Leon Golub Raw Nerve Radical Art


Leon Golub was a one-note painter of political art active in the 1960s. But on what an eviscerating note. Most interesting paintings are now on view at the Met Bruer. Anti-racist and anti-war, they are all of them epic in scale. His canvas never settled down. The paintings allow for little by way of quiet reflection, except for maybe the second one above, The Conversation, which, according to the wall text, was mostly like based on a photograph from South Africa during the time of apartheid. A painter primarily of men caught in brutal situations, he was the husband of feminist artist Nancy Spero, also a painter of dynamic, kinetic mythic and mythological figures, and whom I first encountered here, literally underground.

This interview about Golub, which you can read here, with Kelly Baum is very helpful in terms of placing Golub in the radical art political circles of the time. About process and techniques, she writes that, for Golub, these “were both opportunities to express meaning, to explore violence. For most of his career, he brutalized his surfaces, did violence to his canvases. It’s especially apparent in Gigantomachy II where he added and subtracted, applied and removed paint continuously, using implements like meat cleavers. Because of this subtractive technique, the figures appear flayed. He was working on the floor sometimes, too. It took a lot of strength and endurance. I want to emphasize that his very technique, and the effects it achieved, are also political. In at least one piece of writing, he compares his treatment of the canvas’s surface to the damage done to skin by napalm, which literally just dissolves the skin off the bones.”

For Golub, the human condition is torture all the way down. It’s art that leaves an acrid taste in the back of the throat.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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