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Leon Golub: Raw Nerve

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday February 7, 2018

Endless war and destruction are the themes of a major exhibition of works by Leon Golub that opened yesterday at The Met Breuer. The title, Leon Golub: Raw Nerve, is taken from a 1986 essay in which he wrote, “Artists manage extraordinary balancing acts, not merely of survival or brinkmanship but of analysis and raw nerve.”

By that time, Golub (1922-2004) was well into his fourth decade as a painter whose subject was Man—the mythic figure embodied in human form by an artist whose apocalyptic vision spared nothing when delving into the anger he felt about man’s inhumanity to man. The show opens with Gigantomachy II, 1966 (above), a 10 by 25 foot mural of nude warriors that echoes the heroic friezes of the Parthenon. Golub, born in Chicago, received a graduate degree from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1950, where he had formed an artists collective called the Monster Roster, making paintings and prints that were labeled “grotesque realism.”

The following year he moved with his wife, the feminist artist Nancy Spero to Paris. A painter in the figurative tradition, he studied classical art and 19th-century French painting at the Louvre. History painting became his primary interest—and the pitted, gouged surfaces of his paintings suggest the influence of the contemporary French artist, Jean Dubuffet. On returning to the U.S. in 1964, they settled in New York at a time when Abstract Expressionism was the prevailing trend in art and the horrors of the Vietnam War filled the airwaves when the U.S. became actively involved.  

Among the signal works in the show are Vietnamese Head, which depicts a severed head mounted on a pike, and a smaller portrait of a soldier; in both paintings, the effects of Napalm are evident in the flayed skin of the subjects. In these transitional works, Golub layered, dissolved, and carved away paint with a meat cleaver, synchronizing the metaphorical aspects of his technique with subject, form and process.

According to curator Kelly Baum, Golub had involved his art so deeply with the politics of war that after the American withdrawal from Vietnam, "he had an 'artistic crisis'," she said. "He wasn’t sure the direction his art should take after.” But the ‘70s were rife with turmoil and corruption, from the Civil Rights movement to Apartheid in South Africa and the Iran-Contra Affair and other questionable influences of the C.I.A. in Latin America. “His work,” Baum continued, “is part critical reflection and part fearless audacity. He was an artist, historian and an advocate for social justice – he wanted to suss out oppression wherever it existed and throw it all into his paintings.” An art for our times, I would add.

Leon Golub: Raw Nerve continues through May 27th at The Met Breuer. 945 Madison Avenue, NY, NY Info #LeonGolub
Photos © Peggy Roalf

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