Tag Archives: Political Art

A Necessary Man: Leon Golub / Riot @ Hauser & Wirth

You walk into the room
With your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
And you say, “Who is that man?”

The thrill of opening the door of a gallery and immediately seeing a masterpiece. Just hanging there. No fuss. The thrill begins at the threshold, you are not fully into the room but the painting already fills your field of vision and the disruption between the elegant quiet street you are stepping in from to the drama depicted in the painting, performed by the painting, happens in a flash.

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In the room, the painting representing two men, naked, one living, perhaps victorious, the other mortally wounded, his guts spilling into a dried caked pool of cadmium red deep or caput mortem paint.

Victor and vanquished are both flayed to the bone by the complex violent painting technique of the artist, abstract strokes construct the figures and atomize their surface at the same time. The faces are in a rictus of pain and emotion, they show their teeth.

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The teeth provoke a violent interruption in the viewing, an angry thought: Fuck you if you don’t get it or think it’s overly emotive.

Why does that defensive/combative thought occur? Because Leon Golub was a widely known and respected artist and yet often found himself in a contested situation, his incredibly impressive vitae belied by anecdotal knowledge of disrespectful treatment of him and his work to the end of his life and by review of some important American museum permanent collections and exhibition records. Paranoid imagination? Well, let’s take as a current case in point, “Raw War,” the chapter of the Whitney Museum’s current inaugural exhibition, America is Hard to See, of work dedicated to the Anti-War movement in the United States. Where is Leon Golub? The museum’s collection does include one Vietnam era war-related drawing by Golub. And where is Nancy Spero in the same installation? It’s hard to see how you can not include them in that specific context. They were pivotal figures in the anti-war movement within the art community in New York. So why?

There is strong emotion in Napalm 1, from 1969.It is an overdetermined scene. One could call this work expressionistic though Golub relied on appropriative methods: this painting among others from this time period is influenced by ancient Greek sculpture, as well as based on Golub’s extensive archival files of war imagery from which he worked–a fond memory of Leon sitting on a little stool in his studio cheerfully cutting clippings from all kinds of magazines sources including magazines for mercenary soldiers  like Soldier of Fortune–a current code word for a certain kind of academia-supported art is Research, much maligned because of its occasionally proscriptive aesthetic ideology, but what Leon was doing was research also, research is not reserved to any one type of artist or mode of artmaking.

(note for my subscribers that receive this post in an email, you will not be able to see this video in your email program, you must watch on YouTube or on my blog online).

The painterly style also emerges from expressionist painting movements of the time, including CoBrA Group and Art Informel, important movements in art in Europe near the time Golub lived in Paris, and abstract expressionism lurks in the strokes and the scrapes too. Golub is a painter. He is a political painter, consciously so. He strives for the heroic, via the anti-heroic, but irony is not his calling card and materiality, flayed scumbled paint on unstretched raw linen, is the embodied expression of his moral vision of the world. His sources are often photographic, but the body of marble aged by millennia, of paint applied expressionistically in action painting, are the means of communication. He is our Delacroix, our Gericault, our Courbet, not our Duchamp, our Warhol, or Koons, nor even our Haacke, but we have preferred to honor the artists who it is felt by some as having fulfilled the narrative of institutional critique, commodity culture, new imaging technologies. Despite everything that has happened since abstract expressionism, we still seem to be in a Greenbergian revolt against the political in painting, especially if it takes place within the language of abstract expressionism, of old fashioned painting. This gets close perhaps to the source of the curious case of Leon Golub, famous and honored yet not honored as he should be in his native land. End of diatribe.

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Upstairs two men fight to the death in Le Combat VII (1963). They are barely delineated. The painting is a delicate haze of shattered pink flesh. Pink is the color of femininity and delicacy and of shattered flesh. Golub is the IED, the improvised explosive device. The painting’s edge is peeling from the device meant to hold it to the wall: it is a contingency in the exposition of a contingent art work. Golub’s canvases are tough, resilient, but also unprotected by standard methods of support for painting. The peeling corner may provide a bit more information than the gallery would wish, but its revelation of the work’s contingency means something, it provides an intimacy with the artist and the work even if he isn’t there to fix it himself.

