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Two paintings by Leon Golub in the 1983 Whitney Biennial made the bulk of the works in that cynical and dispiriting exhibition seem like meretricious toys. Scraped onto heavy expanses of unprimed, unmounted canvas--tarpaulins, in effect--his were images of political terror, scenes of torture, though their power can only be partially explained through the unredeemed horror of their subjects. Golub had painted horrifying things before, in a sense had painted scarcely anything except horrifying things, but until these extraordinary canvases I had not seen anything of his that captured the affect of the subjects he treated. Heretofore his subjects made us wince, and the paintings seemed merely to raise questions of taste.

Indeed, those earlier canvases seemed exercises in frustration, as though the artist had pushed and piled paint, scratched and tormented pigment until it became a sort of chemical sludge, trying to get it to incarnate feelings that his subjects unquestionably evoked even if the paintings never did. This frustration was nowhere more evident than in the "Napalm" series he painted in response to the enormities of Vietnam combat. These were images of terminally scorched humans depicted through scraped, reddened paint, as though the treatment of the paint re-enacted the effect of this most fearsome of chemical weapons. But of course the distances between surface and subject were too great for the paintings to do more than show an agony it was almost impertinent to suppose they could emblematize, and the viewer turned away in embarrassment and discomfort. What had begun as invocation ended as portentousness.

So until quite recently, Golub's paintings have been those of a man whose moral concerns have coexisted uneasily with certain aspirations for his art, which seemed doomed to remain mythic. For they were the aspirations of Pygmalion. Pygmalion fulfilled an erotic longing by a magical artistic transformation: the ivory votive image he fashioned of Aphrodite was animated by that goddess, who had until then refused him. Now she lay with him as Galatea, medium transacted into the flesh of love, art become life. Well, something as unlikely as this took place in the Whitney canvases, some magical breakthrough to a power Golub's earlier works failed to coax into paint. And the Whitney canvases turn out to be representative of all Golub's new work, uncannily successful.

Ten of his large recent canvases may be seen at the New Museum in New York City, until November 25, where they are displayed in the context of his early and middle periods. It is always instructive to survey an artistic life in the framework of a retrospective exhibition, but this abrupt and unexpected achievement is a rare kind of occurrence. It is a challenge to our understanding of the creative process--that a painter distinguished chiefly by the intensity of his effort should, as if in answer to his prayer, touch at last on artistic greatness.

The paintings are of terrorists, interrogators, mercenaries, whom we see at work, as it were, with their victims; and at play, as it were, with girlfriends leached of any attribute save those of arid sexual recreation. The victims too are leached of all features save those through which they suffer the methodical inflictions of men past caring. Little by way of information or confession can be agonized out of the trussed and naked bodies, since one victim has his head tied up in a black sack, and another has her mouth taped shut. In one scene of interrogation (not exhibited at the New Museum), the victim is suspended upside down, as helpless as the carcass of beef in Rembrandt's moving depiction, while one of the tormentors examines his instrument to see, perhaps, if it has not been damaged by a body whose bones remain the only agent of resistance. All the figures, perhaps even the victims if we knew their histories, are moral monsters--sometimes black, sometimes white; sometimes with Third World faces, sometimes Yanks; sometimes government forces, as evidenced by jackboots and puffed breeches, sometimes rebels, wearing the anonymous utilitarian vestments, coveralls and fatigues, of the underground fighter. It is as though there is little to choose between the sides, as though it cannot deeply matter who wins or loses. Like mercenaries, they are all on the side they are on, though they could as easily be on the other. They are there for the fun and the money.

The inhumanities are utterly unredeemed, by comparison, say, with those in depictions of martyrdoms. I once learned of a series of these done by Rubens, and I expected them to be thrillingly deep, since the relationship between martyr and martyrizer has traditionally been as fateful and elemental as the relationship between mother and child, or between lovers. If one believes that suffering redeems sin, then each martyr re-enacts the sacrifice familiar from the vast number of crucifixions which after all form so substantial a segment of our artistic culture, and the martyrizer accordingly has a cosmic role to play. But after the decision by the Council of Trent to use depictions of suffering to cause vicarious suffering on the part of viewers, Christian art became lurid, as I am afraid Rubens's scenes of martyrdom finally turned out to be--no more capable of augmenting the anguish shown than, say, the earlier paintings of Golub are. These new paintings depict political realities unredeemed by any of the purpose politics is supposed to serve. But they nevertheless have a power that even the redemptive martyrdoms lack--so the power cannot derive solely from the subject matter.

