Selected Interviews: Leon Golub
Interview 1: By David Procuniar
David Procuniar: Please discuss your change, around 1970, to a specific subject matter with real-world reference. What caused the shift?
Leon Golub: Basically the Vietnam War. We (Nancy Spero and our three sons) lived in France for five years 1959-64 and the Algerian War was going on, but we were Americans so we paid very little . . . actually, we paid a lot of attention to it, but we were not activists. We came back to the United States in the fall of 64. The Vietnam War was going on and I went to a meeting at a church for The Artists and Writers Protest Against the War in Vietnam. I got involved — it seemed logical, particularly given my political interests. My work dealt with conflict in an existential mode, men in conflict, but much more generalized than the specific media information of the war then available. I became extremely self-conscious about this. The contrast was glaring — TV and photo coverage of the war and the “Gigantomachies,” huge paintings, men in struggle, nude, no weapons. In war, men are clothed! They kill with guns and rockets. It took until 1972 to work out a solution that had contemporary relevance and historical resonance. (Given the national and international art worlds such historical ambitions were of little or no interest). In 1969 I did “Napalm” paintings, nude figures with napalm wounds. Certainly more relevant, but still nude and in a generalizing mode.
Procuniar: When discussing your Vietnam paintings you have mentioned the difficulty you had in realizing clothing and other details.
Golub: I worked in a “universalizing” mode and I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend time on details. I make a joke of it . . . I didn’t want to spend my life painting wrinkles! Immediate, objective, factual designations were problematic at first, difficult to conceptualize and implement. In speaking this way I want to emphasize that I am not attempting to put aside the “Gigantomachies” and “Napalms.” They are the most austere, irredeemable, and existentially fatalistic work I have done. Nevertheless I was then very uncomfortable with the gap between my work and the current political circumstances.
Procuniar: How long did it take you to become more comfortable?
Golub: The large “Napalms” were done in 1969. (I did smaller ones subsequently.) The first painting with some sort of differentiation of uniforms or guns was done in 1972, so it took a couple of years.
Procuniar: In the middle of this you executed the Pylons and other fragmentary pieces.
Golub: Yeah, I did those along the way but that was another aspect of trying to circle in on some of these themes. Themes of violence, an idea about the city in a somewhat abstract way. The gates of the city. I remember seeing in Knossus on Crete the “Lion’s Gate” which was a kind of gate of the city. Ancient and classical cities had gates, arches, and other monumental entrances into urban life, so to speak. I wanted to make some association of the gates of the city or the walls of the city (Pylons) being disfigured or corrupted with napalm like a stain or a disease.
Procuniar: Much like it was on the people.
Golub: Eating away at the culture.
Procuniar: A formal move.
Golub: Both a formal move and a curious subjective inference — abstract but scarred and diseased.
Procuniar: Was it any more difficult?
Golub: It was a hell of a lot easier to work that way than to work with figures.
Procuniar: In 1947 you did a painting entitled “The Seers,” which was cut into three years later.
Golub: In those early years, I didn’t cut much, but later on, I did get into cutting a good deal. There are a lot of 60s paintings that have chunks cut out of them to make them like fragments or skins.
Procuniar: How would the cuts be determined?
Golub: Arbitrarily, irrationally. Life can be irrational. Why not art?
Procuniar: That is interesting, considering that the cuts can be so dramatic.
Golub: The cuts made in the Vietnam canvases were relatively arbitrary. Once such a cut is made, a piece of canvas removed, it becomes a kind of unalterable fact not only structurally but psychologically and perhaps narratively and draws attention both to itself and to what is around it, a strong gestured marking. On “Vietnam I,” it started as much smaller cuts, but then I made them larger and larger because I was dissatisfied and finally I made it the shape it is, which looks to me sort of like the negative shape of a tank or boat in negative.
Procuniar: In the mid-1970s you executed a series of political portraits. How did you make the decision to shift your focus from the battle to the political figures?
Golub: Between 1974 and 1976 I underwent a crisis in respect to my art and my art-world status. The large paintings I was then doing, roughly 10 ft. high by 12-15 ft. long, were for the most part unsuccessful and I was dissatisfied with my situation as an artist, namely, that I was being largely ignored because the art world was so directed towards Minimalism and Conceptual Art. In 1976 I decided to scale down my ambitions and my formats and made the choice of doing political portraits that were largely one and one half times life size. Ideologically this took the form of trying to view the men who ran political systems; what do they look like, and how could I characterize them. I used photographs quite exactly but tried to make the heads, for the most part, rather bland, flat, and often ordinary, as if to say, “Are these guys really the heads of state?” Some of the portraits from China and Vietnam were characterized more generically in that kind of rhetorical image one used to see from those political systems.