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In the next room, a larger than life-size figure crawls along the wall. This is a figure with barely any ground to speak of except the gallery wall and our space, the one we the viewers occupy. A Fallen Warrior (1968), he is on his knees, injured, barely alive but, slightly larger than we are, he is also monumental.

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Upstairs in a room suffused with daylight are some of Golub’s small works on paper, many of these works from near the end of his life. They are almost undefined in some cases, delicate but also defiant, infused with gallows humor.

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They are also youthful and gleefully sexual,

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For a while the title of this blog post shifted from A Necessary Man to a fragment of Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages,” “Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now,” because really, how would you know the age of the artist from this work. I reverted to “A Necessary Man” because in the years since he died Golub’s absence is actively missed by anyone who knew his work and his political activism.

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On the way out, Napalm 1 is seen again, near the plate glass front window of the gallery. Interesting that Hauser & Wirth chose to place Golub’s sometimes large rough skinned works into its extremely refined Upper East side townhouse sized room, a gallery large through accretion of rooms and floors but not incomprehensibly humongous like their downtown space. This in the scale that early large scale abstract expressionist era paintings were intended to function in, where a large though not enormous artwork could dominate the space and fill the viewer’s field of vision. The work is not forced to inflate itself to compete with the space while crushing the viewers humanity in the process.

These combatants ask us, What is victory in a war? One is dead or mortally injured but both are naked, both have the flayed flesh characteristic of Golub’s work.

I wanted to take a picture of this work seen from the street, to imagine the impact on passersby walking their miniature poodles or going to lunch, but reflection renders the painting invisible. They would only see themselves. One has to open the door and walk over the threshold into the room to have the experience.

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Leon Golub: Riot at Hauser & Wirth, 32 East 69th Street, New York NY 10021
Tuesday – Saturday, 10 am – 6 pm , through June 20, 2015

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“The Ground”

I’m delighted to have “The Ground,” a text about my work, published in the current issue of Cultural Politics, a Duke University Press journal

Issue cover, detail of Mira Schor, Conditions of Contemporary Practice, 2013. Ink & oil on gesso on linen, 24 × 45 in.

Issue cover, detail of Mira Schor, Conditions of Contemporary Practice, 2013. Ink & oil on gesso on linen, 24 × 45 in.

The full text online with color reproductions is here (scroll down to “figures” and click on “view larger version” )

The PDF of the text as it appears in the hard copy is here (reproductions in b/w)

Special thanks to the journal’s editors and to Arts Editor Joy Garnett for inviting me to contribute an artist’s project

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From Joy Garnett: Announcing the arrival of:

Cultural Politics Volume 10.3

Featuring cover art and an essay by Mira Schor, this entire issue is available open access, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Cultural Politics (ISSN: 1743-2197) is an international, refereed journal that explores the global character and effects of contemporary culture and politics. It analyzes how cultural identities, agencies and actors, political issues and conflicts, and global media are linked, characterized, examined and resolved. In doing so, the journal explores precisely what is cultural about politics and what is political about culture. It investigates the marginalized and outer regions of this complex and interdisciplinary subject area.

Edited by:

John Armitage, Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton, UK
Ryan Bishop, Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton, UK
Douglas Kellner, University of California, Los Angeles, USA

Mark Featherstone, Book Reviews Editor

Joy Garnett, Arts Editor

Each issue includes essays and projects by visual artists solicited and edited by New York artist Joy Garnett. Contributing artists include Stephen Andrews, Paul Chan, Christos Dikeakos, Gair Dunlop, Yevgeniy Fiks, Zoe Leonard, David Humphrey, Dominic McGill, Julia Meltzer & David Thorne, Arnold Mesches, Carrie Moyer, Richard Mosse, Steve Mumford, Sarah Peters, Mira Schor, Nancy Spero, and others.

