Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Golub from the Block

It's strange, but artists seem to take one of two tacks when closing out their working lives. Some take solace in the spiritual, in religiosity or tribal or ethnic histories, their place in their intellectual lineage. A good example is William Blake, great anarchist poet and free thinker, who spent his final years in a sort of religious ecstasy, producing illustrations of biblical stories and Dante's inferno.

And then then there are artists who spend the last decade or so wallowing in decay and exploring their own frailty. It would be a mistake to attribute work like this to depression, it's simply a continuation of the focus and concentration with which they questioned all aspects of life beforehand. This is the fun category probably for the same reason that everyone reads the first third of The Divine Comedy and never the rest of it: suffering and unpleasantness is relate-able and universal. All happy families resemble each other-- and all that.

Artists who spend their careers casting light into unpleasant topics should owe no less to the end of their own lives. It's with this attitude that it's best to walk into the Leon Golub exhibit Leon Golub, Live & Die Like a Lion? currently at Northwestern's Block Museum, as it illuminates both the strengths and weaknesses of the work.

Gone are the large scale oil on linen canvases. The show contains one tremendously unfinished outline of a large scale work, and a few mid sized printing experiments, mostly from much earlier in Golub's career. There are themes and characters in the drawings drawn from the rest of his work, but most of the similarity ends there. The show is nearly exclusively drawings from the last five years of Golub's life, a period of prolific (if scaled) production. Most of the drawings measure about 8 by 10 inches on vellum, usually executed with oilstick and ink, with a gesture and application more spontaneous than the slow, intentional painting and scraping of his canvas works.

Also differentiating them from his other work is how solitary they are. Most of the large scale works Golub is known for are narratives of at least two characters, often a victim and (at least one) aggressor. Golub seems to have retreated from his mid career viciousness, searching for humor and ugliness in individuals, animals, and intimate acts, rather than in politically or socially motivated violence (his usual oeuvre). Satyrs fucking (it really can't be called making love) replace South American goon squads, nudes and portraits of snarling dogs take the place of apartheid regimes. It's surprising how much humor is present: goofs on Matisse and Ingres, lions, dogs, and skeletons rendered with as much (and often more) affection than his people, scrawled grafitti. Probably the best pieces in the show are the ones of couples screwing, which can't seem to make up their mind between being funny or kind of horrible, and in-between is exactly what they should be.

There are problems with the show too, some of it size. In the time period the show covers Golub produced some 400 drawings, the Block displays 42. Also (and more importantly) Golub's artistic life was a series of reactions to social events and causes, but this work feels bound inside the artist's head, and though clever and fun, subsequently feels divorced from the world he spent most of his career focused on. Without the social and moral conflicts of his large-scale paintings the work feels...well, small. The closest the show comes to real violence is still miles apart from the feeling of his earlier work. The dichotomy between spiritual and physical here certainly leans to the physical, but not with any oomph. Golub doesn't declare his belief in the beyond or the powers of harmony, far from it, but there's nothing in the show that attacks the possibility, like you see at the end of Picasso's life. There's a certain pull to the punches here that you don't see in Golub's earlier career. If at the end of his life Morandi had switched to portraiture, the result might be equally revealing, and equally frustrating.

The show is -at the very least- perfectly interesting, as are most Block Museum ventures, but it's certainly not an introduction to his work for the uninitiated. If you have familiarity with his work, or can rope someone who does into giving you a tour in the month or so the show has left, it's a must-see. Golub is an unapreciated artist, but his work is certainly going to speak to us for some time to come.

Leon Golub, Live & Die Like a Lion? runs until December 12th. You can visit the Block Museum's site here.


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