Procuniar: The paintings from the 1980s such as the “Mercenaries” and “Interrogations” embody different ways of addressing the viewer. Sometimes the character sees us watching him, on occasion the character will have their backs to the viewer. How are these decisions made?
Golub: How do we look at people? Estimate situations? . . . Glance as we pass by. Sometimes we don’t want to look or don’t want to attract attention. We engage, disengage, enthused, excited, aggressive, hostile, voyeuristic, reticent, etc., etc. — all these different reaction when people enter private or public situations. If someone is looking out, by inference, is someone looking in? For example, in “Interrogation II,” the head guy is looking towards his men, one of the guys gestures welcoming someone, a smile on his face, a pal. “Interrogation III,” a woman interrogated, raped, no one is alerted external to the scene itself.
Procuniar: When the characters are conscious of the viewer, does the viewer then necessarily have any effect on their actions?
Golub: It depends. In “Three Seated Black Men” [he points to a painting which hangs in the studio], they are looking out, not in a state of alarm but in a state of potential hostility, watchful. For example, I recall a series of photographs from the Vietnam War which do not resemble this painting. A group of black men, sitting, talking amongst themselves, and then look up because there is someone that they encounter. No threat, fellow American soldiers, but they are not necessarily pleased . . . then they start smiling.
Procuniar: It takes some time for the outsiders to register.
Golub: In the painting, these three guys are alerted, perhaps resistant, perhaps hostile, acutely aware. I try to be aware and alerted to these kinds of reactions, to work with them, subjective social complexities which I would like to be able to handle, if I can.
Procuniar: Do you think that all these psychological loose ends are necessarily resolved within each painting?
Golub: Interpretations are typically open-ended, even when there is seeming closure on circumstances — someone will come along and reinterpret or refashion and open up the situation again. I don’t finalize anything. At least I don’t intend to finalize subjectivities so that other options are not possible.
Procuniar: During this period of paintings about black men and women, you made a painting entitled “Yellow Sphinx.” What caused you to revert to mythological imagery in 1987?
Golub: Just for the fun of it. Since I hadn’t painted a sphinx since 1955, to see how it would come out. There’s more to it than that—ideas of origin, bioengineering, cyborgs. What are we anyway?
Procuniar: How many paintings were there?
Procuniar: Was it fun?
Golub: It was interesting and curious. I was a little unsure of how to go about it and I couldn’t control the sphinx as precisely as I controlled humans! It was something I was less used to and more problematic.
Procuniar: In July 1991, you were working on “Try Burning This One, Asshole.” Please describe the evolution of this image.
Golub: I’m always on the hunt for source material. I have a huge collection of photographs as I’ve been doing this for many years. My interests change. For example, when I got interested in doing older women, I started collecting such photographs. In Kansas City in an airport magazine shop (five or six years ago) I noted for the first time biker magazines. There are two types of biker magazines; those that show motorcycles and those publications that show these crazy guys often with huge beards and beer bellies sporting slogans on their shirts as do their girlfriends. I started buying the magazine on occasion and a couple of years later, when the constitutional flag cases were publicized, there was a rash of hostile gestures/slogans in the biker magazine. I knew some of the lawyers and defendants involved in the flag cases and I had signed support statements of their right to burn the flag. And here was a photo of some guy wearing a shirt with a flag that said, “Try Burning This One, Asshole.” I said, “Wow, I’m going to paint this.” It was an aggressive, demonstrative, patriotic or pseudo-patriotic position from guys who are blue-collar Americans. I shifted the image to a kind of skinhead type. The idea was of one guy wearing a shirt that says, “Try Burning This One, Asshole,” and his pal acting like an asshole. [laughter] It’s a favorite painting of the last few years because of the crazy connections. [laughter] The guy with the flag observes with an amused smile his pal who’s doing what Madonna did in her film, grabbing her crotch. Typical “fuck you” gestures, giving the finger or grabbing their crotch. A look at nasty or irrational political circumstances from an irregular point of view. So I collect slogans from T-shirts, wall graffiti, etc. For example, the popular slogan, “These Colors Never Run” was widely utilized in T-shirts, posters, billboards, etc. and which I have also used in a painting.
