At the outset of Leon Golub: Paintings, 1950-2000 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the curators have hung Napalm Flag (1970), which the artist painted during the height of the Vietnam War. Old Glory appears blood-smeared – twisted and burned and scabbed. For followers of American art, the Golub flag brings jarringly to mind another, more famous rendering of the Stars and Stripes, the Jasper Johns Flag of 1955. If the Golub seems to erupt – hot, angry, and earnest – the Johns is cool and studied, a reflecting pool of irony, ambiguity, and inward-looking rumination. The flags represent two different ways of seeing, and two different Americas.
The Johns approach has been far more influential in American art. Although most Pop and minimal artists of the period opposed the Vietnam War, their work was typically clever and knowing – more a product of the seminar room than of the streets. Golub was an odd man out, one of those who kept alive certain ambitions scuttled by the artists who followed Abstract Expressionism. Golub clung to the figure. He believed he could still make use of great old art, such as classical friezes. He was not ironic. His politics stemmed more from the old left’s cry for social justice than from Foucault’s fashionable dissection of power. He refused to give up the public ambitions of history painting and subside into the merely personal. To put it differently, he would not withdraw art from the suffering of the world. Like Goya, Golub, who is now 79 years old, could not forget the monsters among us. He was rude, embarrassing, and admirable.
Organized by Jon Bird for the Irish Museum of Modern Art, this exhibition of Golub’s work – which Brooke Kamin Rapaport put together for Brooklyn – contains many of his best-known, mural-size images of political barbarism. Before the Vietnam War, Golub depicted the human monster as a kind of historical abstraction. The primitive figures in his “giantomachy” pictures, in which huge looming forms endlessly beat one another, have a timeless aura. In the napalm paintings, however, the barbarity of the ages suddenly breaks into the present. Golub left the canvas raw and sometimes jaggedly ripped, as if cruelty permitted no time for a more artful presentation. (It seemed a pretty lie, moreover, to frame evil in a tidy rectangle.) The figures themselves looked more flayed than drawn. In Napalm I (1969), Golub showed two men trapped in a singular, horrifying moment. One stretches out his arm in protest at what has occurred. The other lies contorted on the ground, a coagulating red smear of paint – at once blood and fire – burning a hole in his chest.
In the next few years, Golub found his essential subject: thuggery. He has made other kinds of pictures, such as portraits and personal meditations upon death, but he will be remembered for his brutes. During the seventies and eighties, Golub regularly made pictures of mercenaries and goons beating, humiliating, and killing their victims; often the victim looks like a piece of human meat. His depiction of the suffering of the powerless arouses pity in the viewer, but it is not the victims themselves who are the focus of Golub’s art. What really gets Golub is the big creeps with loutish leers. No one has better captured the idiot, animal brutality of a certain subset of man. Golub knows how goons stand, how they gloat, how they smoke. He knows what unbuttoning your shirt to the navel can signal and what a beefy forearm can mean. The physical bullying is not just illustrated but presented viscerally through the paint. The roughness of Golub’s surfaces skins the eye. The scrawled lines convey the desperation of a prisoner who uses a nub of chalk to send hopeless messages into the world. It takes a strong but gentle sensibility to expose, with such wounding intimacy, the details of male cruelty – which is why Golub’s art seems, paradoxically, so tender.
Golub’s goons often seem to look or glance outside the picture, as if they were seeking some sign of approval for their performance. In that way, Golub implicates the larger society – and the viewer – in the crimes being committed. Are we just standing around looking at pictures? Do we have the courage to stop what’s happening backstage? The implication of the audience is one of the best and most disturbing aspects of Golub’s art and goes some way toward offsetting my principal reservation about his art – that despite its heat and immediacy, viewers can too easily distance themselves from the crimes. Judging these thugs presents no problem. They are so awful they almost represent another species. Viewers can even indulge in a kind of self-congratulatory righteousness: I am not that. In the work of Goya, by contrast, no such separation can take place. The monster lives within the human heart. The shadow cannot be shaken.
James Ensor (1860-1949), another child of Goya, does not display the social outrage seen in the Spanish master – or in Golub – but he certainly found the demonic in every setting and heart. In Between Street and Mirror: The Drawings of James Ensor, a fascinating show now at the Drawing Center in SoHo, the curators Catherine de Zegher and Robert Hoozee present a large collection of the Belgian artist’s drawings and prints from his most productive period. Early in his life as an artist, Ensor made fairly conventional drawings of domestic interiors. But his pencil could not, seemingly, stop with mere appearances. He would return to the images and add ghostly blooms and emanations, often very lightly drawn against the dark and sober forms of reality. In Nude and Balustrade, queer faces stare out from within a woman’s breasts; in another image, his sleeping aunt – a very ordinary aunt – dreams of monkeylike creatures. Out in the street, Ensor found a carnival of grotesques behind the surface of the world. The crowd teemed with smiling skeletons and beaked men conducting the business of the day. (In some of Ensor’s most celebrated street scenes, Christ is depicted entering the Brussels carnival.) Ensor did not grant himself any dispensation from the monstrous. He could not look at his own face without seeing the protruding skull.
Leon Golub: Paintings, 1950-2000
At the Brooklyn Museum of Art; through August 19.
Between Street and Mirror: The Drawings of James Ensor
At the Drawing Center; through July 21.