PRINT January 1990



I’d almost forgotten an episode of censorship that occurred with the publication in London of the second issue of ZG magazine, in 1980. The images under fire then were precisely the same as those arousing such controversy now in America: Robert Mapplethorpe’s. And since I was a party to this earlier censorship, being both editor and publisher of ZG, it seems worth reexamining my actions.

That particular issue was dedicated to examining the violent images of sexuality emerging throughout the late ’70s in film, fashion, art, and music. Perhaps it’s worth quoting from the editorial:

For some, the movement of S/M images into the mainstream of sexual representation is seen as a symptom of the decadence of consumer culture. Some see it as a vicious, male counteroffensive against the awareness of sexual stereotyping and role-playing inspired by the Women’s Movement. Still others see this depiction of sexuality in terms of power relations; a challenge both to dominant sexual images and to the power relations that underpin them. . . .

There is little agreement on these or other issues in the forthcoming pages. But the editors hope that the magazine will be merely a point of departure for more decisive discussion of the important concerns which the issue raises.

It’s not like we were pulling our punches. And the titles of some of the articles (“Brutality Chic,” “Sensuality and Self-Abuse in Viennese Art,” and “The Politics of Sadism,” for example), along with the images we selected for publication, including, by Mapplethorpe, a fairly explicit depiction of a fist fuck, helped spell out our intentions.

After being turned down by 14 printers we finally found a firm who agreed to print the magazine—but only if I removed the Mapplethorpe images. After much thought, I did. But I replaced them with an article and images by a lesser-known artist whose work explored homoerotic images in a religious context. This seemed to me a form of compromise: removing the offending images but replacing them, and the article, with material that covered similar ground.

The printer in London who finally agreed to do the job took the money in advance. But then, after consultation with his lawyers, he decided that the replaced images were also too offensive, and announced that he planned to “black” them. With the printer in possession of the total financial assets of the magazine, I came to an important realization: We’d been screwed. And on principle. It felt a bit like what I would imagine a fist fuck might feel like! So I gave in. But what a disappointment.

Yet except for a passing acquaintance with the blocking out of genital parts and pubic hairs in porn magazines, I didn’t know too much about the techniques of image censorship. So, at the time, in spite of everything, I tried to console myself with the notion that this form of censorship might even prove interesting. I imagined my readers scouring the blackness in search of images beneath the dark voids. But when the magazine arrived, I was disappointed again. There was just black ink on the page. No trace of the transgressions could be discerned below the surface of those uniform black rectangles, because the printers had removed the images at the artwork stage.

I’m fully conscious now of the willful act of complicity that I played out by instinct in 1980 as publisher and editor. And as a result, I entered into what I now call the loop of communications feedback.

The term “feedback” implies the process by which the listener can talk back to the speaker. But when that speaker is the media, I’ve come to believe that public participation is illusory. With the loop of communication feedback, outraged reactions and dissent are already factored in. So to propose or initiate censorship these days is merely to invite anticensorship lobbies and the illusion of public participation. Feedback is thus always reactive; it can never be revolutionary because the reactions (our responses) are already accounted for in the questions raised. Hence the loop flirts with the idea of liberal democracy. And yet the loop is never broken. As everyone gets pulled into the media arena, actions are transformed into events. The ultimate outcome is only one big advertising campaign in which the actual censored material—and its implications—disappear, and in which the acts of censorship (which are, after all, only attempts to withdraw a product or idea from public attention) override publicity for the product with self-publicity for everyone involved in the loop.

Naturally, then, the second issue of ZG became a collector’s item. The feedback loop saw to that. And if I had acted on principle, there would have been no third issue.

Anyway, excuses, excuses. I was censored. And in turn, I censored Robert Mapplethorpe. But the point of all this is that an episode of censorship in the closing years of the unprincipled, transgressive ’70s could go more or less unnoticed. But in the ’80s, with the revived fervor for a once-upon-a-time world of metaphoric and moral certainty, the results are quite different. With Senator Jesse Helms’ initiative, what might have passed as a quiet, posthumous retrospective homage to an established photo artist became the focus of mainstream media attention.

