New York

Leon Golub/Nancy Spero

Josh Baer Gallery

“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” This chilling observation of Walter Benjamin’s is nowhere more fully taken to heart than in the work of Leon Golub and Nancy Spero. A two-part presentation surveyed work from the last four decades, first with selections from the ’60s and ’70s, then from the ’50s and ’90s. Welcome as it was, the first half of the exhibition was the less surprising. During the period it covered, Golub’s and Spero’s oeuvres were complementary, each faithfully situated in a distinct sphere. What the second part of the show revealed was just how similar their work once was, and how, in indirect ways, it is again becoming intertwined.

Given the amount of misunderstanding these two artists have provoked, simple observations may bear repeating. One is that Spero’s work is not simply about “positive” or empathic images of women. Her use of female figures exclusively is not an end but a means in her effort “to see what it means to view the world through the depiction of women.” Golub does not normally work as a “political artist” in the way artists as different as Ben Shahn or John Heartfield have done; he does not encourage us to take a side. Rather, he encourages an identification with the figures of power and brutality in his pictures, prompting us to question our own morality, not theirs.

In the works of the ’50s by both artists, mysterious totemic figures emerge from darkness—perhaps more confrontationally in Golub’s case than in Spero’s, but the similarities are more striking than the differences. The paintings are muddy yet compelling, as though the artists were fixed on something they could as yet discern only “through a glass darkly.” After the ’60s and ’70s—years of fervent struggle and experimentation—the present decade appears to be one of masterful clarification and amplification. Though Spero’s Sacred and Profane Love, 1993—a 70-foot-long scroll, displayed along the top of the gallery wall like a portable frieze—mobilizes many of her more familiar images, they are presented alongside new ones. Whereas her early scrolls were often agonizingly fixated on detail, this one is radiant: downright voluptuous in its imprinted textures, effortless and open in the handling of rhythms and intervals. Golub’s new paintings include as many female as male figures the former a rarity in his work until now—and some also have graffitilike inscriptions that are beautifully integrated into the pictorial structures. The way the acrylic paint has been applied has also changed. Turning away from the arduous building up and scraping down of paint, Golub is now working much more directly and sparingly. The images in paintings like Lady Love and Agent Orange, both 1993, appear as though glimpsed abruptly, but unforgettably, through bright flashes of stroboscopic light. These new paintings possess a kind of demonic beauty that is new to Golub’s work. It’s as though, having originated in darkness, the work of both Spero and Golub has grown toward the light without ever repressing consciousness of the barbarity that underlies its civilized splendor.

Barry Schwabsky