Cultural Politics is published by Duke University Press. Access all articles online. Artist contributions are freely available (pdf and html) courtesy DUP.

Additionally, an archive of artist contributions can be found here

 

 

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Nights and Days of Chris Ofili and Benny Andrews

In recent days I have posted on Facebook galleries of photos from recent exhibitions I’ve just seen, with a brief text which I typically write quickly, just enough to give readers a quick sense of the work. Since Facebook’s algorithm is notoriously unreliable, I thought I would republish two such brief reports, about works I saw in the past two days, especially since the works presented here propelled me into the studio, an effect of art work that I particularly noted when I began this blog. As is often the case, happenstance unexpectedly reveals thematics. This is a case in point.

Sunday December 21 * Here are some pictures of my visit to Night and Day, the Chris Ofili exhibition at the New Museum. I should say my first visit because I intend to go again, this is a show it is a pleasure to spend time with and the works make you spend time. I very much wanted to see the show although/because I haven’t seen that much of Ofili’s work, and my attitude was in a sense neutral because on the one hand I am not necessarily a fan of a kind of stylized style of figuration and yet I love cartoon figuration. Same duality about vivid color. So, needle set at neutral but looking forward to and anxious to see.

It’s a great show and by far the best use of the New Museum’s awkward cold space I have ever seen. Each floor tells a story and each room is not just a space to stick some work, but to consider a body of work. Important to go in order, second floor, third floor, fourth floor, and fifth floor for small exhibition of his work for ballet.

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On the second floor, first thing you see coming out of the elevator is an installation of works from Ofili’s series Afromuses, 170 small framed watercolors (looks like watercolor and ink) of silhouetted heads of African women and men, emphasizing the abstract design of hairdos, patterned textiles of clothing and jewelry. These works, a selection of a larger series, emphasizes the importance of drawing–these were works that the artist did every morning for about 10 years for about fifteen minutes as warm ups for painting, and they serve here as a warm up to the rest of the show.

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One experiences them twice, as you loop back to them after going around the corner first into a large space with a great group of large paintings from the 90s, including the notorious Holy Virgin Mary of Mayor Giuliani fame.

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These paintings have a great sense of scale, and the fact that each rests on a ball of elephant dung adorned with the title of the work rather than being hung on a wall keeps them at the level of the viewer’s body. They are intensely surfaced, vividly pigmented, very funny–at one point I started thinking about the Simpsons–and very moving: particularly striking from across the room as well as directly in front of is No Woman, No Cry about the mother of a black teenager killed in a racially motivated assault in London. This painting’s use of the ball of dung is particularly striking, as a piece of jewelry which is also a weight, a scar, a tumor, at the core of the painting.

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So already two impressive groups of works, but the show really gets impressive when one walks into the next room, lit slightly differently, with large paintings which share a color scheme of green, black, pink, red, and white, and a lush sexuality and sensuality.

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At this point in the show looking at these works I also felt strongly that these paintings were made by the artist, that he was engaged in the painting, even though these are not conventional paintings–there is neither brushwork, ton smooth flatness, the surfaces are complex, textural, layered, constructed, but they are convincingly by one person making decisions as he goes along

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The next floor is dedicated to a darkened room with dark paintings which at first are nearly unreadable, somewhat like figurative Ad Reinhardts. Strangely my iPhone camera was able to pick out forms that my eye could not. The darkness hides dark subject matter including a lynching. It is a room I particularly want to return to, must return to, to see what more I can see.

