Leon Golub: A Country No Longer United
by Viktor Witkowski
Leon Golub would certainly find many reasons and occasions to make paintings of our current time. He would not feel elevated about that prospect in any way, but he would understand and accept the responsibility to find ways for painting to engage its viewers beyond pictorial references and formalist nodes to past as well as contemporary artists.
The clearly marked divide between the white man’s space on the right of this painting and the bench with two seated black women on the left delineates racial segregation. Even though all three figures share the same ground, their assigned spaces seem impenetrable, made of lines, marks and contrasting colors that flesh out the realities of segregation. These are the kinds of walls that are imposed, with the sole purpose of exclusion.
Golub hints at painterly traditions found in Modernism by treating the background as a flat plane made up of three sections: a square, a rectangle and a narrow dark-blue horizontal element that serves as ground and horizon line. His application of paint matters too, because the canvas’ rugged and highly textured appearance is misleading. Golub would often use a meat cleaver to scrape off excess paint instead of letting it build up on the canvas. Aside from his paintings’ washed out, partly transparent although unifying look, the use of a meat cleaver (versus the more conventional palette knife) adds a tool to his repertoire that is usually associated with breaking down bones and meat into smaller, more manageable parts. This tool’s violent potential is repurposed by Golub, yet his canvas surfaces remain marked by the cleaver and its potential to scrape, divide, shatter and kill.
In addition to the formal set-up of this scene in which each figure occupies a space of their own, there are attempts at communication between the two groups. While the bench ends exactly where the white man’s space begins, the woman’s left hand has crossed into his territory. Her hand is at ease, pointing downwards as if to assure her white counterpart that she means no harm. She is looking around her shoulder right at him, trying to meet his gaze, but to no avail. Sensing her attempt, the white man looks the other way. The third figure in this painting, an older black woman and potential companion of the other woman, is looking right at the viewer. If we assume that the white man is intentionally directing his gaze away from these two women, she seems to be asking us not to do the same. As viewers, we become witnesses who are given a choice: either to look the other way or to refuse to do so.
Violence comes in different forms and degrees. It is also experienced differently by respective individuals, groups and societies. And to the young painters who have been patient enough to finish reading: now is not the time to look the other way.
Raw Nerve At The Met Breuer, February 6–May 27, 2018
Volume 34 no 5 May / June 2020