Activist Art Power at the Breuer
One of the great public services the Met often carries out is to serve up the work of an artist that you may not be fully aware of if you are not in the field, and in this case the Breuer delivers another high impact show that many newcomers to Leon Golub’s achievement will carry home in their minds with great gratitude as an unlooked for gift in displaying yet another advance in human imagination they hadn’t conceived of before, for Golub’s huge canvases speak loudly not only with huge figures unmatched in presence and connection with the viewer as they look out or even crawl out towards him or her from battle or torture or other sites of the devastation of male belligerence in history both classical and modern, but also in clear evocation of Golub’s life long activism against the excesses of the powerful over the oppressed as the fundamental villainy of excess masculinity, an ethical reproach which is particularly telling in our current political circumstances as we teeter on the nuclear brink, all brought home to us in Golub’s unique ability to match the outward action of oppression and abuse of power with the explicit humanity and visible beauty and familiarity of the soul’s inner life even as in the case of two vast canvases in the penultimate room of this show, not as widely known and celebrated as the rest, one picturing two black men in conversation in front of a wall in Cuba with a dynamic image of a third bursting out of it, the other with an aged black woman sitting on a bench seat looking directly at us while another looks off at a passing white man who avoids meeting his gaze as he looks in the opposite direction off canvas at what judging from his twisted smile may well be an instance of prejudice in action in some off camera incident, which along with other works in Golub’s whole career largely ignoring fashionable abstraction in favor of the human figure and arms length objectivity in favor of activism against violence in his art matched with actively demonstrating in real life against the Vietnam war offer powerful images combined with ethical attitude in a fully expressed way that remains unique in contemporary art, although something of the same outsized artistic power and overwhelming empathy with the humanity of those abused by power and class might be seen in a recent Breuer offering of Kerry James Marshall a year and a half ago, where black skinned figures found their rightful place as people as substantial and in some self expressive ways superior to those that assume a higher rank, just as the hugely impressive art of Leon Golub is in key ways superior in self expression to the abstractions of contemporary fashion.
Met Breuer briefing: Opening February 6 at The Met Breuer, Leon Golub: Raw Nerve will present a selective survey of this groundbreaking artist’s work.
Timed to celebrate the 2016 gift to The Met of the monumental painting Gigantomachy II (1966) from The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts and Stephen, Philip, and Paul Golub, the exhibition will present highlights from Golub’s long, eminent career, drawn from distinguished private collections as well as the artist’s estate. Golub’s unflinching portrayals of power and brutality have profound relevance today, as does his belief in the ethical responsibility of the artist.
Born in Chicago, Golub (1922–2004) occupies a singular position in the history of mid to late 20th-century art. His devotion to the figure, his embrace of expressionism, his amalgamation of modern and classical sources, and his commitment to social justice distinguish his practice as an artist.
The centerpiece of Leon Golub: Raw Nerve is Gigantomachy II, a commanding, epic work measuring nearly 10 by 25 feet. Created in 1966, two years after Golub joined the Artists and Writers Protest Group and began to lobby actively against the Vietnam War, this political allegory recounts the story of a mythic battle between the Olympian gods and a race of giants. In Golub’s contemporary retelling, there are no heroes, only anonymous men in various states of distress, their bodies riven by scars and wounds.
Alongside this powerful and terrifying work, Leon Golub: Raw Nerve will feature paintings from all of the artist’s most important series, including Pylon, White Squad, Riot, and Horsing Around. These will be accompanied by a 1970 painting of a victim of the Vietnam War, as well as a suite of early paintings that reflect Golub’s study of antiquity, and a group of unsettling portraits of the Brazilian dictator Ernesto Geisel.
Also on view will be works on paper that represent subjects of longstanding interest to the artist, from mercenaries , interrogators, and the victims of violence to political figures, nudes, and animals, all of them rendered in the raw, visceral style for which he is justly celebrated.
Taken together, the works in Leon Golub: Raw Nerve, which span the entire arc of Golub’s career, attest to his incisive perspective on the catastrophes that afflict human civilization as well as his critique of violence and belligerent masculinity.
Leon Golub: Raw Nerve is organized by Kelly Baum, Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Curator of Contemporary Art in The Met’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art.
The exhibition is featured on The Met website, and also on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.