New York

Leon Golub / Nancy Spero

Roth Horowitz

FOR OVER FOUR DECADES, Leon Golub and Nancy Spero have been exploring the social and political hotbed of gender. Masculinist and feminist, respectively, they address issues of power and the violent and subjugating impulses that underlie and propagate sociocultural archetypes. Golub and Spero increasingly show together, and, not surprisingly, their complement is often fascinating. These vintage warriors of social conscience and gender have been married for nearly fifty years and have established a kind of oppositional harmony, as their recent show's title, “The Fighting Is a Dance, Too,” suggests.

This small but illuminating assemblage includes the couple's drawings and collages from the '60s and '70s as well as some of Golub's new work—small ink-and-acrylic and oil-stick drawings on paper and vellum—and an unassuming installation by Spero, which consisted of a group of figures made from colored tissue paper that she applied to the rear window of the gallery. These projects demonstrate a deepening sense of dialogue: For example, certain elements of Golub's new works—a wry, sometimes polemical use of language and a confrontational style—echo Spero's hand-printed and painted collages and drawings from the '70s. While her works on paper lack the grand scale and richness of her original installations, Spero's resounding voice still registers power, as do the voices of the spirited figures whose tongues lash at us—as in her 1974 “Licit Exp” series, which derives from the “Explicit Explanations” that dosed each chapter in an eighth-century Spanish monk's commentaries on the Book of the Apocalypse.

Both artists invoke historical as well as mythic figures. Spero's signature goddesses (her window installation depicts a procession of women accompanied by talismanic scarabs) are paralleled in Golub's early-'60s work by images that derive from ancient sources: Eight large figurative studies, for example, which became the basis for his “Gigantomachy” paintings of 1965–67, were inspired by the frieze on the Great Altar of Zeus at Pergamon. These early pieces reveal a certain classical grace that Golub has cultivated throughout his career and that paradoxically underlies the brute, visceral images of male anguish and violence that have dominated his work. Like his paintings' carefully rendered surfaces, the texture of these drawings in sanguine conté on vellum and black conté on paper helps convey a sense of immediacy and further articulates the figures' raw yet monumental physicality. Their Hellenistic gesturing and writhing postures also reflect that period's distinct character of vulnerability and defeat. But these are neither giants nor gods: The recalcitrant figure in Untitled IX, 1962–63, who looks upward open-mouthed, nose and arm broken, is very much a contemporary person, someone—like a professional athlete—who fulfills our own need for heroes.

In contrast to this depiction of burdened man, Spero offers her large horizontal scroll I Am on My Way Running, 1979, a drawn and printed image of a woman in motion, “her arms extended like wings.” Accompanying her are words from a Native American puberty rite: “I am on my way running . . . looking towards me is the edge of the world.” The artist's vital feminist utopia is populated by a range of wildly celebratory women like this, who are both real and mythological and who transcend sexual difference by embodying a certain heterogeneity. They exhibit ideals often associated with men—strength and agility, sexual potency, abandon, self-possession, and camaraderie—reminding us of Spero's unrelenting assault on the intolerable constraints of gender stereotypes and the numbing conformity of the status quo.

Mason Klein