The Gods Must be Savage: Leon Golub’s Raw Expressionism

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Gigantomachy II, 1966, oil on linen

Upon entry to the 4th floor gallery at the Met Breuer, where Leon Golub: Raw Nerve is on view, viewers are greeted with the colossal tour de force of the 9 feet, 11 1/2 inches x 24 feet, 10 1/2 inches, unstretched, oil on linen painting titled Gigantomachy II (1966)The larger than life canvas depicts a ferocious battle of nude muscular Olympian gods and giants (the title refers to a battle from Greek Mythology), who through a deliberately rough treatment of paint, appear savagely brutalized. Immediately upon gazing at this work of art, we are given an unapologetic overview of Leon Golub’s epic career as a Humanist artist, whose paintings are a scalding condemnation of the evil that men do.

The 19th-20th century philosopher, George Santayana, stated “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Golub’s paintings are a visual paraphrasing of that famous statement. In fact, Golub was an astute scholar of both history and art history, however, he viewed the canonical legacy of both through the lens of a skeptic. Golub references the Western canon of art history in paintings like Dead Bird II (1955) and Colossal Torso (1960), however, his treatment of Classical imagery is anything but glorious, nor representative of the Democratic label that often accompanies Greco-Roman culture. The rough surface texture on Colossal Torso, realized through a process of layering paint and peeling it away again, is akin to the act of sculpting. Golub even used tools that are more common in a sculptor’s toolkit than a painter’s. His additive and subtractive methods of transforming the surface of the canvas result in an unfinished look or a feeling of decay. The material appearance of these rough canvases typically lends itself to strong visceral and reflective feelings from the viewer. The emotional response is further exemplified through Golub’s use of unsettling and uncomfortable subject matter, which is steeped in a grotesque critique of Western empires that span from the Greco-Roman era through the 21st century.

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Recent Rhino Horn Related News

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Peter Dean, Second Kiss, Courtesy of CCMOA

There’s a lot to catch up on in the world of Rhino Horn. Lot’s of current events and recent exhibitions to report on! Full reviews will follow, but for now, here’s a short list:

  • Peter Dean: Visions and Fantasies was recently on view at the Cape Cod Museum of Art.  The exhibition featured a selection of both real and imagined landscapes as well as the vivid mythical narratives that Dean is most known for painting.
  • Works by Benny Andrews were featured in Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s recent exhibition titled Figuratively Speaking. The exhibition examined works by a diverse group of figurative painters throughout the early and mid-20th century.
  • Andrews is also featured in a current exhibition at the Ulrich Museum of Art (at Wichita State University) titled “WE THE PEOPLE: American Art of Social Concern”. The exhibition is on view through March 25th, 2018.
  • Joseph Kurhajec was featured at the Outsider Art Fair in New York. He presented a combination of historical works and his most recent works, a series of totemic masks made from palm fronds.
  • Jay Milder and Peter Passuntino were part of the seminal group show Inventing Downtown, which debuted last year at NYU’s Grey Gallery in Greenwich Village. The exhibition’s theme explored the plethora of artist run galleries, which fostered an inspirational and experiential environment for many avant-garde artists during the 1950s and 60s. The exhibition travelled to NYU’s campus in Abu Dhabi, where it recently closed. A review was written in Harper’s Bazaar Arabia.

Mother of War

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Peter Passuntino, Mother of War, 1969, Oil on canvas, 69/5 x 61/5 in.

During the 1960s the poignant images and narrative of the Vietnam War had far reaching effects on generations of American and Vietnamese citizens. In America, the civilian resistance to this war was wider spread than any previous historical conflict and it gave rise to new forms of progressive grassroots movements that were active in multiple facets of American life. The Anti-War movement was also emotionally supported through the vibrant music and fine arts scene. For example, the cost of the war in terms of physical and psychological devastation was the inspiration for Peter Passuntino’s yearlong series of works that expressed his anxiety and disgust with the Vietnam War. 

Passuntino was working as an artist in New York, while the war in Vietnam was happening. At that period, coffins carrying the bodies of young men were arriving in droves, and due to the mandatory draft, friends and loved ones were separated from each other with uncertainty as to whether they’d ever be reunited.  The visions and first hand accounts of the trauma surrounding the Vietnam War compelled the artist to create a grotesque vessel, using paint, pastel, and ink, that would express the horrific nature of war and the turbulent issues like social justice that we’re still dissecting and grappling with today. He aptly titled the resulting works “Mother of War.”

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This Art’s Not Kosher

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Boris Lurie, Big No Painting, 1963, oil and paper on canvas, 65 1/2 x 85 in. Boris Lurie Art Foundation, New York © Boris Lurie Art Foundation, New York.

