remark not only as an example of the desire to move into the environment, which it was, but also to test it critically. From the standpoint of the politics of public art, his sketches are grandly negligent of external cause and effect. Tatlin’s tower was unrealized too, and, indeed, unrealizable both technologically and socially, but the model for it had great currency as a symbol of ambitious art in the service of revolution. Its potency has not diminished in fact; it is The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even of the Left.

The separation of art by artists from political actions by artists is widespread. It is maintained most of the time by museums, art galleries, and art magazines, in which art is shown, sold, or written about with a minimum of reference to social context or political resonance. From the point of view of skeptical ideology, the exhibition program of The Museum of Modern Art and the contents page of Artforum have more in common than I, for one, would like to think. Both museum and magazine emphasize not the social-political matrix out of which artists come and in which their art is distributed, but the (unique) identity of the artist and the (autonomous) formality of art. The political actions of artists are recorded, if at all, in uncollected ephemera (oral gossip, exhibition announcements, duplicated statements). For all the literature on Carl Andre, critics deal persistently with the esthetics of his sculpture, not with his sustained political activity. On the other hand, Hans Haacke tends to be taken on face value as a political artist: the implication of his data lists in ambiguous accommodation to the existent distribution system goes unquestioned. What Golub offers is a reconciliation between the dual possibilities of being a full-time artist and a politically active citizen. Thus he represents the reality of complexity in a hectic and often simplified realm of action in the art world.

In an open panel at an all-night session of the College Art Association last year Golub defined politics in these terms: "The political is the here and now and what you do about it, action towards change and the control of events in respect to oppression, inequality, or external situational discomfort or threat.”17 And of its application to art he said:

It is a political act to resist demands to be non-political (New York art world, for example) and it can be a decisive political act to resist the politicalization of art (the Soviet art world, for example). Such “political” definitions mean finally that all art is political.18

It is clear that Golub accepts the notion of ideology and it is clear from his two examples that he takes the artist’s role as essentially that of adversary. In passing, it should be pointed out that an alternative position seems to be that of Rauschenberg. In the mid-’60s he used the head of J. F. Kennedy as a hero-image in silkscreens and in 1969 produced a series of lithographs based on an Apollo moon-shot. In 1971 he published Currents, a series of silkscreens based on newspapers, which took the polluted environment as theme. Of course, ecology was, at the time, no less an official subject than N.A.S.A. Rauschenberg’s role in Experiments in Art and Technology suggests, too, an organizational bent rather than an adversary stance. However, though all art may be political it is the politics of change, starting with the Vietnam War and the civil rights movements, not the politics of established institutions, that activates the art world. The dissatisfaction with a society abruptly revealed as oppressive to a class not prepared by education to see it in this way extends to specialized matters now, such as museum policy and gallery finances. To those who discern ideological complicity between the national and specialized events the only response is clearly, still, a radical one.

Golub’s concept of “the control of events” is central to his art as well as to his political decisions, and it is precisely this unification of art and policy that is important. It appears in his early work 1947–54, in a series of seers, kings, dervishes, and shamans, all of whom can be said to be engaged in control tasks. At the time they were painted Golub would not have put it this way, but retrospectively he considers this as a legitimate reading, though one derived from his later interests. (Early works often yield different emphases according to the subsequent development of an artist.) Golub’s extraordinary group of sphinxes, 1954–56, as hybrids may seem to belong to a kind of Symbolist-Surrealist current of imagery, but, in fact, they too are creatures of (magical) power with the ability to influence events. In the classically derived figures, which begin in 1953 and reach a full point of development in 1956, a part of Golub’s point is the inability of the depicted figures, derived from statuary, to exceed their material boundaries and thus to demonstrate the capacity to initiate and control events. There is an increase of flexibility in the figures by 1960 which means that they can be viewed, in terms of our own body experience, as adaptive occupants of a nonflat space. Golub habitually opens p the picture surface in opposition to two-dimensional lore and this is as essential to his view of painting as to his view of man. To quote the artist: there has to be

some sort of space for these kinds of figures, men or monsters, to move around in. They have to have space to move in. Similarly they have to be modeled at least to some degree; otherwise they become ornate objects. That is, they have to give some sort of illusion that they have the capacity for corporeal motion.19

