Leon Golub

By Frankel, David | Artforum International, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Leon Golub


Frankel, David, Artforum International


Leon Golub's new "Snake Eyes" series, 1995-96, is in some ways more delicate than his well-known paintings of mercenary soldiers, of assassins and tyrants, of tortures and interrogations, but it is just as fierce. The difference lies in the surfaces, which are elegantly thin compared to the scraped and battered canvases that used to serve as the visual correlatives of the scenes depicted on them. It is also in the imagery: rather than precise, exactly described brutality (Golub has sometimes lifted his figures from documentary photographs), we get what the artist calls a "pseudo-metaphysical" approach, a sense of a general and enduring spirit not contained in any one body or act. What is the same is the violence of that spirit, and the harshness of the world it governs.

Anyone who mainly liked Golub's art for political-protest reasons may think it a cop-out that the spirit is now canine instead of human - that the series' motto could be a phrase daubed into Snake Eyes II, "I have given a name to my pain and called it dog." Every work in the series features a hound to hunt you from sleep. At the same time, as Golub moves away from journalistic source material, his formal adventurousness becomes more dominant. Always visually erudite - fusing his interest in the poses of classical statuary, for example, with his acute understanding of male body-language - he now lays out dramatic constructions of bare canvas, brushy, tenuous patches of black, and areas of solid but washed-out, acidy color. In Laughing Lions, black squares and bars, a red cloud, and a pair of flat white segments at left and right are straight abstractions; in Breach, of the same year, horizontal drifts of floating blue and black strokes suggest a nebulous spatial recession. It is against these various grounds that Golub's dogs romp and snarl. …

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