Beware of Dog: Trauma and Repetition in Leon Golub's Art

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In Golub's politically-charged oeuvre over the last 50 years he has repeatedly and compulsively depicted the more extreme atrocities to plague our century. While his vision falls more in the category of the dystopic, he has struggled to expose what is truly human in our response to violence and suffering.
Aaron Scott

Issue #61, September 2002


"In the history of art, late works are the catastrophes." This quote from Adorno, penned in 1937, appears in the form of a slogan emblazoned across the bottom of one of Leon Golub's recent paintings entitled Bite Your Tongue. For Adorno, such "late works" had to be both critical and utopic, capable of combating the dehumanizing and anaesthetizing effects of the culture industry on the one hand, while reunifying the subject as a sensuous being on the other. Adorno's quote might have been taken as a prescription for Golub's own "late work," which, drawing from a rich vocabulary of symbols, emerges as a kind of libidinal explosion. In Golub's politically-charged oeuvre over the last 50 years he has repeatedly and compulsively depicted the more extreme atrocities to plague our century. While his vision falls more in the category of the dystopic, he has struggled to expose what is truly human in our response to violence and suffering.

Drawing from a vast repository of images — magazine clippings, hardcore pornography, newspaper photos — Golub uses a cut-and-paste pastiche to compose figurative tableaus that blatantly flout aesthetic conventions while confronting the spectator with a bleak and uncompromising theater of cruelty. Golub paints in order to demystify power, to analyze the lens through which we see violence, but at the same time to explore our discomfort/fascination with its machinations. He draws viewers ever further into a charred landscape brimming with impotent rage and bankrupt ideologies.

Burnt Man
Burnt Man

Golub began making figurative paintings in the early 1950s after graduating from Chicago's Art Institute; his early influences for series like Priests, Burnt Man and Sphinx were classical and mythological sources. These often singular, archetypal figures were executed on unstretched canvas in a raw, expressionistic style likened to Dubuffet and Giacometti. In paintings like Hamlet, The Skin (Crawling Man I), and the Philosopher series, the themes were decidedly existential. In 1959 Golub and his wife, artist Nancy Spero, moved to Paris where they rented a large studio space and Golub was able to work on a dramatically larger scale. His subject matter expanded to include nude figures, often engaged in a kind of primordial combat — in his words, "conflict in an existential mode".

Among the strongest of these were the Combat and Gigantomachy series, tumultuous compositions of fighting bodies stuck in an arrested state of decomposition. These paintings function, formally and conceptually, as a ground-zero for Golub's subsequent work. During this time his painting style became even more stripped-down: he ground paint directly on the canvas, and developed a method of scraping away layers of paint using knives and rubbing alcohol to reveal chunks of raw canvas underneath (a technique that he has used to the present). The paintings began to take on more of the qualities of sculptures, featuring "the removal and chipping away or carving out of surfaces," remnants of subtractive gestures and large tracts of unfinished canvas. What remained was "... a 'sculptural' image of man, ravaged and eroded but still its essential existential structure."

Vietnam and Latin America

When he returned to the U.S. in the late 1960s, the Vietnam War was in full swing, and Golub began searching for a more direct means of relating his paintings to the burgeoning antiwar movement. His exposure to the Algerian War during his stay in Paris had solidified his commitment to political engagement, and at that time in New York a group called Artists and Writers Protest was meeting regularly to discuss ways to pressure cultural institutions to take a stand against the Vietnam conflict. He participated in Angry Arts Week, actions of the Art Workers Coalition, and various other protests that met with mixed results.

The imprint of these activities on Golub's figurative paintings was unmistakable: his figures began to gravitate towards specific contexts, gaining clothing and more fleshed-out backgrounds. The ensuing series of paintings, Napalm and Vietnam, were colossal, brutal and didactic. Golub describes them as his "most austere, irredeemable, and existentially fatalistic works". Still set within a generalized mode of representation, the paintings marked a bridge between his classically-oriented, expressionist paintings and the "immediate, objective, factual designations" which would emerge in 1972 in the form of guns and uniforms (in Vietnam I). The Vietnam series established Golub's reputation as an activist painter.

Vietnam (I)
Vietnam (I)

Golub also began cutting sections of canvas out of paintings during this time, likening the canvas to skin, a move he deemed an "irrational" gesture (referring no doubt to both the irrationality of the act of painting, and the form of the violence depicted). This physical act of mutilation, on the one hand an assault against the convention of the rectangle, on the other an extension of his subtractive painting technique, also seemed to reflect a growing ambivalence towards the validity of his painting project. By the mid-1970s Golub had stopped painting altogether — destroying most of his existing works.