But what is this present censorship debate really all about? The airbrushed voids hovering around the genitalia of ’50s nude magazines (and ZG’s “black squares” issue hearkens back to them) belong to an era that depended upon a monolithic sense of power and a centralized notion of the “public good.” Does the current controversy represent another manifestation of the desire to return to that repressed culture—following a ’70s of multichannel image saturation and polysexuality?

My guess is that the current furor is a pseudocontroversy: a highly spectacularized episode of censorship that has nothing at all to do with real acts of information suppression or communication control. This great surge of liberalism, with its anticensorship lobbies, critics’ forums, and artists flag-waving their egos in the national media, has become as much a posture as have the political pretexts of censorship that presumably triggered it. All this stuff is simply an integral part of communications feedback, an adept movement of protestors and the censored material into their allotted media slots.


All of which brings me to Leon Golub. For the past 30 or so years Golub’s art has confronted hidden episodes and unspeakable acts of horror that foment beneath the surface of our mediated reality. If his paintings don’t trigger the conventional “shock” reaction from the viewer on first glance, maybe that’s because they are not typically shocking media imagery; we feel as if we’ve seen these images before—but where, we’re not sure. In a sense, this is imagery to which the media denies us access. In a media-controlled universe, the disturbing familiarity of Golub’s images asserts our sense of history as a dynamic of universal forgetting. His work has always been preoccupied with unrecorded acts of censorship, thus asserting a far more powerful connection with total recall than any conventional demand for “freedom of information” rhetorically implies.

Interestingly, Golub has so far managed to avoid censorship (except, perhaps, for the pervasive indifference to figurative art of the ’60s and ’70s). Yet the ground he treads is potentially more dangerous than the minefields of conventional morality that Robert Mapplethorpe has crossed. For in assailing the boundaries of control through which information culture constructs its world, Golub adopts a strategy of duplicity. Is he undercover agent or secret fetishist? He strikes no easily recognizable stance one way, or the other. He confronts us, instead, with only the bare facts, or, we might say, with emotions stripped bare—what the artist calls the meeting point of radical subjectivity and radical objectivity:

Facts are eaten away by relativistic or subjective takes, facts jumping in and out of consciousness, split off variables and severances of information occurring within dispersed but global situations. Radical objectivity equals radical subjectivity in the global smashing together/sundering of information bits into global randomizations. . . .

. . . Radical objectivity and radical subjectivity become like quarks of consciousness, bits or quanta of information, inert or instantaneously reactive, the speeded up assimilation and indigestibility of the bits and quanta of modern experience.
—Leon Golub, Split Infinities

It seems to me that Golub is alluding here to a kind of schizophrenia that suffuses all his work. Torn between the impulse of objectivity that merely seeks to document an event and a highly subjective fascination with the painterly artificiality of the image, Golub adopts a “style” of repression. The schizophrenic, when the forces dividing the world he lives in become too much, cuts himself off. Golub’s paintings of frozen scenes seem similarly cut off, disembodied from any historical understanding or humanistic empathy.

Paradoxically, the power of documentary truth is undermined in the world Golub’s paintings give us. The secret “underside” of history—exposed as an image—is violated in the process. In the end, one feels only the unreality of the contemporary torture chambers of his “Mercenaries” and “Interrogation” series, 1979– and 1981– respectively. Yet these groups of mercenaries wearing their casual expressions like a coat of arms, emerging out of or dissolving into these scraped surfaces of pure pigment, get us embroiled in less comfortable confrontations with the abrased skin of the torture victim.

The image, then, becomes merely a stand-in for our own feelings of displacement and inadequacy in the face of the unspeakable and unimaginable realities his work asks us to address.