This art’s not Kosher, and that ain’t a bad thing either for the spectrum of artists in the Jewish Museum’s exhibition titled Unorthodox. To quote Jens Hoffmann the museum’s Deputy Director, Exhibitions and Public Programs:

Unorthodox does not comment on Jewish religious orthodoxy or critique it, but takes its inspiration from the Jewish tradition of dialogue and debate to investigate the impact of unorthodox concepts on orthodox systems. Unorthodox aims to break with a cultural and artistic uniformity that has developed over the last century among artists and museums, proposing a nonconformist engagement with art as a means to disrupt the status quo.”

So just how does one define the status quo these days where the art world is not as clear cut as it was during the 20th century and centuries prior? For me it is defined by two separate yet equal courses, academia and economics. Art School and the Art Market are the driving forces of dogmatic art discussions today. In some cases, rebellion and “unorthodox” approaches are rewarded. For example, the Hairy Who as well as Peter Saul are enjoying a honeymoon within the art establishment. Their work was hard to digest during their time, but today it is revered, as it well should be, for its forward thinking and groundbreaking aesthetic vocabulary. However, there are many times when the rebellion and maverick nature of an artist or a group of artists is the disdain of academic and institutional tastemakers. Often times, the disdain comes from the fact that the work is non-linear to the canon of Western Art or seen as too grotesque.

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An Artfully Awesome Brunch

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Jay Milder’s paintings pre-installation view. Courtesy of Amstel Gallery/Gregory de la Haba.

Mark your calendars for Sunday, December 13th, 2015, because Amstel Gallery is presenting a kickoff brunch for the The Judy Rifka Project and The Jay Milder Catalog Raisonné Project (1950’s-1970’s). The epic pairing of two renowned New York artists is curated by Gregory de la Haba inside of an incredible venue with a large 21 foot high ceiling.

Both artists’ work is driven by an empirical process that entices human consciousness and pushes the boundaries of painting beyond material forces.  As noted in my essay “Unblotting the Rainbow”, Milder came of age during the Second Generation of the New York School as a seminal Figurative Expressionist.  Jay was one of the pioneers of the SoHo loft scene and participated in some of the first happenings with Red Grooms. He’s exhibited worldwide and is considered an inspiration on graffiti art and Neo-Expressionism. Judy Rifka emerged in the 1970s in downtown Manhattan, particularly Tribeca and the Lower East Side. She has been the subject of over 50 solo exhibitions and numerous prominent group shows such as The Times Square show (1980) and the 1975 and 1983 Whitney Biennials.

Come celebrate from 1-4pm on Sunday, December 13th, The Yard, 106 W. 32nd Street, New York NY.

The Yard, Herald Square

Maryan S. Maryan

Personnage from the Napoleon Series, 1974

Personnage from the Napoleon Series, 1974

As this blog reflects on the past and present artists whose work is/was largely expressive and full of socially charged Humanist imagery, one perfect candidate for discussion is Maryan S. Maryan. I first heard of Maryan through discussions with both Rhino Horn co-founder Peter Passuntino, and the late Figurative Expressionist Irving Kriesberg. Passuntino had brought up his name immediately as the first response to a question I had posed while I was initially interviewing the members of Rhino Horn. The question was “which other contemporary artists would you have included in Rhino Horn?”  While Maryan never did become a member, Passuntino always held his work in such high regard. While his unabashed paintings are a sight to behold, Maryan’s biography makes for just as remarkable of a story.

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From the Archives: Counter Currents

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Click on the image above for a look inside the exhibition catalog.

A few months before the 1974 publication of his seminal text New Humanism: Art in a Time of Change, the social psychologist Barry Schwartz curated an exhibition titled Counter Currents: The New Humanism at the Center for Humanist Art at the Aida Hernandez Gallery at 99 Spring Street in SoHo.

The exhibition consisted of thirteen artists: Miriam Beerman, Jacob Landau, Arnold Belkin, Anthony Conger, Peter Dean, Michael Faurbach, Leonel Gongora, Cliff Joseph, Richard Karwoski, Jay Milder, Alice Neel, Philip Sherrod, and Nicholas Sperakis.  Each of these thirteen were also included among a great spectrum of artists in Schwartz’s book. While some of Schwartz’s theses and statements in his book unabashedly walk the line between agitprop and objective criticism, Schwartz is one of the few that have deeply analyzed contemporary Humanist art.

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Naked at the Edge

Louis M. Eilshemius, Untitled (Figures in a Moonlit Landscape), c.1905, oil on paperboard, 22 1/2

Louis M. Eilshemius, Untitled (Figures in a Moonlit Landscape), c.1905, oil on paperboard, 22 1/2″ x 26 1/2″

The current show at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery embraces the arrival of Autumn in a warm and exhilarating fashion. Naked at the Edge is a two person show of two very distinct American painters, Louis Eilshemius (1864-1941) and Bob Thompson (1937-1966). While the two painters never crossed paths, their work shares many similar elements.