Procuniar: How many T-shirt slogans do you have to supplement the photographs?
Golub: Oh, I probably have fifty. Seeing one shirt that said “Fuck Off Japan,” I put that on a wall in a painting. A nasty lurid item out of the political economic struggle as it shows in the street.
Procuniar: Back to the early part of your career. The first piece illustrated in the Kuspit monograph is a lithograph entitled “Charnel House” from 1946. Please discuss how this was produced as a reaction to the Holocaust.
Golub: At the end of World War II, photos were published dealing with the concentration camps; also Picasso’s “Charnel House.”
Procuniar: Had you seen the Picasso by this time?
Golub: I must have been aware of it. I might have known at that time Rico LeBrun’s paintings based on the Charnel House contents. A very recognized American artist, a big reputation; he got wiped out because he was figurative/expressionist.
Procuniar: The Kuspit volume illustrates a lithograph, done about ten years after “Charnel House,” which you did on canvas with attached newspaper fragments.
Golub: “Totemic Crucifixion” isn’t on canvas but on paper. The subject is a primitivist crucifixion. I attached newspaper to make its “reportage” a news item of current focus; most of the six or seven prints of the edition did not have newspaper attached.
Procuniar: With the “Gigantomachy” paintings, there is an explicit depiction of conflict. Do you see this behavior as part of a more specific social event? Is there a larger context for these paintings?
Golub: I see it as a continuing, existential, violent struggle, all manner of social/psychic tension. Conflict, stress and violence is a major aspect of human arenas. Our contemporary historical world is in increasing rupture and ethnic, nationalist, racial and religious upheaval.
Procuniar: Concerning your source photographs, what is the logic behind how they are combined into a single posed figure on canvas?
Golub: There is no logic except that I want to get a figure that is “real”! . . . and whose gestures and circumstances will be recognizable and current. In the earlier works, for example, the Vietnam paintings, typically although not invariably, the figures were not projectively imagined; they’re taken from photographs, partially varied but basically whole. More recently a figure will be constructed from many source photos, partly as I want to make it my own and partly because I can be more dramatically effective. This guy who’s smiling with the flag on his chest, I don’t have a head just like his but I have a number of heads of guys smiling in somewhat similar fashion and I work it out that way.
Procuniar: A notable exception to this practice is “Mercenaries V” from 1984. In this painting, there is direct depiction from a photograph.
Golub: The photo was given to me by the photographer. He saw a show of mine and left that photograph and I called him up because I was very impressed by the image. I decided I’d basically use it as is, but I changed the guy holding the gun. I changed his expression and so on, but I duplicated the victims relatively literally. I’ve done that to a lesser extent a couple of times, but it is a rare practice.
Procuniar: It would seem more difficult.
Golub: It’s easier, if you’re going to copy a thing exactly.
Procuniar: It seems harder to pull off successfully.
Golub: Maybe, but the point is that you know how, for example, the arms are going to appear, the nature of the gesture. In that painting [“Three Seated Black Men”] every gesture comes from some place else so that I have to construct or reconstruct the images. But if you have a photograph that you’re going to use as it is, then to lay out the figure is not as difficult.
Procuniar: It was interesting that the focus was changed from the photograph where the situation was between the prisoners and the captor. In your painting, the communication is between the captor and the viewer.
Golub: That’s my attempt to hit the audience.
Procuniar: The captor has a grin reminiscent of the white guy from “Interrogation II.”
Golub: Yeah. That grin came actually from a woman’s face, because it had the kind of smile that I wanted, a rock and roll connection, I can’t remember exactly whom. I changed her into a male head but it might still retain some traces of her female attributes?
Procuniar What solvent do you use to break down the acrylic?
Golub: Rubbing alcohol.
Procuniar: How much do you use?
Golub: I soak an area of perhaps 2 ft. by 2 ft., and as it dissolves I scrape the paint surfaces which then begin to reveal the earlier layers.
Procuniar: Recently, “Beware of Dog” has marked a change in how you execute a painting. The viewer is given a sense of how image and content is developed. How did this come about?
