The current exhibition of the work of painter Leon Golub at the Met Breuer, Leon Golub: Raw Nerve, recalls two truths: first, that Golub was one of the greatest American painters of the last 50 years; and second, that his work has been ill-served, so far, by the major art institutions in New York.
When Golub was still alive (I knew him personally only for the last four years of his life, from 2000 to 2004), I always thought the latter avoidance was due entirely to the radical political content of his work. The work was just too hot and confrontational to be absorbed in real time. (I’ll leave aside, for now, the confrontational and bombastic public persona of the artist, especially when it came to condemnations and caricatures of decision-makers at major art institutions, especially in New York.)
But one of the virtues of this little show at the Met is that it reminds us of the extent to which the problem with Golub’s work, in terms of institutional support, was not only political, but also aesthetic. From the beginning of his mature work, Golub was trying to find a new way to paint, and that pursuit put him in constant conflict with reigning orthodoxies. His rough, even brutal, methods of working a surface and getting paint to penetrate those surfaces were entirely in sync with his subject matter as a new kind of history painter, but at odds with the more refined paint handling of second generation Ab Ex and later Color Field painters.
This little show at the Met Breuer was occasioned by the gift of Golub’s magnificent Gigantomachy II from 1966 by The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts, formed by Leon and Nancy’s three sons, Stephen, Philip, and Paul, to the Met. It also includes other works still owned by the estate, a gift by Dan Miller of a smaller important work from 1970 (Vietnamese Head), a number of “intended gifts” to the museum from the extensive collection of Golub works by curator and critic Jon Bird, and loans from other collectors (Golub only had a few loyal ones) and galleries.
Within all these exigencies and limitations, Met curator of postwar and contemporary art Kelly Baum has shaped an excellent short introduction to Golub’s work, selecting examples from throughout the artist’s long life, from early paintings and prints working the line between representation and abstraction, to the last canvases that were on the walls of Golub’s studio when he died. Baum’s show manages, in a very limited space, to limn the extensions of Golub’s art. From the beginning of the show, standing before Gigantomachy II (1966), one can see the end of it, in All Bets Are Off (1995) and Bite Your Tongue (2001). The show is too brief, and there should have been a publication attached to it, but at least it’s a beginning of a rapprochement and a more extensive engagement by the Met, one hopes.
All of the themes that recur throughout Golub’s oeuvre—toxic masculinity, the corruption of political power, the complicity and pathology of the mob, the incredible human capacity for cruelty toward one another, the corrosive effects of violence on both victims and perpetrators, and the insanity of war—are even more present and pressing now than they were when these works were made. As we hurtle headlong into chaos in our politics and conformity in our iconopolitics, Golub’s history paintings look more and more prescient and are certainly more necessary.
Perhaps it’s finally getting to be Golub’s time.
From The Brooklyn Rail online posting by David Levi Strauss on April 4th, 2018.