This dry spell lasted only a few years, during which time Golub searched for a new language that would provide a more "concrete engagement" with the subjects of power and domination. He chose to focus on political leaders, which he painted from photographs at approximately one-and-a-half times life size. By the late 1970s he had completed over 100 such paintings of important political leaders — Fidel Castro, Nelson Rockefeller, Ho Chi Minh, Brezhnev, etc. Often he painted several portraits of the same leaders — there are at least eight portraits of Kissinger for example — each one equally meticulous and equally opaque.

Brezhnev
Brezhnev
Henry Kissinger
Henry Kissinger

During this same period Golub painted his first Mercenaries painting (1976), which, together with the Interrogation series would become his best — known body of work. These overtly political paintings, suffused with imagery from South American revolutions, depicted "terrorists" in the most basic sense of the term — men consumed with the jouissance of atrocity. The involvement of the United States military and CIA in fighting communist revolutions during the Reagan years is a not-so-subtle subtext in these works, one of which the viewer cannot help but be aware. Like the political portraits, Mercenaries unleashed ruthless machismo and extreme scenarios of domination, and by choice of subject, drew an explicit correlation between money, power and war. Soldiers-for-hire are often shown casually joking around, as if on break from a torture or execution; in many paintings they stare directly out at the viewer, unashamed and unselfconscious. The Interrogations paintings featured scenes of torture and abuse with a similar blend of casualness and savagery, the figures frozen in abrupt, offhanded gestures. In the early 1980's, the Horsing Around paintings used the hot-button issues of race and sex to describe similarly awkward displays of boorish power-play. The White Squad and Riot paintings from the same period extended the Mercenaries themes of unadulterated bloodlust/sadism.

Mercenaries (V)
Mercenaries (V)

In the 1980s Golub returned to some of the classical themes that formed the bedrock his early work — columns and sphinxes; these paintings were formally more dense, emphasizing the surface qualities of the painting, as well as brushstroke and color. Simultaneously he continued to work with scenes of aggression with Street Scenes and Night Scenes.

Street Scene (II)
Street Scene (II)

Golub's work since the late '80's has shifted to include more of a mixture of pop culture elements, mythological and biblical references, and graffiti slogans. In short, the subject matter of the earlier paintings is radically dissimulated, and the previous staged acts of terror are stripped down into their ideological roots, scattered and reassembled. Where the Mercenaries series presented straightforward studies of brutality, these paintings are dissonant collages of jingoistic cliches and symbols culled from war, mythology, T-shirt slogans, biker magazines, billboards, philosophy, and history. The paintings are shrill and boldly executed, making no effort to reconcile the barrage of propagandistic icons and surreal slogans that occur in unlikely, often contradictory combinations. Golub has also mined his ouevre for recurring formal elements, which are then re-appropriated and transmuted. In his retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum of Art two years ago, Golub made enormous transparencies of blown-up details from pre-existing paintings which were then interspersed with the paintings throughout the space, reiterrating the theme of violence as both a lens and an irreducible surface. Crude patriotism is a recurrent theme in the recent work, and its proponents appear to be part of the same milieu as the death squads in Mercenaries. Death is also a pervasive presence, often seeming to function as a hallucinatory metaphor for both the death of idealism and the pointless suffering inflicted in the name of various idealisms.

Transcendental Grudge Matches

Golub's use of scrapbook-media as a source for his paintings appears to be a deliberate attempt to raise questions about how we respond to images of violence in our increasingly image-saturated society. Electronic media, once thought to be the vehicle towards a better understanding and more intimate perspective on military conflict, have disclosed themselves to be more often an instrument of State propaganda, coercion and obfuscation. Since the brief window of journalistic freedom witnessed during the Vietnam War, a direct view of the obscene aspects of armed conflict has been reduced to a trickle of images, whose goriness stands in direct relation to their distance from the U.S. and its foreign policy interests. At the same time, our skepticism towards what we see has been further eroded by the bombardment of fictionalized images of violence that proudly advertise their accuracy, authenticity and "grimly realistic" depiction of human suffering, as seen recently in Black Hawk Down. Clearly the line between entertainment and information has been profoundly blurred, and our ability to identify or empathize with the victims of war and terror has diminished. While we may be appalled by photographs of dead or mutilated bodies, terror squads or riots, we feel helpless to respond.