Golub: The painting “Beware of Dog” represents a shift both in technique and in the use of language and imagery. The handling of paint is more direct and immediate without the complex layering I have typically utilized previously. The intention is to be more graphic and to intensify a rapid means of conveying the narrative. After painting the figures I decided to do a graffiti of a dog on the wall and then to paint in pink Beware of Dog in letters almost 10 inches tall. The idea was to emphasize both the street nature of the signs and equally, throw in a kind of representative but crazy message which somehow in atypical fashion intersects at another level of rhetoric the drama of the types portrayed.
Procuniar: Please discuss the development of your work since late 1992 when you completed “Beware of Dog.”
Golub: “Beware of Dog” was, in a way, the beginning of this development except it wasn’t the beginning. Before “Beware of Dog,” “Try Burning This One . . . Asshole” referred to flag burnings, the macho-patriotic response worn by guys who carry their patriotism . . .
Procuniar: In their pants.
Golub: Or had a chip on their shoulder, ready to take off. And earlier, I had done the Horsing Around paintings which were kind of ironic plays on gender and sexuality. Which is not exactly the same thing but isn’t that different because in these pieces I’m trying to work between and against conflicted situations and in the Horsing Around paintings I was trying to work in various ambiguities. And one of the mercs in “Mercenaries III” (1980), for example, sports tattoos. Nevertheless “Beware of Dog” is actually a shift since the painting style is more informal, it’s more direct in its handling, the surface isn’t scraped. The words “Beware of Dog” are approximately 10″ high move across the surface quite independently. That started me off. You made an interesting comment the first time you were here, regarding a recent painting you remarked how the forms were collapsed in the space, a good reach into the painting.
Procuniar: It’s the layers; text, figures, and dogs combine in a compacted space.
Golub: Yes. The earlier work was highly structured. For example, in “White Squad,” a guy is holding a gun to a victim’s head. The whole point is to complete the originating concept, the originating structure, in that somewhat architectonic point of view. I am also trying to explore and/or break down the psychic and confrontational interplay. Nevertheless the painting is highly structured.
Procuniar: The composition is set. The psychological play is meant to operate within that structure.
Golub: Absolutely. If I change aspects, it’s because they’re not quite working. Ordinarily I was not trying to upset the system I started with. Now however I’m interested in interrupting the visual and conceptual designations I start with. I begin with a piece of an idea, often with dogs. In these paintings, dogs typically represent an irregular force. They are more or less street dogs, or at least not cuddly types. The dogs are not so much man’s buddy over the millennia but a creature of irregularity under urban circumstances. Running loose! When you say, “Beware of Dog,” in one sense you say beware of all the forces you’re up against.
Procuniar: Especially when you’re out on the street.
Golub: Even in enclosures, there’s a warning beyond just beware. An implication of threat, and then . . . like the painting that’s unfinished on the wall. A head and a hand, but no connecting body. Why connect? If I connect the body, I have a figure like always. Now what to insert? [Now completed and entitled “A Baleful Eye.”] Currently I like to freely associate. At the end there will be a seemingly more casual kind of coherence but paradoxically infinitely more difficult to arrive at. But in the process, I can’t anticipate subsequent interjections. Starting “Like Yeah,” I began with the dogs, I had a figure at the far left where the head is now but I was dissatisfied, and I substituted that more or less white square. The head is sort of ambiguous. He’s either vomiting or doing the yoga cleansing ritual. Next the idea of the tarot card “Hanged Man,” my version of a skeleton on which there remains the trousers, a label identifies him as “L’homme pendu” — a way of divining the future! . . . I am poking around with (not all) nasty comments: “Another Joker Out of Business,” arrow pointing to “The Hanged Man” . . . that’s the process.
Procuniar: The arrangement of the figures and text remind me of “So Much the Worse.”
Golub: I’m still dealing with the effects of who I’ve been as an artist, my temperament as an artist and what are virtually the residues — the fragments, the collapsed circumstances of what I’ve worked with, what comes out of our culture and I’m trying to both push and ease my way through them. I’m trying to set up, if possible, casually contradictory messages, or at least, messages that don’t have parallel meanings.
Procuniar: As opposed to the particular goals you had before.
Golub: That painting “Like Yeah” — the first language that I thought about using was “Convince me of my errors.”
Procuniar: For the dangling man?
Golub: For whatever. Maybe its for the artist. And then I put in this funny T — “Convince me of my terrors.” Then I put in “Like Yeah” which is like some smart-ass street talk.
