New York

Leon Golub

Leon Golub’s new “Snake Eyes” series, 1995–96, is in some ways more delicate than his well-known paintings of mercenary soldiers, of assassins and tyrants, of tortures and interrogations, but it is just as fierce. The difference lies in the surfaces, which are elegantly thin compared to the scraped and battered canvases that used to serve as the visual correlatives of the scenes depicted on them. It is also in the imagery: rather than precise, exactly described brutality (Golub has sometimes lifted his figures from documentary photographs), we get what the artist calls a “pseudo-metaphysical” approach, a sense of a general and enduring spirit not contained in any one body or act. What is the same is the violence of that spirit, and the harshness of the world it governs.

Anyone who mainly liked Golub’s art for political-protest reasons may think it a cop-out that the spirit is now canine instead of human—that the series’ motto could be a phrase daubed into Snake Eyes II, “I have given a name to my pain and called it dog.” Every work in the series features a hound to hunt you from sleep. At the same time, as Golub moves away from journalistic source material, his formal adventurousness becomes more dominant. Always visually erudite—fusing his interest in the poses of classical statuary, for example, with his acute understanding of male body-language—he now lays out dramatic constructions of bare canvas, brushy, tenuous patches of black, and areas of solid but washed-out, acidy color. In Laughing Lions, black squares and bars, a red cloud, and a pair of flat white segments at left and right are straight abstractions; in Breach, of the same year, horizontal drifts of floating blue and black strokes suggest a nebulous spatial recession. It is against these various grounds that Golub’s dogs romp and snarl.

There is other imagery as well—in All Bets Off, 1995, a large skull, defamiliarized by its size, its angle of view, and the pasty, phosphorescent quality of its whiteness; in Breach, a man’s prone body tied up under a wall. (A dog is exploring the possibilities of chewing on his leg.) And in most of the paintings there are scattered bits of language, the most pungent of which are short colloquial phrases like “snake eyes” and “all bets off.” (The more predictable “transmission garbled” seems stale by contrast.)

You’d need formal jazz to carry off this somewhat Gothic vocabulary, and for the most part Golub achieves his combinations of images and abstract fields, which get as big as 17 feet wide, with a skill that makes them look easy. The dogs themselves have a frisky, ferocious energy. Still, for some these paintings may seem a withdrawal from the education in realpolitik for which this artist has been relied on in the past. It was smart, then, to include in this show a group of his paintings from the ’50s—sphinxes and totemic motifs that remind us he has trodden this semimythic ground before. Equally fitting was the resonant quote from Shakespeare in Laughing Lions: the phrase “Cry havoc,” which should be completed, as in Julius Caesar, “let slip the dogs of war.”

For me the play to cite might have been The Winter’s Tale, with its determination to keep an eye on the tragic dimension of life while maintaining a certain resolved distance from it. Perhaps that play had no canine imagery, though Golub might have taken the license of replacing a word in its best-known line, giving us the instruction to “exit, pursued by a dog.”

David Frankel