New York

Leon Golub

Gladstone Gallery | West 21st St

An odd thought: the sphinx as off-road vehicle. Such is its apparent function in Leon Golub’s recent departure from his familiar inquiries into the realms of power and abuse. The sphinx serves, by all appearance, as his temporary transport into the adjacent terrain of the enigmatic, paradoxical, and pataphysical. According to Robert Graves, mythology’s most famous riddler asked, “What being, with only one voice, has sometimes two feet, sometimes three, sometimes four, and is weakest when it has the most?” The answer, as depicted in three of Golub’s current paintings, is the sphinx itself. The ancient riddle turns back reflexively, a conundrum that remains unresolved and unsolvable even when, as Jean Baudrillard suggests, it is inverted: “It is man who puts to the sphinx, to the inhuman, the question of the inhuman.”

The hybrid monster in Yellow Sphinx, 1988, rears up heraldically, its two feet supporting a massive lions’ body and man’s head; the beast’s torso is turned away from us, while its face is seen in left profile against a large expanse of acrid yellow. The pale and iridescent head in Blue Sphinx, 1988, stares out past our gaze; its body seems simultaneously to draw back from us on its two splayed rear feet and lurch forward on its exaggerated front right leg, the left paw lifted close to its chest. The lean and muscular man-animal is poised, in other words, on three points, in an ambiguous defensive/aggressive posture. Wounded Sphinx, 1988, appears as an estranged victim of the hunt; it stands on all four feet, its repeated head twice raised in shock and pain. The ground in this last case is, appropriately, the red oxide Golub has used so often in his “Mercenaries,” 1979–87, “Interrogation,” 1981–86, and “White Squad,” 1982–87, series.

These paintings, it should be emphasized, mark the return of Golub’s rough, riddling beast. In the mid ’50s he produced a number of powerful sphinx forms, including two-headed versions based on a Hittite model, as well as more traditional Egyptian and Greek sphinxes. Although both the terms of production and the language of critique—let alone Golub’s pictorial style—have undergone considerable change, interesting comparisons still hold between the primal, existential mythos that characterized his earlier sphinxes and the sociocybernetic field that serves as the stage in his current versions.

But what “vast image” has Golub conjured up in his post-Yeatsian Second Coming? And how does he distinguish it from the archetypal sphinx of power and seduction? As in the earlier paintings, he constructs a reticulated male monster, a configuration of crisscrossed historic, genetic sources. The difference, however, lies in a metaphysical shift, which takes as its paradigm the circuit board and which, in turn, provides a fresh setting for the delirium and tremors of a grand disorder. No longer pure symbolic artifact, the mutant, compromised creature in Yellow Sphinx, for example, is an organic input/output device, a leonine electro-resistor caught in the flare of a sudden and incomprehensible power surge.

In the end, though, has Golub, master of disjunctive sociopolitical signs, successfully resurrected, recuperated, and reprogrammed a transhistorical symbol for late-20th-century cyberculture? Has he managed to make more of the sphinx than a short-term conveyance into zones of only speculative interest? By all indications and effects, yes . . . and no. This complex symbolic construct remains constrained by a certain stasis of identity, an inability to be fully mapped onto the circuit of binary signals that defines the kinetic architecture of our simulated, administered environment. Could it be that the Wounded Sphinx (three discreet bullet holes penetrate its torso) represents the wounded or disabled psyche of the symbol itself?

Ed Hill/Suzanne Bloom