Procuniar: What I’m curious about is why you still depend so much on media sources when these paintings are clearly out on the street. In the early 80s your sources were necessarily far from your everyday life. But now you are painting what is around you each and every day.
Golub: When I see slogans, images on the street, I grab them. In Germany, I bumped into a huge wall on which there were 3-ft. letters, “Ich habe Angst.” I have anxiety, I have angst. I put “Ich habe Angst” in a drawing. “Beware of Dog” came from a sign I saw.
Golub: I pick it up where I see it.
Procuniar: Such as “Fuck Off Japan.”
Golub: Yes, another wise-guy shirt. If I buy a biker magazine, a photo of some guy and I like the words on his sweatshirt. If I find it on a wall, if I hear you say some thing and I can use it, I’ll swipe it. I had seen in a photo “Happiness is a warm gun.” I didn’t know it came from the Beatles. And once I knew, it just added another dimension. It was already in the painting.
Procuniar: You can’t change the painting.
Golub: No. The last item in “Like Yeah” was the word “deliquesce,” to liquefy, let it flow!—Let go! — that kind of reference. So its more lyrical and orgasmic. Let go! As against the other stuff which is more violent.
Procuniar: I sense freedom in the presence of the dogs.
Golub: Yeah, that too.
Procuniar: Especially that they now run in packs.
Golub: In a way, I’ve collected a hell of a lot of comment. I also make up a lot. So I collect images and photos of graffiti, or whatever I encounter. But the work isn’t just graffiti, it retains, to my mind, a political aspect. It has something to do with our attentions, urban locations, American experiences, who we are.
Procuniar: The words tend to be declarations.
Golub: In part. At the same time I’m trying to loosen it up. Our world is so full of information chaos, I’m trying to respond some way, maybe make it worse!
Procuniar: The shift in process brings it through in a way that the paint and scraping could not even begin to address. The paintings from the 1980s were about momentary glimpses of something that we are not meant to be a part of.
Golub: I was attempting a kind of heroic/antiheroic public art. The kind of thing which is emblazoned in a big way on the walls of a culture. Take, for example, “Interrogations” — a painting that is 10 by 14 feet. Perhaps that’s not public art in the conventional sense as torture scenes are usually hidden from view and are not ordinarily celebrated on public walls. At the same time it is an ordinary fact that in many countries torture is a day-to-day reality, people are yanked off the streets, jailed, and tortured. In that sense, to put out an Interrogation is to make a public statement. Even if the statement has to stay in a studio — if you’re lucky, end up in a museum. Even a museum might be reluctant to acquire one.
Procuniar: Ten years down the road, somebody will receive that experience from the painting.
Golub: Or fifty years! Actually I have had a lot of exposure. The recent painting is more enigmatic, a different kind of urban impact, urban flow. They’re somewhat easier to live with than an Interrogation or “White Squad.” But they’re not that easy to live with either.
Procuniar: Not at all. Why are there multiple dogs now?
Golub: 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.
Procuniar: What is that painting called?
Golub: “Strut.” The dogs are more respectable versions, they’re more like breeds, perhaps boxers.
Procuniar: Starting with “Beware of Dog,” the dog was shown as an outline. It was not real.
Golub: Graffiti on a wall.
Procuniar: By early 1993, the dog would move across space. “Like Yeah” has them moving towards us. “Strut” returns to the side views. How are these choices made?
Golub: Whatever takes!
Procuniar: It just seems that now, the dogs are playing a pivotal role in the composition, while in early 93, they were merely an element.
Golub: In “Strut,” the guy is giving the finger. A gesture equivalent to “Fuck you.” Who’s he saying “fuck you” to? Is he saying “fuck you” to the world? Maybe to the public? Or to me, Leon Golub? [laughter] I’m painting him, he responds by saying “fuck you.” But, at the same time, the dogs are with him, which means he’s not a totally alienated individual. He’s a little rough, but he’s got two dogs. One is leaping up on him in a loyal way.
Procuniar: The other is looking at us.
Golub: Not viciously. You might even say that the dog represents a more civilized version of the guy. [laughter]
Procuniar: The paint handling is what strikes me about these paintings. Starting in late 1992, frottage brings the wall of the studio directly into the painting. Bricks are no longer depicted illusionistically.
Golub: I’ve used that wall for years. When I want to get certain textures, I will rub against it, almost like dry brush.
Procuniar: It seems that with each of your periods, roughly coinciding with the early 70s, early 80s, and from late 1992 to now, there is an increased articulation of background and environs as the subject matter begins to come into its own. The imagery becomes packed in as the concept develops.