Strangely, this style of repression is even more pronounced, in an atmospheric sense, in a series of paintings from 1988 and ’89 entitled “Night Scenes.” Strangely, because unlike his earlier “Interrogation” and “Mercenaries” series, the images of Golub’s “Night Scenes” place us squarely in the realm of televisual imagery where the color blue dominates the canvas.

In “Night Scenes,” everything is shrouded in ambiguity. One searches these dark vet luminous surfaces for clues with the alert vigilance with which one concentrates on discerning the outlines of figures in the street to distinguish a mugger from a passerby. But it is the paintings themselves that are threatening; danger is suggested everywhere in that everything seems OK on the surface. These are not the sinister corners of Golub’s earlier interrogation rooms. Yet the near monochromes of high-tech spectral blues create a similar atmosphere; a strange glow pervades the fragmentary scenes with the relentless evenness of an electric light bulb.

And in another untitled series of paintings, begun in 1985, groups of black men and women slouch in postures we identify with the ravages of poverty, alienation, derangement, drunkennesss; the very stuff of documentary realism. At the same time, their familiarity and accessibility seem to render these images complicit in perpetuating the realities of street life in any American city. The figures themselves might as well be ghosts; everywhere the same, in every city and in different parts of every country. The faces in these paintings are nearly identical frozen masks. Each indifferent individual merges with the indifferent field, the anonymous ground. They expect nothing back from us as they indifferently return our gaze or stare off into another world.

Yet like the “Mercenaries” or “Night Scenes” series, these paintings still manage to invoke a kind of “no-space” that is, in fact, only the blind spot in a media-saturated world. These are not groups of people joined by a common bond. They are just passing figures, captured in incidental arrangements; their proximity to one another only emphasizes their isolation. Space, in these paintings, becomes a glue, cementing the separated worlds of its inhabitants in a frozen instant. The space becomes an active component of time—the moment when these figures “coincidentally” intersect in their orbits. They seem both to create and dominate the space at the same time as they submit to it, dissolving into the gaps of light and dark. They disappear into the familiar image of poverty.


Of course there is something to the idea that Golub is a contemporary history painter, one who is reconstructing contemporary scenes of political atrocities with documentary veracity. But when we settle for such labels, we end up somehow, underestimating the polyvalent, almost schizoid, “re-visioning” Golub forces us to wrestle with. For all that these forbidden scenes arouse a sense of outrage, they also elicit our fascinated curiosity. Certainly the monumental scale of Golub’s works recalls the tradition of unambiguous celebrations (or critiques) of political power, from the austerity of Roman frieze paintings to the excesses of early-19th-century propaganda art. But equally, their scale and dimensions suggest the wide screen of contemporary media entertainment, catering to our voyeuristic appetite for mass spectacle. Golub adroitly straddles radically different worlds: the world of painters like David, who organized mass spectacles and festivals in France’s revolutionary period, and the post-Modern world, with its politically ambiguous heroes like Rambo and with its sci-fi landscape of Blade Runner.

None of these genres, however, even gets close to representing all the intentions of the artist. What subsists beneath the surface is pure Golub territory: the private desires and fears that make the spectacular compelling. By merging the conventions of the wide screen with the history painter’s canvas, Golub forces us to confront the ambiguities of both history and voyeurism, the paradoxical and conflicting relations of identification within the paintings, which, in the end, make us accomplices to these acts of violence.

The paintings themselves, then, stand as potent symbols of the hidden underside to official, political history, and they also appeal to the dark forces of paranoia within us all. Golub’s “no-spaces” are the space of disappearance, that space, by definition, cut off, sealed away from the spectacular culture of documentary exposé. They are the no-man’s-land of the desaparecidos of Latin America, and of the threshold of nonpersonality for the torture victim. For Golub’s “no-space,” like the Marquis de Sade’s dungeon, is also the ultimate boudoir of unconscious dreads and desires—where submissions, confessions, authority, and control are made known and unmasked.

Scopophilia becomes an exercise of power; a complicity in torture.

