New York

Leon Golub, Interrogation, 1992, silk screen on paper, 17 × 22".

Leon Golub, Interrogation, 1992, silk screen on paper, 17 × 22".

Leon Golub

The Met Breuer

An unforgiving witness to his time, Leon Golub (1922–2004) was America’s Goya during the second half of the twentieth century, recording and denouncing in his art what critic Donald Kuspit called the “pathology of power.” While aware of various classical European sculptural and pictorial traditions, as well as developments in French postwar art, Golub’s painting is rough, stripped bare of anything agreeable or polite. Neither alluring nor eager to please, his images are coarse—they scrape against the eyes. He drew upon a wide variety of visual sources, high and low: from Greek statuary and pictures of weapons and mercenaries, to sports and porn magazines, war photography, and s/m film stills—which he kept separated by subject in folders inside the monastic cell where he slept, at the back of his loft on LaGuardia Place in Manhattan. There was a phenomenal contrast between the tidy order in which he kept his reference materials and the horrors that were unleashed when he opened them. But his passion for truth and his steadfast moral position against all forms of violence and abuse allowed him to coexist with such atrocities.

The overtly political content in his paintings began to emerge in the mid-1960s with his “Vietnam” works and continued throughout other series such as “Mercenaries,” “Riot,” “White Squad,” and “Interrogation,” made between the 1970s and 1990s. These renderings of male aggressiveness, and of racial and sexual oppression, are a ferocious critique of American imperialism that in those decades manifested itself in the form of covert activities in Africa and South and Central America, such as the US-backed invasion of Angola and the Iran-Contra affair. Glances are between larger-than-life protagonists, victims, and perpetrators; rarely are they directed toward the viewer. And yet we become implicated as soon as we look into Golub’s sinister spaces, where acts of torture are depicted. The monumental scale of Golub’s works, like the media’s outsize appetite for all manner of vile spectacles, turns us into voyeurs, accomplices to heinous acts. His goal in this was to make it impossible for us to be indifferent to pain.

Quite regrettably, all of this was explicated only in wall texts—not in the curatorial choices made for the exhibition, “Leon Golub: Raw Nerve.” If this was an opportunity for the museum to pay its respects to Golub’s art, it failed. This “selective survey” (the Met Breuer’s phrase) focused too much on the work’s relationship to art history, from ancient Greece to art brut, Dutch vanitas, and so forth. But Golub’s brilliance was in how he synthesized all this information to make frightening and contemporary works that were not beholden to voguish artistic styles or cultural fads. The show made him look “smart,” yet utterly gutless. Golub took on loaded social and political issues at a time when figurative art, and even painting itself, was considered wrongheaded and retrograde. The most confrontational images were absent, save for a handful, such as White Squad VIII, 1985, which depicts a standing, armed man, in a striking symphony of blacks and bloody Pompeian reds, brutalizing a prisoner on the ground; and the large-scale Gigantomachy II, 1966, an early visual manifesto of Golub’s ideas—and, rightfully, the show’s centerpiece—featuring naked men fighting each other in a gory battle, indicating that human destiny has always been and forever will be tied to violence. And in the small canvas Vietnamese Head, 1970, the titular object, decapitated and impaled on a pike, is still shocking in its rawness, almost fifty years later. While these and a few other examples left no doubt about the artist’s intentions, the exhibition constructed around them did not fully reveal their import. Golub’s artistic and moral scope was much wider and deeper than what this limited selection—lacking a kind of courage that the artist, by contrast, was never short on—allowed. Golub was angry at the injustice of the world until the day he died. Softening this aspect of him and his art looked like a betrayal of his radical stance.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.