Golub: It’s not exactly parallel in that way. One of the things I tend to do is, to use your words, to pack things in but I also eliminate, strip down, so some paintings I would like to be quite bare. For example, there is in “Beware of Dog” a lot of emptiness.
Procuniar: You will return to compositions that sparse?
Golub: Oh sure. It can be harder to be sparse than to load up. Now I’m trying to be more indeterminate. “So Much the Worse” was originally 10 ft. high by 10 ft. long. There were two police types standing over a victim, the guy bent down. I decided to eliminate the paramilitaries. If I took out the prisoner those guys standing over him would be still representative of previous paintings. Even the bent-over figure is fairly representative. Adding the dog, tension develops.
Procuniar: Whenever I look at it I wonder why he is bent over.
Golub: He obviously is tied at the wrists. The figure is not built up, scraped, repainted, and so on. It’s much sketchier.
Procuniar: In the early 80s, an assistant would help the process?
Golub: In the late 80s. In the early 80s I was still doing it all myself. But it was probably around 87 when I had a hernia operation. I found that when I started to scrape after the operation it was difficult, although in time it became easier. Recently I got a pacemaker. When scraping that figure [he points to “Strut”], it affected my actions. It makes it much harder to scrape. Maybe fifteen minutes, not much more. Instead of hours. I had made the decision not to scrape surfaces before the pacemaker. But that kind of certified it. The point is after the hernia operation I began to have assistants help. It always was tough work. Eventually your body starts to make demands upon you. Knees, elbows, tendinitis! Between all these factors, you can see how one shifts out of something! Nevertheless the main reason for shifting is not physical. The main reason is that I’ve been doing it for so goddamn long. It’s great to try variants, something else, partly shift process, orientation, conceptual modes.
Procuniar: It’s nice to know that you are doing it by choice. Diebenkorn was finally limited to works on paper by his health.
Golub: The main thing is that I want to move on. I could work out methods in which assistants could do all of the scraping. Stand over them. That’s not so difficult to do. The problem of interest is how can I work into new areas — what are you going to take on? Earlier paintings were more conceptually defined and structured. Now the process is seemingly more aleatoric, chancier. I frequently start with dogs. A day or two later, perhaps a figure, perhaps a slogan. The painting develops, gets revised, “collaged” into a form that, of course, is recognizably how I am now working. However for all its informal and chance elements, it becomes a more or less systematically organized process.
Procuniar: Do you feel, two years into it, that you are comfortable with the process?
Golub: I like it a lot. It’s keeps me edgy because I have to keep figuring new additional elements.
Procuniar: Have you reached the first plateau?
Golub: I don’t know. You never know when you reach a plateau. I don’t think so, I haven’t been in it long enough to get too frustrated by it. If I knew, from the beginning, what I wanted to do — it would be pretty much like my previous paintings. I’d have a substructure in place. Artists have certain mindsets that don’t shift that much. I am still basically the same guy I was ten years ago. So the work can’t be totally different from previous points of view — the same person is still at it! Nevertheless we can have different takes on the world.
Procuniar: Speaking of which, can we now go and talk about some of the smaller canvases? Let’s begin with this one because you say it’s almost finished.
Golub: These three pieces were one canvas and I began smearing black on it to get an irregular ground. And then I decided, maybe I’ll make three smaller paintings. I guess there’s a fourth piece somewhere. So beginning with this chunk of canvas, I started with the guy with the red outline on white, like an old revolutionary or patriotic wall mural or poster. The figure was painted over these black smears and the gun with the silencer was originally much clearer. Then I inserted a head to the lower right and in this instance I scraped the head — the rest of the painting is direct handling, unscraped.
Procuniar: The figure is shimmering.
Golub: And the head lower right wears an enigmatic smile.
Procuniar: The title?
Golub: It’s still undetermined. [Since the interview a nude spread-legged female figure was added the name Uta above her head!] This other canvas is even less resolved
Procuniar: It would almost read as if the head was on the wall.
Golub: Well, yeah.
Procuniar: For example, in “Like Yeah” is that head supposed to be a poster on the wall?
Golub: No, it’s just an appearance, not a poster. The head is more real than that but at the same time, it’s in no space.
Procuniar: With nothing grounding it.