Bob Thompson, Circus, 1963, oil on canvas, 36 3/8

Bob Thompson, Circus, 1963, oil on canvas, 36 3/8″ x 36 3/8″

The colors and subject matter in each of the artists’ paintings comes right in time for the Fall season, which is also the beginning of the gallery season here in New York. Eilshemius used earth tones, specifically muted greens, blues and browns in his fantastical landscapes of nudes, nymphs, and mythological beings. Thompson’s early palette reflected dark earthy tones, but they soon made way for the Fauvist inspired hues that became his signature style.

Michael Rosenfeld Gallery’s amazing exhibition space allows both of the artists to have ample room, while also allowing a very intimate viewing. In fact the show views both as two distinct solo shows as well as one overarching exhibition that joins these two seminal painters who were generations apart, in a contemporary dialog with one another.

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Allen M. Hart

Self Portrait at Age 87

Self Portrait at Age 87

“Art to me is an adventure in which I attempt to unearth the darker realm of consciousness with irony and the absurd.” – Allen M. Hart (1925-2014)

Allen M. Hart explored the physical and metaphysical world for nearly nine decades and has an incredible art historical account to show for it. Born in 1925 in New York City, Hart studied at the prestigious Art Students League from 1940 to 1948 studying with influential and renowned artist-teachers Frank Vincent DuMond, Anne Goldthwaite, and Jean Liberte. In 1944, Hart was included in a group show at Gallery Neuf on East 79th street and met Peggy Guggenheim, who became interested in his paintings. In 1948 Hart made his first sojourn to Mexico where he connected with the artists Ignacio Aguerre, Pablo O’Higgins, Frida Kahlo, Mendez, and Siqueros; became member of the Talle Graphicos in Mexico City; and had a solo show in 1950 at the Museum of Michoacan in Morelia. Reflecting on his experiences submersed in Mexican Modernist culture, Allen said he felt at home there and had a deep respect and admiration for indigenous people. Additionally, the politically left leaning artistic community of Mexico City had a long lasting influence on Hart’s work, which is in part, fueled by socially engaged themes and poignant Humanist metaphors.

After meeting his wife Mildred in 1952 at his solo show at the Roosevelt House on East 65th Street, the couple traveled extensively. They settled in Spain and traveled throughout Europe and North Africa. When they moved back to New York, Hart became the director of the Visual Arts Center (Greenwich Village), where he administered the Children’s Aid Society program for 30 years (1969 to 1999).

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Rhino Horn: A Lineage to Humanist Figurative Art

Had the Rhino Horn group continued on what artists would have been a likely fit? That is a question that I have asked each of the Rhino Horn group founders, and that we’ve often discussed when speaking about their contemporaries. The criteria for being in Rhino Horn was vague, and stylistically, while the majority of the work was Expressionism, there were notable exceptions (the realism of Bowman and the existential surrealism of Fauerbach). The artists were more focused on bypassing the commercially driven art scene and achieving complete artistic freedom for their work to be experienced as they intended.

Being a small group, it became a fairly big challenge for all of the members to agree on adding new ones. They ultimately agreed to enlist Leonel Gongora, Bill Barrell, Joseph Kurhajec, June Leaf, and Isser Aronovici. Some other artists who have been mentioned by the former members were Irving Kriesberg, Christopher Lane, Emilio Cruz, Pinchas Burstein (known later as Maryan S. Maryan), and Philip Sherrod. These artists were either discussed and ultimately not chosen, or they turned down the offer to exhibit with the group. Regardless, the aforementioned artists were supporters and friends of the Rhino Horn group, and are also considered seminal parts of the Humanist movement.

This question was one of the inspirations for the series of recent posts featuring contemporary figurative painters and sculptors with a Humanist element in their work (See Connecting Figures: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). I am constantly looking at the work of a wide variety of artists whose work adds to the lineage and visual vocabulary of the expressionists in the Rhino Horn group as well as other maverick groups like No! Art, and The Hairy Who. Every contemporary artist who has been featured on this blog could arguably make sense in the context of these earlier groups.

The intent is that this blog will be a subjective and ongoing survey on Humanist and figurative art from the era of Rhino Horn through today. I’ve found these artists that I have featured through a variety of sources (going to MFA open studios, gallery hopping, the internet, and word of mouth). Therefore, I am incredibly open to suggestions by artists, curators, and art historians. Feel free to comment or email me with any suggestions or links to work. If you’d like to see who has been featured, please read the three aforementioned posts as well as the following: Q+A With Jason A Maas, Reclaiming the Racist Flag (John Sims and Sonya Clark), and Dialogue with Joshua Peters.  Stay tuned for many more upcoming interviews and features of today’s artists who expand the discourse that Rhino Horn and earlier groups presented.