Golub returned to the Burnt Man theme in 196061. When he first painted them he intended references to Buchenwald and Dachau, but when he used the theme again it is not to the camps that he refers but to the battlefield and the bombsite. From the end of World War II, in the Pacific, Korea, and Vietnam, fire has been used increasingly as a weapon by the US. Therefore an unmistakable topical reference is carried by the later Burnt Men. These are men who have lost control of events and thus become victims. This sense of the present victim and the known but unseen perpetrator is essential to the rhetoric of Golub’s protest at this point, like an air-raid known from the ground. In the Gigantomachies, 1965–68, the notion of control is jettisoned in scenes of combat in which the odds are random because the competitors are indistinguishable. Here fighting is equated with a loss of the control of events, with probability as the substitute for victory. It is an intimation of the world saturated with suffering. For all the classical references and traces in Golub’s work the overriding sense is of violence as a contemporary experience. That this is so can be seen by viewing his work retroactively from the standpoint of his latest works. In his Assassins, 1972–74, Golub makes explicit what is implicit previously. In the series there is a clear distinction between the armed and the unarmed, the aggressor and the victim, and both are present. Here “the control of events” instead of being a triumphant human experience is shown negatively by the contrast of American soldiers and Asian civilians. The exercise of power and the victims it engenders are brought together in unprecedented paintings. The confrontation of killers, from our side, and victims, the others, twists the American assumption of virtue and clemency as ingrained national characteristics. Golub picks up the detailed scenario of a picture like Baron Gros’ Napoleon in the Pesthouse at Jaffe, in which realistic victims show, by contrast, Napoleon’s heroism and composure, but reverses the values. The Assassins are based on a view of American imperialism seen as vacant of justice.

The texture of Golub’s earlier figures proposes an analogy between the time rates at which stone and flesh get irreparably damaged. The sculptural metaphor has been replaced in his later works by an explicit contemporaneity and with it a direct address to the spectator. Photographic sources are one of the sources of immediacy. Entropic process is not only simulated by paint but by violations of the unstretched picture surface itself; in the Assassins it is subject to savage final deletions. The atrocity photograph becomes a battle trophy. The excised portions often turn up, cannibalized, in the Napalm Gate Fragments. which have a lingering reminiscence of Golub’s archaeological interests: compare the Pylon (Napalm Gate Fragment VII) with an architectural reconstruction of an ancient Celtic gate, taken from a book in the artist’s possession. In both there is comparable play of half-concrete, half-conjectural elements. In the Assassins time, instead of being an evocation of recurrent suffering and death, is defined sequentially in a series of delays and overlaps that enable Golub to explore a moment endlessly. These works are very large, which means that their monumentality is excavated temporally by the scrutiny of 17 the present act that Golub focuses on his catastrophic subject.

Lawrence Alloway



1. Time, August 19, 1974, p. 48.

2. Lewis A. Coser, Men of Ideas, New York, 1970, p.xv.

3.Georges Balandier, Political Anthropology, trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith, New York, 1970, p.18.

4. The Tradition of Constructivism, ed. Stephen Bann, New York, 1974, restores the balance. Robert S. Short, “The Politics of Surrealism 1920–1936,” in The left Wing Intellectual Between the Wars, eds. Walter Laqueur and George L. Mosse, New York, 1966 is a brief summary. Social Realism: Art as a Weapon, ed. David Shapiro, New York, 1973, is a collection of documents. For a speculative panorama of Constructivism and Surrealism in relation to social issues, see Transform the World! Poetry Must Be Made By All!, Stockholm, Moderna Museet, 1969. Needless to say, the Mexican mural movement is significant here. It is consequential in ways that negligent critics have failed to indicate and, at the same time, in ways more subtle than its defenders have proposed.

5. Aimé Cesairé, Return to My Native Land, trans. John Berger and Ana Bostock, Baltimore, 1969, is a remarkable combination of post-Rimbaud language and early negritude attitudes.

6. Max Kozloff, “American Painting and the Cold War,” Twenty-Five Years of American Painting 1948–1973, Des Moines Art Center, 1973, reprinted in a slightly revised form in Artforum, May, 1973.

7. Leon Golub, “Bombs and Helicopters—The Art of Nancy Spero,” Caterpillar, 1, 1967, pp.52–53.

8. Ibid.

9. For the repoliticalization of Guernica see my “Art,” The Nation, April 6, 1974, p. 444.

10 .Lucy R. Lippard, “The Art Workers Coalition,” Idea Art, ed. Gregory Battcock, New York, 1973, p.115.

11. Leon Golub, four interviews between Golub and Irving Sandler, October–November, Typescript, 1968, the Archives of American Art.

12. John R. Harrison, The Reactionaries, New York, 1967.

13. Kozloff.

14. Claes Oldenburg’s Store Days, selected by Oldenburg and Emmett Williams, New York, Something Else Press, 1967, p.39.

15. Claes Oldenburg, Proposals for Monuments and Buildings 1965–1969, Chicago, Big Table Publishing Co., 1969, p.11.

16. I am grateful to my student at Stony Brook, Wendy Kooperman, for this point.

17. Leon Golub, Statement, College Art Association, New York, 1973, for a panel moderated by Irving Sandler.

18. Ibid.

19. Golub, Sandler, Archives of American Art.