To understand it, it seems to me, we must incorporate as part of the work the relationship in which the artist depicts himself as standing to his subjects. For he does not merely depict them, as it were, from without: he engages with these persons as someone who has somehow gained their confidence. It is as though they have allowed him entry into their frightening, airless places. He addresses them as a photographer who seems to show himself almost as indifferent to the enormities he sees as the agents of those enormities themselves are. It is as though he is there, in the same terrible space as victims and tormentors, asking the latter to stop for a moment and pose for what today is called a "photo opportunity." They are asked to say Cheese. And good-naturedly they comply, grinning at the camera, hamming it up, horsing around, waving to the camera, perhaps pointing at what they are working over, as indifferent to it as a mechanic might be to an axle. They might even ask for a copy to send home, so deeply have the realities of suffering receded for them. In a way they act toward the subject of pain the way we as museum-goers act toward depictions of pain.

The same interlocking glances fix the artist together with his subjects in the paintings of mercenaries on their days off: one poses, smirking, with a woman who clutches his crotch. Another woman sits on a black man's knee lolling a suggestive tongue at the camera, waving a bottle. In one painting, a member of the White Squad looks over his shoulder while he stuffs someone--dead or alive?--in the coffin-shaped trunk of an automobile, and appears undisturbed by the interruption, as though he were thinking, Oh, it's only you. Another time the photographer catches a mercenary with three subdued blacks at pistol point, as proud as a hunter with so many elk.

The power of the works derives from their moral optics, from the fact that the artist has entered the world he had previously been separated from by his noisy surfaces. Of course the new surfaces have a great interest. The figures have the jerky marionettelike quality of some of Egon Schiele's painted portraits. The heads have a kind of Sienese condensation, and their teeth are as memorable as those in Mantegna. By comparison with the earlier work, the paint has almost abandoned the canvas: there remain only dry scrapes, with the tonal feeling of fresco. All the energy is in the complicity between painter and persons with whom he has made a bargain. They are finally like the images of Diane Arbus, which had to be bizarre and extreme in order to raise the question of how she managed to negotiate the photograph. The catalogue says, "The artist's placement of the viewer in a precarious psychological relationship to the depicted scene has become the fundamental mechanism at work." It has not. We are not involved at all because the artist has put himself there instead, at the cost of suspending his judgment. Those men are not looking at us but at him. We see their glances, but we are not seen.

Lately Golub has stressed in interviews that he is only a reporter. The energy of the painting lies in the price the reporter has had to pay in order to get the news: he has to become part of the news by sacrificing a propensity to condemn and by stifling moral impulse. For a moral personality as strong as Golub's this represents a terrible cost. I am not certain that art even in its highest aspirations merits such a cost. But his willingness to shoulder that price gives his work an undeniably Faustian dimension--with the consequence that the political subject has become only one element in a mythic transformation which has morality as another and art itself as a third. The drama is as intense as any the stage holds or can hold.

I could not help but notice that several of the late paintings (and none of the early ones) are owned by Doris and Charles Saatchi, of London. Charles Saatchi is one of the great powers in today's art world, and his acquisitions here put me in mind of a great Socratic question. In the Euthyphro, Socrates asks whether the gods love something because it is good, or whether it is good only because they love it. I used to think that an artist was important if collected by Saatchi, that that was what importance had come to. I now see that it is occasionally possible for Saatchi to collect what is independently important, as these paintings are. The show will travel to La Jolla, California, to Chicago and Montreal, and finally to the Corcoran in Washington, D.C. It deserves your serious attention if you are within reach of any of those places.
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Title Annotation:Leon Golub's exhibition at the New Museum, New York
Author:Danto, Arthur Coleman
Publication:The Nation
Date:Nov 17, 1984
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