Leon Golub’s Tyrant Redux In Butcher-Shop Colors

As I sit down to write this essay (May 2018, Santa Fe) a cartoon balloon pops up on my cell phone screen. It lets me know that Gina Haspel has just been confirmed as the head of the CIA—and it joins other balloons (aka texts or IMs) like the latest on payments to Stormy Daniels or the one-year anniversary of Robert Mueller as the “special” counsel. (Antonym: “ordinary” counsel, barely discernible presence).

With all these “alerts” functioning to impel a quick swivel of neck to screen — screen plastic manufactured by Foxconn at the environmental cost of 7 million gallons of Lake Michigan water per day— I can consider myself current on today’s news. Which it turns out is not all that dissimilar to yesterday’s news, and thereby leads to the main stage on which art plays in the narrow human comedy.

That is Leon Golub at the Met Breuer. I had not been to the Met Breuer as the reincarnate of the old Whitney building on 75th and Madison. Until I went to see the Leon Golub show, “Raw Nerve,” (Feb. 5-May 27 2018. The Met Breuer). Now, in 2022, the Met Breuer is functioning as the home of the Frick Collection while the Frick mansion gets renovated. 

Back to Golub. Gigantomachy means the struggle between gods and giants in Greek mythology. Many Attic red-figure vases from the 4th to 6th centuries relay this struggle. Gigantomachy pitted the sons of earth-mother Gaia—the Giants—against the gods hanging out in their aeries on Mt. Olympus. The Giants set trees on fire and hurled rocks. But Zeus chose his son Hercules to slay the Giants with arrows because an oracle told Zeus he’d win if he could just get a mortal on his side. (Just writing that sentence leads me to believe that a life-long pause could be in order.)

Golub’s Gigantomachy II opens Golub’s show of 45 works with the massive, stoical, muscled futility that pitched battles convey. The power of the image is undeniable. It measures 10 x 25 feet. Golub created it in 1966 as he amped up his personal (peaceable) protest against the Vietnam War.

Here was a mortal on the side of the Giants who were nevertheless not gigantesque enough. The message of Golub’s convex torsos and blockheads and rigid femur lines inter-vexing is simple belligerence. A discursive query asks us to our faces, as we step off of the elevator, about the trappings of what we mean by “commanding,” from a “commanding presence” — i.e. muscular backs and garguantuan hands— to “commanding imagery,” i.e. something that fillips your stomach as you consider how much its palette has to do with a butcher case, from the brown paper to the pink marbled veins.

Nevertheless, the work that most captured me was a small portrait of General Ernesto Geisel (1976-1977) who was Brazil’s dictator from 1974 to 1979. The Guardian on May 10th 2018 reported on the existence of a document affirming that Geisel, right off the bat in 1974, approved more than 100 executions of “subversives” in his own country. Nixon was still president when the memo—just released after more than 40 years—was sent to CIA director William Colby who promptly passed it along to Henry Kissinger.

Geisel’s face arrests in Golub’s rendering. His face has a smugness and also savagery. It’s a question of how to put so much into such a few strokes and shadowing that what’s evoked is an expression of fiat whereby the gods win by oracle, by co-opting the mortals to their side. What is required is a form of brute loyalty to the concept of brutishness. We mortals love a raised quality to our gods. Their forceful absolutism absolves us of any need for physical action because there they are, already at it (at least in mythological terms). Who needs to know more about why, according to today’s NYT headlines, evangelicals cheer the carnage in Jerusalem when Israel slaughters Gazans by the score? Or what Rand Paul had to say about the US role in the war in Ukraine? Isn’t the caption always: Power?

I went around the Leon Golub on a day when few people were there. I had the impression that the guard, who wore a suit with pants too long for him and struck me as a probable artist, was watching me stare hard at the portrait of Geisel. Why, after all, joust metaphorically at the linen behind Geisel’s silhouette? In Golub’s hands it knots a permanent shroud to our enshrinement of belligerent men.

Write us your thoughts about this post. Play nice.