Golub: Exactly. [he points to a small painting with gun] His finger gestures, signals. The finger’s up and it has a totally different significance than the Up-Yours gesture in “Strut” [on the opposite wall]. I was thinking of inserting a phrase from a biker magazine, “It just doesn’t matter.” And I may still paint it somewhere on the canvas, or some other canvas. It just doesn’t matter.
Procuniar: It just . . .
Golub: Doesn’t matter. Exactly (laughter). That’s part of the pleasure. And it doesn’t matter if the fucking art world doesn’t like it either.
Procuniar: Regardless, one would have to keep painting.
Golub: That’s what artists do and they go through all this hell we were talking about earlier. And they know, like you know, what the odds are. You know the odds.
Procuniar: So did you.
Golub: One has to figure out survival.
Procuniar: Especially for you during the 70s.
Golub: Especially for everybody. Your father had to figure out survival too.
Procuniar: With these small paintings the ambiguity is lessened.
Golub: Sure. Maybe!
Procuniar: There’s a word, an outline, a gun, a head — that’s it.
Golub: That a lot!
Procuniar: Not visually.
Golub: We can argue the proposition!
Procuniar: Reading a transcript of a panel discussion broadcast on WBAI in 1967, I found that you and Ad Reinhardt had a deep disagreement.
Golub: Rhetorically he was doing two things. He was tongue-in-cheek, cleverly denying representation. But it also reflected his deeply felt concern of what painting should be and that he represented this ultimate logic, what I call the terminal argument. After me, nothing. After my black paintings, nothing. After Frank Stella’s early paintings, what could come? After Ryman’s white paintings, what is there left to do? After a totally blank canvas, now what? The pseudo-heroicized claim that the problem of painting is solved. Of course, nobody will ever finalize painting. But Reinhardt, I think, deeply believed this, that he had the final argument. He had a contempt for figurative painting that permitted him to be ironic and sarcastic.
Procuniar: He didn’t have the figurative origins from art school.
Golub: That I don’t know.
Procuniar: For Reinhardt it was straight into abstraction. The only illusionistic elements were tiny glimpses, cut up but found in the newspaper collages he did early on.
Golub: Those beliefs in abstraction come from a not always articulated but deeply held belief system that representation has failed the world and the world can only be saved in a spiritual, even physical, sense through abstraction. A new order.
Procuniar: A new world order.
Golub: The Russian suprematists and constructivists said it best.
Procuniar: The great utopia.
Golub: Their hopes were cathected to social forces that were attempting to change the world.
Procuniar: On all levels, in the house, on the street, in the school . . .
Golub: These were the arguments. For me, figuration is a way into the world.
Procuniar: Ad Reinhardt painted exceptional canvases.
Golub: No argument. But they are not what he announced that they were — which is the final statement of what painting can be. He was naive to deny the possibilities of representation just like Clement Greenberg was naive to think that his theories of painting could resolve the irreconcilable issues of representation.
Interview 2: By Jon Bird
Leon Golub Interview (excerpts), with Jon Bird
Held in South London Gallery – 3pm 4th November, 2000
G: This is an arduous process. I treat the paint as skin. If I wanted to overstate the case I could make the analogy between the skin of life. I remove paint to get at the skin of the canvas. I began to do this with paint in the 50’s though I first started with lithographs in art school. I would do a lithograph and then keep working on it, scraping the stone down to a sixteenth or even a thirtysecond of an inch which is pretty thin.
When I started to use paint I didn’t like oils. They took too long to dry so I used floor enamels which have a range of interesting dull flat colours. They also do not give – there is no plasticity in them, unlike oil paints.
When you use them the enamel sinks into the unprimed canvas but on a primed canvas they flake and crack – sometimes within months. I decided to add to the process by cutting into the paint. After Enamels I began to use lacquers. I would put about ten coats of lacquer on a canvas then begin to scrape away – often for days using a plasterer’s tool.
In 1961 I started to use acrylics on unprimed canvas. Unlike lacquers, acrylics will not allow you to build up ten layers of paint so I use about five coats.
The full technique involves laying down a flat painting of a number of coats then dissolving the paint in solvent prior to scraping. Originally I used some very dangerous solvents. I had to have all sorts of tests when I used them. Now I use alcohol and that seems to work fine for me.
After about 15 years of using the plasterer’s tool I discovered I could use a meat cleaver (points at Gigantomachy II). See those diagonal marks on the paint. That’s the cleaver. There’s a huge advantage to a 4 inch edge as opposed to half an inch.