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The next floor (4th fl of the museum) is the total opposite, an emotional reversal: a knockout of color and sensuality, yet painted much more flatly than the first large paintings. No more stippling, no more varnish and glitter, no more elephant dung, in some cases figures appear to be drawn on the linen with charcoal. They bring to mind William Blake (an important artist to Ofili) and Nabis and early 20th century Viennese Orientalism, and also a lot of mid-twentieth century European artists, Matisse’s cut outs, late Picabia, Chagall even. The walls of the room are painted a light violet and blue floral pattern (based on images from Powell and Pressburger‘s movie Black Narcissus–a movie about Western sexuality repressed by religiosity and unmoored by its encounter with the exotic eroticism of the Himalayas–and painted on the wall by a team of professional scenic painters, according to the guard we spoke to). This helps transform the scale of the room in a way that is humanizing and welcoming, a large public space that one wants to spend time in, go back to, a vivid Botanical Gardens of painting.

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The way I’ve described the show here is to give a sense of the experience floor by floor. There are some critical issues, or issues one could have a discussion about: how do these work somehow radiate a sincerity opposite from works from the New Expressionist period that share some of the same references to between the World Wars European stylization of the figure? Is the role and critical reception of stylized figuration, vivid pigmentation of painting, vivid patterning and gaudy surface different when the artist is a person of color with ties to Africa , now living in the Caribbean? How is the reception different if similar images are presented by a male artist or a female artist? The work itself resists these, often unspoken problematics, and this is part of their strength and affirmation.

Monday December 22 *

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I went to MoMA yesterday and saw this really interesting painting by Benny Andrews: it is large, bold, arresting. Not a perfect painting–what appears to be a mutilated body covered by a crumpled American flag is awkward, not just disturbing, which it is, but awkwardly drawn, with strong foreshortening and the crumpled three dimensional cloth of the flag intruding into our space, and yet the painting, No More Games from 1970–is all the more powerful because of that awkwardness, a smoother painting would not be as effective, would be a contradiction. Each element means something, in the way that everything means something in a Northern Renaissance painting, there is iconography going on here, but iconography that is invented and adapted to speak to a desperate situation, a broken dream, the desperation of rebellion perhaps. Iconography is an important terms because in fact the painting also has a strong biblical reference, the painting is organized around a tree of knowledge and of patriotism that has been ravaged, leaving only the stump and the snake. Eve has been murdered for her sins–not sure about the sexual politics of this painting because its overall politics seem mainly about something other than sexual politics–and Adam sits with the body. Is it his crime?

 

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The sun shines bleakly on bare canvas, it has burned the background away to a stark empty apocalyptic desert, and the figure of the man, “Adam” has a shade, a flat black shadow silhouette who springs from the same pair of high tops as the figure. This figure is very inventively painted and very sculptural, both representationally and literally, wearing a real T-shirt stuck on him like clothes on a paper doll.

No More Games. What a title for this moment, what a day to see it, when the senseless massacre of cops in NY arrives to devastate and demonize a budding civil rights movement.

A really strong painting, it would be nice if the museum saw fit to put some more lights on it, though the lower light on the right hand side and the fact that the painting is right off the escalator, in the hallway, means one comes upon it, the way you discover something powerful in the subway or on a street wall. By the way, the hallway seems to be the installation spot of choice for–often figurative (and perhaps not coincidentally often political)–paintings by “others,” Alice Neel, Robert Colescott near the bathroom a few months ago. No More Games is by far the painting that remains with me from all the paintings I’ve seen in the past few days, it is a political essay–a trying something out, as a painting it is trying something out in painting: Rauschenbergian–that is, post-War, use of the real on a flat modernist picture plane, within a Renaissance representational program, to speak to a political history that is rarely faced, especially within painting.

The painting is on the third floor, just outside a really good installation of late 60s/70s painting, sculpture, and video. The painting’s installation outside of the illuminating historical presentation is both insulting and fitting, given its subject matter, which cannot be properly contained within the institution.

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This Past Week in Activism: Three Modest Gestures

Three modest political gestures have deeply touched me this past week:

Thursday, December 9th, in London, there was a teach-in at The National Gallery in conjunction with the street demonstrations of students protesting the tripling of educational fees by David Cameron’s government.

