Leon Golub Paints Lasting Protests Against Grisly Brutality

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A recent discussion with a colleague produced a seemingly self-evident formula: "The best way to make political art is to make good art." Getting into the spirit of things, we rifled through the ages in an attempt to assemble a roster of our favorite politically minded artists. The acerbic, skeletal work of James Ensor was in, William Blake's muscular, anti-Enlightenment angels were out (too simple and moralizing). The historical tragedies of David and Delacroix made the cut, the Civil War paintings of John Singer Sargent did not (like his paughtraits, he couldn't help dressing up armed conflict). On the strength of a single painting, Guernica, Picasso ascended to the pantheon of great political artists alongside Goya and his The Third of May, without question the greatest protest painting of all time. The bellicose glorifications of futurist painters like Gino Severini and Giacomo Balla, it was decided, were works we could just as well live without.

Approaching our own time, specific pieces by artists like Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Philip Guston and Edward Kienholz made the list, pushing aside other works by more committed, less effective artists. But when looking at the art of the last two decades?a period in which explicit political statements have played a far larger role than at any other time in recent memory?considerably fewer names came to mind when thinking of successful artistic challenges to the inchoate realities of power. No matter. First on that curiously shortened list, it was unanimously decided, is the powerful work of the American painter Leon Golub.

For some five decades now Golub has made great art that is also robustly, significantly political. Long considered a dark horse in the art world stakes, Golub began his career by painting the wrong thing (figuration) in the wrong place (his native Chicago, where he studied art on the GI Bill) at the wrong time (the abstract expressionist 1950s). Having served in Europe during World War II, Golub was deeply affected by the events that summarize its gory psychic aftermath like a litany?the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki?and made an early commitment to figuration that was for him critical, ethical and artistic.

Golub, influenced by the primitivism of Jean Dubuffet's "Art Brut," the screaming popes of Francis Bacon, the existentialist thin men of Alberto Giacometti and, perhaps most importantly, by the distance separating him from New York's formalist triumph, developed a unique brand of expressive figuration that pointed up, in the manner of a gadfly, the road not taken by successive postwar artistic movements. Built up through layers of pigment, lacquer and later acrylic the artist literally scraped away with a meat cleaver, Golub's canvases embraced the human form, contained discernible content and sought to capture, in the words of critic Lawrence Alloway, "an heroic imagery of man vulnerable...to interference by violence, time, death."

Among the work currently on view in the Brooklyn Museum's abbreviated retrospective of his work, "Leon Golub: Paintings, 1950-2000," are coruscated, classically derived works the artist made in Europe in the early 1960s. Golub moved there with his wife, the artist Nancy Spero, partly to escape Chicago's provincialism and partly to find an audience more receptive to his figurative work. He found himself inspired by two unlikely, premodern sources: the ruined monumentality of Late Roman and Hellenistic sculpture and the communal scope of French historical painting. Depicting warrior-like figures involved in mythic struggles, Golub's paintings acquired many of the characteristics that became, in time, his signature. There were the oversized figures enacting ambiguous narratives, the informal, unstretched presentations, the surfaces scoured down to the nub of the canvas.

On his return to the U.S. in 1964, Golub found his country in turmoil. The Kennedy assassination was barely a year old and the first coordinated student protests against the Vietnam War were in full swing. Impatient with the lack of connectedness his work had to the period's dramatic events, Golub replaced his paintings of allusive, battling figures with epic-scale canvases of gun-toting U.S. soldiers and terrorized Vietnamese civilians. The move, characterized by critic Donald Kuspit as one "from an inner awareness of violence to an articulation of social violence," proved to be fundamental. After several Vietnam pictures and an ensuing dry spell, Golub was ready for the gut-wrenching, revelatory paintings he made during the 1980s.

Golub's paintings of smirking, anonymous mercenaries, interrogators and torturers, far sturdier and more documentary than anything confected during an age filled with thin, overconceptualized political art, were the perfect artistic purgative to the Reagan era's white-shoe, neo-colonial ethos. Painted nearly twice life-size and silhouetted starkly against red oxide backgrounds like Roman frescoes, Golub's two-dimensional, uniformed irregulars committed the crimes many suspected their governments of perpetrating. His rag-tag soldiers and cops engaged in fictional atrocities, reveling in kidnappings, beatings and murder, while state functionaries from Washington to Witwatersrand anxiously screened real crimes behind the dense walls of official rhetoric.

Located simultaneously in the flat, nowhere space that nurtured abstract expressionism and in a shallow, narrative arena that suggested Latin America or Africa, Golub drew his images from a welter of sources, including art books, clippings from Soldier of Fortune magazine and a cache of press photos he collected through the years. Golub's men, facing front or at other times sideways in nearly Byzantine profiles, pummeled their victims, held guns to their heads, dragged them across floors by their hair and urinated on them with disturbing collegiality. Pictured smiling, trading jokes or engaging in displays of male bravado, as in the painting Mercenaries IV, the men incongruously presented a friendly front, greeting the viewer complicitously with good old boy bonhomie. It was then, and only then, that we noticed that the artist purposely obscured the victims' faces. Objectified to the point of nullity, the painter had brilliantly turned our sympathies on their ear, allowing us to confront and ultimately empathize only with the faces of his criminals.

"We are in a world in which misery condemns some to death and transforms others into monsters," writes Ryszard Kapuscinski in his new memoir The Shadow of the Sun. Mining similar thematic terrain in newer paintings that feature illusionistic, shifting space, the ghostly apparitions of skulls and skeletons and graffiti-like text, the now 79- year-old Leon Golub continues to fashion immensely durable work that conjoins sophisticated art with equally sophisticated politics. His canvases are lasting protests against grisly brutality and its uncomplicated apprehension, and dare us still to finish their statements, to "complete" the horror on the canvas with something infinitely worse: the imagined manipulations of the human mind.

"Leon Golub: Paintings, 1950-2000," through Aug. 19 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, 200 Eastern Pkwy. (Washington Ave.), Brooklyn, 718-638-5000.

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