Frequently, the victims in a Golub painting, rather than their torturers, are “masked,” either literally or figuratively. Their flesh is reduced to anonymous lumps of pigment. Their bodies appear as fragmented, partial, or dislocated representations, the mere pretext for a game performed on them by interrogators. It is the latter, striking their poses as they enjoy their private joke, who command our attention. The horror of Interrogation II, 1981, for example, is generated by the smiling faces of the mercenaries turning to the onlooker, flashing their grins automatically as the camera button clicks. Their mute, naked victims, on the other hand, are almost invisible. In the 1940s, Weegee evoked a similar sensation of horror with his photograph of an unconscious man. While he lies in his girlfriend’s arms, waiting to be resuscitated, she pauses long enough to look up and flash a smile at the photographer snapping the shot. This “absence” of victim generates a much greater sense of discomfort than, say, the image of the crying women in Picasso’s Guernica, 1937, or the horrified disbelief of America’s Vietnamese victims caught by the camera lens of war photographer Don McCullin in the ’60s and ’70s. Just as Weegee’s smiling girl, in our shock of identification with her, exposes our voyeuristic indifference to pain, suffering, and need, so do Golub’s pictorial effects.

Even in his earlier portraits of political and military leaders—Franco, Castro, Kissinger, and Brezhnev, for example—a fetishization percolates across and beneath the surface. These works seem to suggest some eroticized fascination with (criminal) power. If the newer work like Two Seated Black Men, 1987, makes strange the familiar and everyday, the earlier works make agents of horror—as in the “Mercenaries” series, for example—just a bunch of guys with watches and gold pendants, doing a job like anyone else.

Golub’s art insinuates and seduces. By providing points of confrontation with our own voyeuristic impulses, his art, in Lawrence Durrell’s words, “seeks to threaten our very existence.” And yet it offers the evidence of these monstrous acts in broad daylight, under the very nose of the censor. It’s art that is hiding in the light.


Golub never allows us to forget the sources of his images:

One of the sources I use are sadomasochist publications: to get an image of a man hanging, I didn’t have anything that the secret police of Argentina could provide for me. So where do you find that kind of image?1

The s-m and porn magazines from which Golub derives the postures and gestures for some of his depicted victims are a lot more than (as implied by Golub’s comment) a mere convenience in the absence of “the real thing.” The attributes and implications of these original sources make their way into the paintings, and become equally important as a form of visual fascination. They are as significant as the source materials for his images of interrogators and mercenaries: war photography and film stills.

All these sources, colliding and meshing with one another, make the paintings conflations of documentary truth and sexual fantasy. Golub’s works are seamless collages that conceal violent implosions of conventionally separated realms of experience. The smiling group photos of mercenary bonhomie, punctuated by the masochist/victim figures, become themselves unwitting victims of Golub’s guile. Suddenly the archaic paraphernalia of torture, which we thought were kept alive only in s-m circles and by sex shops, become an incongruous yet undeniable weapon within the setting of the modern interrogation room: a chilling intrusion of the pleasure principle into the world of information retrieval.

Manipulating the facade of historical simulation to expose the fusions and conflations of our culture’s fevered imagination, these paintings are like hallucinations, images that undeniably exist between the real and the imaginary, images that are aberrations in our quiescent world of media control.


Fetishism in Freudian terms is the displacement of the body’s desires onto an object. And while the word is occasionally applied to an artist’s love for paint surfaces, when the subject matter is Golub’s subject matter, the use of the term becomes a bit more problematic. Exclusively formalist analysis of this works’ painterly—even sensuous—qualities seems out of place when applied to the subject matter with which Golub deals. Yet for Golub, the news media’s exorcism of events from visibility provides a realm for painterly fantasy, as well as a space for exposing existing realities.

