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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Post-War Humanism Revisited at MoMA

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Jan Muller, Walpurgisnacht – Faust I, 1956, oil on canvas

The devil is in the details in Jan Müller’s grandiose painting  Walpurgisnacht—Faust I (1956), which is the centerpiece of an exhibition called Soldier, Spectre, Shaman at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The exhibition – curated byLucy Gallun, Assistant Curator, Department of Photography, and Sarah Suzuki, Associate Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints – is a rare peek into MoMA’s collection of post World War II figurative art. What bonds these works is their concern for humanity in an age of crisis. The artists in this exhibition express sadness, confusion, anger, and complex reactions, as a result of being witnesses to the horrors of the second deadly world war.

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Suggested Viewing: Must See Shows Edition

This year was one of the most pleasurable Bushwick Open Studios. Aimlessly wandering throughout the many industrial spaces proved to be very inspiring. I caught up with artists who I haven’t seen in a while, and met a few new artists that I will continue to look at. Now that the party has winded down, it is time to get back to the many ongoing exhibitions throughout New York City and beyond. This suggested viewing post features a concise selection of current and upcoming exhibitions with a strong focus on painting and politically themed art.

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Suggested Reading: Engaging Artists

– The Engaging Artists group show got a nice review from Jillian Steinhauer. The recent exhibition at Hot Woods Arts Center (Red Hook, Brooklyn) featured the work of 14 emerging and mid-career artists who devoted six weeks or more volunteering at local homeless shelters with a diverse population of homeless youth, families, and seniors. The program was produced by More Art and led by Jason Maas, the Executive Director and Founder of the Artist Volunteer Center (see: Q + A with Jason A Maas). The work in the show does not seek out solutions to the crisis of homelessness, rather it was informed by the artist’s personal experiences working with the homeless community. Some of the work is the concept for much larger scale socially engaged works. More Art has selected two proposals from the resident artists to produce a large scale public art project. These works will be implemented in collaboration with homeless individuals and groups, and hopefully can have an amazing impact on the lives of many vulnerable and in need residents of New York. via Hyperallergic

– This is an incredible story, almost to amazing to be true. Surrealist, Claude Cahun and her lover Marcel Moore were two lesbian Jewish women in Nazi occupied England whose rebellious artwork subverted gender politics and Nazi oppression. In fact, Andre Breton called the pair “one of the most curious spirits of our time.” Cahun’s artwork is currently featured in two concurrent exhibitions. The first is at Jersey’s Museum and Art Gallery called Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore: A Life Defiant, and the second is at London’s Nunnery Gallery. This article written by Liza Foreman is a must read. via The Daily Beast

– Democrats in Congress are lobbying for two bills that would greatly improve the rights of the artist. The first proposal seeks a resale royalty for artists. The second would allow artists to deduct donations of their work to museums based on the works’ fair market value on their tax returns.  Unfortunately, this all seems unlikely to gain momentum with a Republic majority. I hope to be surprised. via The Art Newspaper

– The Venice Biennalle is set to open on May 9th.  Does Vic Muniz’ Giant Paper Boat for the Biennale make a profound humanitarian statement or does it trivialize the issue of Europe’s migrant crisis? via artnet

– I recently posted a short review of Leon Golub’s show at Serpentine Galleries in London. You should also check out John Ros’ review “Leon Golub’s Never-ending Fight Against the War Machine.” via Hyperallergic

Two Great Figurative Expressionists on View

Two seminal Figurative Expressionists have concurrent exhibitions in two continents. An exhibition of many seminal large canvases by Leon Golub entitled Bite Your Tongue is currently at Serpentine Galleries in London, and Joan Brown’s Selected Major Paintings and Sculptures 1957-1975 is up at George Adams Gallery in New York City.