White Squad (III)
White Squad (III)

Such images of suffering in the media have a secondary effect: in addition to increasing our general numbness, they also serve to diffuse and dispel our anxiety about global conflict. They depress us, give us a transitory feeling of identification and awareness, and then disappear. Our compulsion to consume such images is a measure of our need for reassurance that the violence remains safely outside, contained as it were, beyond the pale. The power of Golub's art seems to be its ability to make us acutely aware of our inability to comprehend, our conditioned complacency with regard to the historical forces that shape war and its representations.

Golub's paintings present a number of difficulties to the typical viewer: no-holds-barred approach to content, combined with the confrontational graphic style, makes the works difficult to assimilate. By repeatedly invoking similar scenarios of cruelty in different (though unspecified) historical contexts, he often appears to treat both oppressors and victims as pawns in a kind of transcendental grudge match characterized by an "eternal use of power against powerlessness." To many, this makes his paintings seem detached, insensitive, and even exploitative.

The charge that Golub is often willfully oblivious towards the complexities of the situations he depicts, reducing the radical contingency of historical circumstances to the status of a recurring nightmare of singular brutality, is difficult to refute. Golub gives us no clues as to the motivations, desires, or unique pathologies of his subjects. Instead of inviting us in, Golub's paintings seem to present an impassable chasm between both the subjects within the painting, and the viewer and the work. The stiff, cartoonish style in which the figures are rendered, set within an inarticulate, hazy background, contributes to a pervading sense of muteness that emanates from the canvases.

Interrogation
Interrogation

This quality stands in stark contrast to the unmitigated brutality of the acts depicted. A dynamic thus exists in Golub's paintings which is both arresting and off-putting, and seems to call into question many of our expectations about what paintings could or should provide. Simply put, the paintings are difficult to look at. So what is it that makes them so compelling?

Sade's Fodder

"Muteness" is a good word in reference to Golub's work because it conveys both a sense of the limitations of the medium Golub struggles with, and our incapacity as spectators to adequately address his subject matter. The paintings don't tell us enough, and we in turn as viewers are hampered in our response. Normal expectations of spectatorship are short-circuited, as the whole notion of painterly distance falls into shambles. The paintings threaten to overwhelm the pictorial field, but stuck in a palimpsest of fractured surfaces, are unable to penetrate the indifference of the canvas/screen, and must instead resign themselves to stupidly and defiantly return our gaze. As spectators we are witnesses to extreme acts of brutality which not only shock us in their banality, but implicate us, draw us into the perverse spectacle as witnesses and possible co-conspirators. The paintings refuse to offer an escape from the gaze, from the relentless scrutiny of ourselves as objects in what Lacan calls "the field of representation." What emerges instead in Golub's paintings is an unresolved conflict of distance: we lose control of our distancing capacity, are unable to find in the paintings a refuge from the vagaries of the world. Our experience is a mixture of impotence and anger that suggests both identification with the perpetrators (we are complicit with the crimes), and the impossibility of such an identification ( we remain unable to comprehend/assimilate the act). The paintings do not make the crimes seem more plausible, only more horrific.

This contradiction is one of voyeuristic horror/pleasure: on the one hand his characters are shameless, and it is perhaps this lack of any display of self-consciousness which discomforts, pushes us back. At the same time however, we are conscious of our role as privileged viewers, allowed and encouraged to witness too much. The feeling that we have been caught looking is both perversely pleasurable and intolerable, and suggests shades of the primal scene with all of its ambivalence, guilt and pathos.

If Golub's paintings are provocations aimed towards the spectator, they are also indictments of a particularly exaggerated strain of masculine ritual, a highly codified phallic combat. His Mercenaries participate in homosocial cults based on a kind of Sadean camaraderie, ritually bonding through torture and brutality. Golub seems to believe in the will-to-power as the most fundamental bedrock for human relations, a central axiom of desire, certainly the dominant force in masculine conflict, which Golub describes as "a continuing, existential, violent struggle, all manner of social/psychic tension." Donald Kuspit observes that the extreme grotesqueness of Golub's villains points towards their powerlessness, and that this powerlessness is the primary source of their rage, their seeming inexhaustible hunger for carnage.

