New York

Leon Golub

Josh Baer Gallery

The synthesis of brutality and beauty in Gigantomachy IV, 1967, a large, roughly painted ensemble of classical nude male warriors closeted in the small back gallery of Leon Golub’s recent “Patriots” exhibition, animates his entire oeuvre. Indeed, these parallel worlds inform his ’90s patriots as much as they do the long line of thugs, mercenaries, assassins, soldiers, and interrogators from which they are descended. The characters change to reflect prevailing wars, crimes, and injustices, but the types portrayed remain more or less constant. Two of the patriots are working-class men, dressed in printed T-shirts boasting slogans that reflect the right-wing politics and red-blooded machismo that proliferated during the Persian Gulf War. One wears the image of an American bald eagle, captioned “These Colors Never Run,” and another, an American flag with the words “Try Burning This One. . . ASSHOLE.” Golub dampens the bully and bravado of these figures by endowing them with awkward body language: hands grope groins and fumble with genitalia in gestures that reveal the overlap of prowess and anxiety.

A more overt though no less familiar variety of urban violence is referenced in The Site, 1991, in which a group of suited men stands around a downed body. Their vacant facial expressions and dispassionate poses suggest conspiratorial intent. In contrast to this “moment after” stillness, the explosive Riot VII, 1991, consists of a crescendo of fractured colored planes animating a scene of vicious vigilante violence. Golub’s patriots are named daily in reports of police brutality and bias crimes, and their association with the myriad sexists, racists, and neofascists among us is obvious. On one hand, his powerful emotional narratives speak out eloquently against social injustice; on the other, as paintings they are exquisitely beautiful. His earthy painterly technique and palette, uninhibited gestures, and accomplished tonalities stand in striking contrast to the somber scenes. Golub’s paintings do not evidence the contemporary struggle to “reinvent” painting or the need to carve out new territory. (He did that long ago.) While his male archetypes of violence and indifference have set standards for representational painting in the five decades spanned by his career, interpretation of what constitutes a politicized content has shifted dramatically during that same period. Of late, a politics has emerged in American art that champions social conscience without haggling over style and makes meaning and message synonymous. Without doubt, Golub’s art paved the way for this change, yet the manner in which his stylistic practice informs his “political” subject matter remains noteworthy; for just as Golub paints to please himself, so too, he is never one to thrust a message upon a viewer or to trump up a theatrical and false sense of urgency. Without the onus to impress anyone with his political correctness, or with his messianic mission to make art meaningful in a troubled world, or with a self-appointed responsibility for the viewer’s social enlightenment, Golub leaves it to others to convert the post-Modern esthetes who can see no further than the isolationism of endgame strategies. Rather, he continues his own skilled investigations of the intrinsic qualities of a medium that is expressive enough to manage the pathos of social content without trivializing it, and he leaves the pumped-up political causes to the young bloods.

Jan Avgikos