The sense of actually witnessing an event that is permanently prohibited and tabooed in media pictures is re-imagined/re-imaged in Golub’s paintings in the immediacy of surfaces and textures. There is a virtual fetishistic attachment to surfaces. Scraped canvas becomes skin. Not only the skin of naked flesh; it is the skin of authority to which Golub invites contact. He excites a fetishistic contact with the emblematic textures of power as well. The green and brown of army camouflage is as immediate as flesh in the paintings. Obsessive attention is given to the minute details of gold chains, watches, Uzi submachine guns, even the individual teeth of the grimacing interrogators. Somehow, almost the smell of these rooms seems to permeate the canvases. The dried paint, articulating subtle textures across the surfaces of the paintings, commands close consideration—almost absorption.

All of these elements conspire to make it impossible to limit Golub’s paintings to the linear transmission of specific political intentions. To call Golub’s work “political” allows us to avoid its radical ambiguity. It becomes just another classification that we can hide behind, giving us an excuse not to enter the doors through which his art entices us. His paintings are acts of deviance that seek to jam the mechanisms of the communications feedback loop. Ultimately, these works are confrontations with the unseen; showdowns with the genuinely censored realities of mass culture. For me his paintings are fissures, arrests within the speed of image turnover.

In this sense, Golub’s paintings enter a different context than that of the “offensive” artworks currently under debate. But it is nonetheless interesting to compare his work with the transgressions (mainly sexual and religious) of Salman Rushdie’s 1988 Satanic Verses, Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photos, and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, 1987. Because these latter works seem to confront, head-on, the taboos of the censors, the communications feedback loop has served them back to us as tailor-made transgressions. By contrast, the hidden encounters and transgressions of Golub are more difficult to identify. Golub’s paintings, by demarcating and violating the murkier realms of moral vision, seek to serve as enactments of the forms of censorship we allow ourselves to exercise and exorcise daily in our perceptions of the world.


Operating between positions and between vantage points, lurking beyond codes by adopting a variety of fronts, Golub investigates a position that was only partially articulated by journalists 10 years ago:

It seems fitting that in a country where people aspire to two of everything—cars, kids, and homes—we should have two histories as well. And so we do; a public chronicle or “Disney version” so widely available as to be unavoidable, and a second one that remains secret, buried and unnamed. Lately, Americans have come to suspect the existence of this second history; the Watergate affair, with all its resonances and subsequent snippets of CIA malpractices have disinterred a part of our times.
—from Spooks: The Private Use of Secret Agents, by Jim Hougan2

In the complex fabric of political intrigues subsequently unfolded in the book quoted above, no political action is clear or direct in its causes or consequences. Where the intention of every political act can be reversed, every agent is a double agent.

If we adopt this vantage point, as Golub does, censorship might then be seen as the highest form of flattery. And in the all-visible panopticon of 20th-century culture, the current censorship debate takes on the proportions of a mythic reenactment suffused with a fundamentalists’ nostalgia for a smaller, simpler world. However, now it is only serving to sanction our illusions of open debate within our closed world of communications.

In our nihilistic pleasure dome of 20th-century culture, “where everything is possible so nothing’s worth doing” (Nietzsche), censorial control, for Golub, is just another psychological reality. His work forces us to confront one basic fact: that the unspeakable is no longer contained only in overtly sacrilegious or so called “sexually perverse” blasphemies. It is a part of everyday life. He takes seemingly contradictory orders of truth and permits them to coexist. That we continue to live—and to act—amid these polarities: this is the ultimate meaning of his work, and this is what makes it so unnerving. The continuing power and significance of his art is that it continually provokes, without being brought back into the loop of communications feedback. As such, it represents a unique paradigm for artistic activity.

Rosetta Brooks is a writer who lives in New York. She is the editor of ZG magazine.



1. Leon Gotub, quoted in an interview with Michaet Newman in the exhibition catalogue Leon Golub: Mercenaries and Interrogations, London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1982, p. 7.

2. Jim Hougan, Spooks: The Private Use of Secret Agents, London, W. H. Allen, 1979, p. 1.