Doesn’t Leon Golub Trust His Art to Speak for Itself?
One of the most interesting things about Leon Golub: Paintings, 1950-2000, an exhibition currently at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, is the extent to which its presentation depends on words. Each gallery of the show is equipped with a sizable wall label entitled “Focus.” This label features a portion of an interview with Mr. Golub, in which he specifies the hows and whys of a particular picture hanging nearby, as well as testimonials to his significance made by a variety of citizens: journalists, philosophers, students, veterans and a victim of domestic violence, the latter of whom must be counted as the most forthright of the bunch, in that her observations about Mr. Golub’s art are-while ultimately laudatory-decidedly equivocal. What the “Focus” panels don’t elucidate, smaller labels to the side of the pictures do. Nor should one overlook the declarations that march across Mr. Golub’s recent efforts. “Announcing the end of the world,” we read on one canvas, and “Getting old sucks” on another. Clearly, the museum and the artist don’t want us to miss a thing.
Explanatory wall labels are nothing new in exhibitions of art. By establishing historical, biographical and stylistic contexts, they can help a viewer gain access to the work on view. This is all to the good. Yet how much help does anyone need in gaining access to Mr. Golub’s work? Being the most political of painters, Mr. Golub is out to make his point, and make it he does. His paintings are stark and vitriolic. They’re immense, too, and their scale lets us know that the issues they address-war and injustice and race-are not to be swept under the rug. Similarly, Mr. Golub’s images are clear-cut and brutal. In them, we see soldiers firing on a group of women and children; a pair of “interrogators” beating a woman; a pair of “interrogators” beating a man; and hulking thugs, armed to the teeth and capable of anything, milling about with a menacing arrogance. These are evident pictures, in your face and to the gut. Concomitantly, they’re easy to grasp. One only has to leaf through the “dialogue” book to which visitors have been encouraged to contribute to know that Mr. Golub is getting through, and then some.
So why did the Brooklyn Museum find it necessary to append a label informing us that a “figure is in intense pain” next to a canvas of a figure suffering intense pain? Or “the mood is ominous” next to an ominous picture? Or, my favorite, “Ambiguity haunts this realm”-this realm being the anything-but-ambiguous scenarios depicted in Mr. Golub’s canvases? Why, one also wonders, did the artist agree to have his pontifications displayed alongside images whose raison d’être is to render such pontifications nugatory? As it is, the museum would seem incapable of distinguishing between condescension and outreach. As it is, Mr. Golub protests too much by insisting that paintings as ugly as his have redeeming social value. Many aspects of Paintings, 1950-2000 disconcert, and one of them is how little faith its participants place in art’s ability to do its own heavy lifting.
Mr. Golub and his supporters might rejoinder that ugliness is a means-a means of reaffirming that there are more important things in the world than art. And there are things in the world that are more important than art-human life, to cite an obvious example, or freedom from tyranny. Yet even the best of sentiments doesn’t absolve a painter from the responsibilities of his craft, nor does it guarantee the political viability of political art. Mr. Golub’s retrospective only goes to prove that rage can be as much of an indulgence as anything else. By the time we reach the end of Paintings, 1950-2000-having made the trajectory from the Vietnam War to assholes whom Mr. Golub just doesn’t like-we realize that his is an oeuvre best measured in desperation and not in consequence, that he is an artist who has painted himself into the most contentious of corners.
It’s entirely possible to leave the exhibition respecting Mr. Golub’s unswerving commitment. It’s also possible to wonder if that commitment hasn’t, in one sense or another, been misspent. Leon Golub: Paintings, 1950-2000 is at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, 200 Eastern Parkway, until Aug. 19.
Has Mr. Golub, after going through his own show, visited My Reality: Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese Animation, an exhibition seen on the same floor of the Brooklyn Museum? If so, I’d imagine that its unembarrassed infantilism must have galled him. It certainly galled me. Although Japanese animated cartoons, or anime, still retain a cultish allure, their kitschy retro-futurism and stylized figuration have made a noticeable dent in the mainstream of American life. So much so that the typical consumers of Pop culture-in other words, you and me-are likely to be more familiar with anime than they might think. What the typical consumers of Pop culture might not be aware of is the influence that Japanese animation has had on certain sectors of the art world, or how much it can tell us about gender roles, consumerism and-oh, yes-“the pervasiveness of pop culture.”
Included in My Reality are ceiling-high inflatable bunnies, a toy-like atom car, a personal karaoke booth, sculptures that are as bizarre as they are cutesy-pie and an ambiance that is teeth-gritting in its cheer. If all this sounds like it might be an exhibition for children, it’s not. It’s an exhibition for-and by-adults who’ve made a fetish out of childhood. As for parents who do take their children to My Reality: They should have their heads examined. I mean, do they really want their kids to think that growing up-let alone art-is an exercise in triviality? My Reality: Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese Animation is at the Brooklyn Museum until Oct. 7.