By Schwabsky, Barry
Artforum International , Vol. 32, No. 3
"There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism." This chilling observation of Walter Benjamin's is nowhere more fully taken to heart than in the work of Leon Golub and Nancy Spero. A two-part presentation surveyed work from the last four decades, first with selections from the '60s and '70s, then from the '50s and '90s. Welcome as it was, the first half of the exhibition was the less surprising. During the period it covered, Golub's and Spero's oeuvres were complementary, each faithfully situated in a distinct sphere. What the second part of the show revealed was just how similar their work once was, and how, in indirect ways, it is again becoming intertwined.
Given the amount of misunderstanding these two artists have provoked, simple observations may bear repeating. One is that Spero's work is not simply about "positive" or empathic images of women. Her use of female figures exclusively is not an end but a means in her effort "to see what it means to view the world through the depiction of women." Golub does not normally work as a "political artist" in the way artists as different as Ben Shahn or John Heartfield have done; he does not encourage us to take a side. Rather, he encourages an identification with the figures of power and brutality in his pictures, prompting us to question our own morality, not theirs.
In the works of the '50s by both artists, mysterious totemic figures emerge from darkness--perhaps more confrontationally in Golub's case than in Spero's, but the similarities are more striking than the differences. …