We need to talk about Leon. At least we should know what we talk about when we talk about Leon. The art-history major turned G.I. turned anti-war activist was haunted throughout his civilian life by the unspoken, unspeakable and covert. Brutal state coercion authorized in strictest silence, officialdom and paramilitarism in tacit collusion, the incommunicable pain of torture; a violence that confounds language: ‘…to attach any name, any word to the willful infliction of this bodily agony is to make language and civilization participate in their own destruction.’ (Elaine Scarry) (1)
‘Bite Your Tongue’ at the Serpentine Gallery represents him routinely; each room a phase, job done. That probably can’t be helped – retrospectives are an institutional convention. At his most academic in the fifties through early sixties, the classicist receives guests on entry. Work from the latter decade of the Vietnam War occupies one wing, battle scenes with combatants painted in sanguine black and red as though skinned alive to make ethnic difference – somewhat disingenuously in this context – moot.
A parallel wing holds his late semi-Pop paintings. Mythical allegory replaces modern warfare and an embargo on words has been lifted. They haven’t grown eloquent as such, just aphoristic. They shout sweet nothings for the echo or, to quote one; they are ‘baying at the cosmos.’
At the centre of the exhibition are four examples of the ‘interrogation’ and ‘mercenaries’ series of the eighties – his own ‘Disasters of War’. It’s Golub at his most recognisable, that is to say his most harrowing but also flattest, most banal. The paintings are more or less uniform in scale and near identical in composition. Figuration is coarse, depth of field ranges from narrow to non-existent. He didn’t make them pretty, which is appropriate to their content, but there is more to their ugliness than propriety: it’s a forensic, information-rich ugliness. Firearms, for example, are paid close attention; details such as trigger guards, magazines and stocks are distorted but distinct. It’s waist level detail – obvious to the only one seated in a room full of standing men.
Golub partook moderately of his American peers’ machismo but declined to duke it out in their expanded boxing ring. Duty to ‘the real’ bound him to a more typically European history painting tradition: painting as witness. But unlike Goya or Delacroix, Golub’s method was disputed in his time; painting ‘the real’ was complicated, it’s evidence inadmissible.
For Golub, painting intersected reality as it had for the impressionists – early beneficiaries of photography. He didn’t paint from memory but looked conflict square in the photo. His mediated image merges surfaces, not depths. Aggregate space (Erwin Panofsky)(2) describes a depthless, Byzantine pictorial field, distinct from the subsequent systemic space of the renaissance. Photography of the modern era restored aggregate space to painting, newly configured as the space of the document. It’s felt in the preternatural flatness of, for example, Manet’s ‘The Execution of Emperor Maximilian’ in turn re-phrasing Goya’s ‘The Third of May 1808’ with it’s captive spreadeagle before the guns of a militia; the ageless gesture of the unarmed.
The impression that the unspeakable of Golub’s violence corresponds to an unaddressable in his form is slight but difficult to shake. A painting is a reticent thing. More often ventriloquized than interrogated, few artifacts so closely associated with the notion that art should ‘speak for itself’ are so mute. Biting one’s tongue in response to Golub is at once counterintuitive and perversely apt. The voluminous muteness of his paintings abides like the collapse of civil dialogue, a historical phenomenon that has gone nowhere.
(1) Scarry, Elaine, The Body in Pain – The Making and Unmaking of the World, Oxford University Press, 1985, p.43
(2) See Perspective as Symbolic Form, Zone Books, 1927