New York

Leon Golub

New Museum

A crucial moment in the chronology of Leon Golub’s figure is when, realizing its potential, it teeters before turning against its own kind. The figure’s development parallels a change in public consciousness forced by the escalation of the Cold War—the shift from pre- to postnuclear age. According to the evidence in this retrospective, until the close of the ’50s Golub’s figure is damaged but generally protects itself from its surroundings with heavy dark outlines. It is alone, the ahistorical, existential man. At some point toward the end of the decade the thick skin thins to an osmotic membrane through which the environment passes into the figure, leaving the ground drained and bare. The figure, flecked and splotched with the debris of its former background, atomizes. Golub leaves unclear whether it has been vaporized or energized; it struggles to survive—to get to its feet—through some Jekyll and Hyde-like transformation antics, down on its hands and knees (Burnt Man IV, 1961) or in the posture of the Pergamon “Dying Gaul” (Reclining Youth, 1959). Finally erect, it turns combative, like those other molecule men invented by Jonathan Borofsky.

Golub internalizes events, cautions that we are all composed of the raw material whose splitting has in some way split our psyches. Not surprisingly, shortly after the figure’s crisis dichotomies begin to abound. Alter egos come on stage and then multiply into gangs (from the “Gigantomachy” series, 1965–68, to the present), but even these are always compositionally grouped into two parts. Ahead of its time, Siamese Sphinx I, 1954, presages this internal strife by presenting its double-headed beast as aggressive and passive, male and female, a differentiation implemented by the introduction of telling details (facial expression, anatomical parts such as ribs and teats). Once fission takes place, proliferation begins, and starting with those enumerated rib bones and their skeletal effect (in Gigantomachy III, 1966, and Napalm I, 1969, as well as Sphinx), Golub’s cataloguing reeks of death. When, in one portrait of Francisco Franco, we can count the dictator’s teeth, it paradoxically suggests their elderly scarcity. The inevitable dichotomizing that sets off this inventory-taking is both sign and result of the moral ambivalence of Golub’s characters. Both his “Shields,” 1972, which prevent entry, and his portals, which invite it, are seemingly blood soaked, with the latter particularly symbolic of irrevocable Dantean choice. It has been suggested that a likeness of Golub himself is to be traced in certain of his mercenaries and interrogators.

As the desire to attack fights the desire to flee in Golub’s aggressors, all sorts of displacement activities begin to be suggested. Viewers itemize them in a displacement activity of their own. In moments of crisis the human animal fiddles with change in its pocket, lights a cigarette, wipes its glasses; Golub decks his criminals out with everyday gewgaws such as rings, belt buckles, watches, sunglasses, cigarettes, and ascots, whose mere accounting is diversionary. Static, the figures cannot literally fiddle with these things, but we do, simply by noticing them. (Once noticed, the rings and belts and watches start to rhyme with the ropes, handcuffs, and gags of the victims, in a subtle conflation of captive and captor.) Having deflected our attention even momentarily from the main event, Golub makes us guilty of at least a split second of irresponsibility.

In Interrogators II, 1981, Golub blurs the boundaries between the two good-cop and bad-cop cliques by a left-to-right progression, from most officially uniformed to bare-chested functionary. But casualness here does not connote neutrality or peace. One of these relaxed figures stares directly at us (one of the most aggressive of all body-language signals), the other makes nixing gestures; it is as if these men are rolling up their sleeves to get to the dirty work. The most formally attired of the interrogators keeps his hands in his pockets, and we are at our most self-incriminating when we feel that, having witnessed the birth of Golub’s naked existentialist, we might find ourselves at the present moment in his career fleeing for safety and comfort to his most fully clothed, institutional, authoritarian incarnation.

Jeanne Silverthorne