Born in Chicago in 1922, Leon Golub grew up during the cheerleading years of Abstract Expressionism. Unfortunately, Golub didn't believe in abstraction. He regarded it as a narcissistic game that aestheticised reality. It represented a refusal to acknowledge the existence of life as it was being lived out on the street. In short, abstraction was all about the preening of the gorgeous self. Golub chose to depict a harsher reality, one closer to the bone; he wanted painting to show something that was quite separate from the heroic male gesturer who had made the work, and throughout his long career he stuck to this self-imposed brief, alongside his partner, the late Nancy Spero, who recently had retrospectives at the Serpentine Gallery in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
You see immediately the kind of thing that a Golub painting is – or, more to the point, everything that it is not – from the image on this page. This is a later work, painted long after his work had been radicalised by the Vietnam war, but it contains everything that Golub's work strove to be and to show. His paintings have a rawness, a brutishness to them. They are often nasty in the extreme. They show unpleasant people doing violent things to other people – or, at the very least, threatening to do them. The surfaces look raw, eviscerated, as if they have been badly treated, again and again. This is precisely what happened. Golub – like Leon Kossoff – would forever be applying, and then scraping off, layer upon of paint, day after day, until his surfaces, finally, looked as hard won as the themes that he had chosen to depict. Golub generally refused to frame his canvases. He didn't want them to look as precious and as carefully preserved as museum objects. The consequence of this is that Golub was not widely collected by museums or private investors during his lifetime. Those kinds of people like paintings to be tidied away in neat rectangles, and to be contained within gilded frames.
Instead, Golub tacked them to the walls of galleries with pins or nails, so that they gently sagged down and away, gently mocking their status as artworks. To frame is to aggrandise, to declare importance, to huff and puff about financial value. Golub wanted none of that. He wanted paintings to look more like banners – or spreads of newspapers that niftily detach themselves from the whole at the wind's bidding, and then gaily blow down the street, broadcasting news to all and sundry, rich and poor, young and babes in arms. That ordinary. He preferred the immediacy and, yes, the gossipability, of the kind of image that you would see in a magazine or a newspaper – his paintings often began their lives as scavenged images – to the aesthetically high-toned, politically gelded stuff poured out by so many of his more successful contemporaries.
This is a very nasty painting indeed. It throws down a gage to the aspiring collector of high-toned artworks. It says: beware of introducing this to your family or your acquaintances. The painting alludes, immediately, to Titian's The Flaying of Marsyas, but this is no mythological scene. This is the brute reality of torture in our times. As in that great Titian, here is a helpless being, suspended upside down, undergoing ritual humiliation. Marsyas's nakedness was concealed by his hairy pelt. There is no such modesty device for this man. He looks like a carcass in the butcher's shop. His chest is covered with careful scorings, as if he is about to be divided into particular cuts and joints for the display at the front of the store. This was one of an entire series of the same title. The space in which the torture takes place is flattish and rather indeterminate. The brown body appears to be swaying back and forth as it is beaten, helpless as a pendulum.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Leon Golub (1922-2004) was born in Chicago, and much of his work is influenced by primitive sculpture and Roman wall paintings. His work possesses a frieze-like quality to it. He documented the harsh realities of life as it was being lived during his lifetime – gun crime, the brutalities of war.