Then I got a hernia and after my operation I found I couldn’t scrape. So I got someone to help me do the scraping. I would just do the heads and hands whilst an assistant did the other parts. Sometimes about 20 people have worked on my paintings. I don’t know if people can tell who does what but now I know why no one will ever know what parts of a painting Rembrandt did.
Scraping leads to great textural effects but it can also lead to mistakes which need to be retouched. I like that combination of control mixed with chance effects.
B: In 1992 you changed your working methods. You began to introduce text into the paintings and there was less overall scraping of the work. You also began to place the figures within a pictorial space – albeit a sparse one. There also seem to be elements of fantasy in the work.
G: Well, even with the help of assistants I still had to do some scraping – a lot in fact. Eventually I found it harder and harder to carry on scraping. Right now I’m interested in the tension between the global nature of society and the fractures that also exist within. Within the macrostructure there are all these microstructures. I suppose I get irritated with things and I want to monkey around. I’m trying to be a smartass.
Take this painting “Strut” (1994). I started with this phrase in Spanish “El Dolor y la Morte” – Paint is death. And then you have this guy sitting on the left giving the viewer the finger. Then there’s another phrase saying “Announcing the End of the World” and above it a fireball – a very faint fireball. Then you have, in the front all these showgirls strutting so I called the painting “Strut” (This is presumably symbolic of defiance in the face of destruction). I got that skull from Tarot cards (Points to “Times Up” (1997).
B: The image of the dog emerges in the 90’s.
G: I used to have dogs. I collected literary quotes about dogs. For example Churchill – Churchill’s “black dog” (depression). When a city is under attack, dogs are symbolic of societal breakdown. For example the imagery of dogs running loose.
B: Your work is still open to the possibilities of subject matter such as gallows humour.
G: I’m trying to get at the real. What’s real? I don’t necessarily know. I use the word voyeurism as something virile, something focused. I take a displaced fragments approach.
You have this tension. People are autonomous but also subject to control. The question is how we interact. Paintings are simple things. Take the middle painting (The Site) 1994. What you have is those guys in suits. They’ve just come from the embassy and they’re having to deal with this massacre. Anyway they are stood around and one of them is eating an apple in the middle of all this.
Then there’s this painting here “Laughing Lions” (1995). There’s this quote “Laughing Lions must come” (a quote from Nietzsche) and you have another dog and another fireball. And there’s also a woman acrobat.
By this point the interview was getting a little fragmented so Jon Bird opened the discussion up to questions from the floor.
Q1: You use Latin quotes. Is there a connection with Pompeii?
G: I love Pompeii, especially the red backgrounds. I use that red in a lot of my paintings. I love Roman portraits and frescos and their lyrical art. Roman art to me reflects a struggling urban aggressive society.
Q2: Why weren’t your canvasses stretched?
G: I think of paintings as fragments of skin. I do stretch the smaller paintings but I like the way the larger paintings hang. Also sometimes I put holes and cut some of the canvasses and these won’t stand stretching. I see frames as both protective and as warnings not to touch a painting. Not that I want you to go around putting your hands all over my pictures.
Q3: Are your canvasses primed?
G: No. Acrylic doesn’t need primed canvasses. Anyway I leave all that to conservators in the future.
B: I’d like to close with one last question. You are an avid consumer of media images. Given the power of global media, spectacle and the World Wide Web – what does it mean to be pursuing this traditional activity of painting? What does painting mean to you?
G: Over the years there have been a number of false predictions about painting. People have said that figurative painting is dead. That was often said by abstract painters. Then they said that painting was dead. That was often said by sculptors. I am sceptical of statements made by self interested people.
To me the notion of painting is of a blank canvas. Each painting is a new start. You can go to a movie and things happen in front of you. Boy meets girl. Boy gets girl. Everything works out. Paintings don’t move. A painting just sits there. It’s a static way of resolving things which has a power precisely because it does not move.
You can look at a painting once and nothing happens. You can keep seeing a painting in a gallery and it becomes familiar and you begin to acknowledge it. The another time it stops you in your tracks. It has the possibility of riveting you years later. Painting still has that peculiar magic where we respond to spots, colours and symbols.
(Interview 1): http://www.jca-online.com/golub.html
Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors
(Interview 2): http://cheetahschoice.50webs.com/golub.html