The nothingness of the victim becomes the paradoxical, distorting mirror of their own inner nothingness, and they have an endless hunger for victims. The dialectic between on the one hand the inner sense of hollowness and powerlessness of Golub's figures, and on the other their outer display of power and dominance, is perhaps the most intriguing dialectic in Golub, for it is the dialectic of identity.

The victims in Golub's paintings, meanwhile, are the disenfranchised, the wretched of the Earth who have long suffered invisibly under the tyranny of imperialism, the reckless exploits of capitalism. They are, as Aimé Césaire puts it in the poem Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, "the famine-man, the insult-man, the torture-man you can grab anytime, beat up, kill — no joke, kill — without having to account to anyone, without having to make excuses to anyone." They are nobodies reduced to the status of mere objects, and as such, utterly dispensable. In the Vietnam paintings some of the victims are literally annihilated, cut out of the painting entirely. In the Interrogation series victim's faces are often hooded, engulfed in shadow, or so crudely rendered as to deny individuality. Mercenaries V shows a white mercenary crouched, grinning stupidly at the viewer, as he trains a gun on black youths who kneel in subjugation. Golub's victims, as Blanchot observes of the victims of Sade's libertines, exist solely as fodder:

Riot (I)
Riot (I)
The creatures "the libertine" encounters there are less than things, less than shades. And when he torments and destroys them he is not wrestling away their lives but verifying their nothingness, establishing his authority over their non-existence, and from this he derives his greatest satisfaction.

The message is clear: the victims are expressionless, a dead-end. But what about Golub's tyrants themselves? They are at once robotic and deterministic soldiers, social machines subject to militaristic ritual and brainwashing, while still somehow retaining the qualities of autonomous subjects, exercising the most extreme variants of free will, choosing to act. This unresolved paradox of free will/determinism echoes in another of Golub's recurring elements — the dog — which first appears as an accomplice of the villains, later as a solitary force. Golub states:

The dog has an atavistic relationship to humans. When men first began to hunt and the dog associated itself with man, dogs would surround or attack the hunted animal and the men would come up and finish the job. The dog represented an extension, even a vanguard, of man's savagery.

The dog is a servant of man, a proxy, and a radical force of aggression. Golub has likened the energy of the dog to the act of painting in terms of being an expression of freedom, but clearly dogs are subject to forces that are precisely the opposite of freedom. Animals, according to Heidegger's formulation, are "secured" in the world — that is, do not deviate from what they are supposed to do, are fundamentally and completely united with the drive. Humanity, however, exists in a state of "throwed-ness" and must constantly confront the discontinuity of his being-in-the-world, his Dasein.

This Day
This Day

So Golub's dogs and villains enjoy a kind of reciprocal relationship. Functioning as condensations of pure drive, they are machines with a radically contingent, unhinged will, bent on destruction. Humans and dogs tend to travel in packs, borrowing from the group what they lack as individuals. Yet this alone is not sufficient to explain the extremity of their behavior. Golub seems to suggest that it is capitalist society in fact which promotes the escalation of such extreme imbalances of power, and consequently that one only has to be in the right place at the right time to fall into the trap.

What ultimate conclusions are to be drawn from Golub's compulsion to repeat these acts of barbarity, of trauma, enacted at such a grand scale and with such unremitting vulgarity? Trauma, according to Freud, is an event that the subject refuses or is unable to remember, and thus is doomed to repeat through various guises, never succeeding in fully integrated it into the his psychic economy. Golub's repeated invocations of brutality, in a sense, never seem to grow closer to the "truth" of the act, never allow us into the minds of the perpetrators.

Time's Up
Time's Up

But perhaps this is precisely the point. Lacan modified Freud's formula by characterizing trauma as a missed encounter with the Real, a failure to find an adequate form of representation (the Real being precisely that which resists representation), which leads to the event's being compulsively repeated in a tragic, fatalistic compulsion. Like Cézanne, Golub seems emphatic about "getting it right," that is, repeatedly attempting to capture something of the essence of his subject while fully cognizant of the futility of this endeavor. The traumatic Real recedes farther and farther into the flatness of the screen. What we are left with ultimately is our own discomfort, our own shame, our own criminality.

In 1937 Adorno also stated, "Every work of art is an uncommitted crime."

Aaron Scott is an artist living in Brooklyn. He writes occasionally on art and film.

All images reproduced with permission from Ronald Feldman Gallery.

Copyright © 2002 by Aaron Scott. All rights reserved.
 

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