    Leon Golub: Bite Your Tongue Installation view, Serpentine Gallery (4 March – 17 May 2015) Image © READS 2015

Leon Golub: Bite Your Tongue Installation view, Serpentine Gallery (4 March – 17 May 2015) Image © READS 2015

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Suggested Reading: To a New Year Edition

Well folks, 2015 is just days away. But of course, there is still a lot to see before then in the art world. The holidays are always a nice time to take in some museum exhibitions that were lingering on my list. This year was memorable for monumental public art exhibitions, climate marches, and social protest. There were some great moments and some very low points across the nation. Here is the final suggested reading of 2014 (and to hoping for more peace and understanding going forward):

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Dubuffet’s Soul of the Underground

In the aftermath of World War II, the art world’s focus on American art meant to a lesser extent the promotion of Post-War painters from the former art world capital of Paris. However, there was one particular French name that emanated within the American landscape like none other. Parisian painter, sculptor and printmaker Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) was considered the most important French artist in the United States during this era.[1] Clement Greenberg declared “As the brightest new hope of the School of Paris since Miró, it is quite fitting that Dubuffet should rise to notice on the wave of the first new aesthetic movement in Paris since surrealism, which similarly inspired Miró.”[2]

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The Missing Link

By the late 1970s, art criticism had begun to question the formalist ideals that dominated the era of the New York School, which defined painting as an absolute and universal form of art, and some critics—such as Douglas Crimp (b. 1944), Yves-Alain Bois (b. 1952), Carter Ratcliff (b.1941), and Barbara Rose (b.1938)—even went so far as to raise the question of whether painting was dead as an important art form (See Barbara Rose, “The Politics of Art, Part IV,” Arts Magazine 54 (December 1979): 134; Yves-Alain Bois, “Painting: The Task of Mourning,” in Endgame: Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture, ed. David Joselit (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986), 29; and Carter Ratcliff, “Modem Life,” Artforum 23 (Summer 1986). Indeed, in a 1981 article “The End of Painting,” October 16 (Spring 1981), Crimp argued that painting in the 1960s had been in a terminal state. To this view, he cited such factors as the style of hard-edged Minimalism and color field painting and the use of new media, such as images appropriated from photography in painting, as evidence of a “definitive rupture with painting’s unavoidable ties to a centuries-old idealism.”

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American Figurative Expressionism of the Second Generation and Beyond

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Installation shot of “Pioneers from Provincetown: The Roots of Figurative Expressionism” curated by Adam Zucker at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum during the summer of 2013. From L to R: Robert Beauchamp’s “Two Apples”, George McNeil’s “Bather #25” & “Clandestine”, and Jay Milder’s “Untitled (Subway Faces)”

Many of the Abstract Expressionists remained successful throughout the 1950s without ever returning to figurative representation. However, Pollock and de Kooning (and, in the late 1970s, Philip Guston) eventually reverted to more obvious attempts at figuration. After all, the direct quality that Greenberg valued so highly, unmediated by “rules” of painterly representation, need not in fact exclude the expression of recognizable images, especially those as basic to the human experience as the face or body. Thus, not only did Pollock produce, toward the end of his life, a series of black and white quasi-figurative works, he stated of his own work that he was “very representational some of the time and a little all of the time,” and he pointed out that “when you’re painting out of your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge.” Similarly, De Kooning shocked many of his contemporaries by painting recognizable depictions of women using the same technique that he had used in completely abstract paintings. In this regard, Thomas B. Hess (1920-1978), critic and editor of Art News, recounted the following anecdote in his 1967 book about de Kooning’s then-recent work: “‘It is impossible today to paint a face,’ pontificated the critic Clement Greenberg around 1950. ‘That’s right,’ said de Kooning, ‘and it‘s impossible not to.’”

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New Images of Man and the Emergence of Rhino Horn

In 1959, a decade before the founding of the Rhino Horn group, art historian Peter Selz (b. 1919) curated a controversial exhibition of contemporary avant-garde humanist painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City entitled “New Images of Man”. This groundbreaking exhibition was one of the first at a major American museum to introduce a legitimate alternative mode of modernism in the wake of the celebrated Abstract Expressionist movement.

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