Teach-in about the raise in tuition fees, National Gallery, London, December 9, 2010

There is a general impression, which I often encounter among my students, that activism of the 1960s variety, including demonstrations in front of public institutions, occupations of educational and other institutions, are not effective. I am not sure that is true, but of one thing I am sure: any small engagement with the kind of political activism that brings people into a room or a public space, including the street, changes the life of the individual who participates, even if that individual does not further pursue a life of activism. You are in a room with other people, people who may think like you, people who may know more than you, people who feel passionately about things you dared not admit that you did. For a moment you are not alone. It can be stressful and confusing: you can experience some of this in play in the video clip I’ve included below, lots of people talking at the same time, a contingent atmosphere, but generally polite, good-natured, and modest, even including the behavior of the museum staff (they let it happen instead of banning everyone for life). No one on this particular clip is a great speaker, that actually makes doing something like that easier to imagine. For anyone who participated, something memorable has happened. And when I look at the picture of these people joined together in the same room with one of Manet’s four versions of The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, 1868, I am so so envious.

Edouard Manet, The Execution of Maximilian, 1867-68. Oil on canvas, 6'4"x9' 3 13/16", Collection of The National Gallery, London

The painting in the National Gallery that served as the backdrop for this week’s teach-in is the second in Manet’s series (see information about the history of the postmodern fragmentation of this work here). All the paintings of this series are big and they appear monumental, I’ve rarely been so struck and impressed by the size of art works. The modest scale of the exhibition space only enhanced this effect because the works were both monumental and intensely intimate in relation to the scale of each viewer.

This painting was included in Manet and the Execution of Maximilian, one of the best exhibitions held at MoMA. This small but intense, visually powerful, historically informative, wonderfully researched 2006 exhibition brought together Manet’s four paintings of this subject along with subsidiary paintings he painted during of the same year including his small but memorable painting of Charles Baudelaire’s funeral, along with a series of contemporaneous photographs of the execution and its aftermath, which were sources for Manet’s rendering and which included recreations, alterations, and falsifications of the actual, undocumented event, many of these by the ingenuity and dexterity of their photographic tricks and politically driven imagination anticipating Photoshop by over a hundred years. The exhibition also included a timeline of the events of the year Manet devoted to this work. Strangely relevant to ongoing discussions about political art (what is it? can art with overt political content be good art? does any so-called political art have any effect politically?) is also the fact that these works were not exhibited in Manet’s lifetime. So when I look at this picture of teh teach-in in London, with the painting providing a backdrop and visual anchor, I feel that the painting is fulfilling the role of a political art work in a way that Manet perhaps could not have anticipated when he painted it or when he put it away out of public view (in a gesture of pre-emptive self-censorship).

Meanwhile back in the States, this week saw a revival of the “culture wars” of the late 1980s, with the removal from the National Portrait Gallery of the video clip of David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 video “A Fire in My Belly.” There has been excellent coverage and commentary on this, including by Holland Cotter and Frank Rich of The New York Times, Blake Gopnik of The Washington Post, and Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times, as well as on art blogs such as Hyperallergic, and by Stephen Colbert on a must-see full show on art and censorship including a piece de resistance art critical analysis of Republican right wing Rep. Eric Cantor, totally brilliant because it could only be done with full knowledge and understanding of and ability to correctly use “The Language” or “Theory” but also devastatingly on target about the cliches that go with that knowledge and its vocabulary! & on Comedy Central!!!

But the gesture that most touched me was the quietest, a two-person protest that took place November 30 at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington:

This protest by Mike Blasenstein and the friend who filmed him Mike Iacovone was so simple: Blasenstein just stood there, with an ipad tied around his neck running the censored clip (best comment to this story on Hyperallergic, by Coco Lopes: “best use of an ipad ever.”) Blasenstein had explanatory flyers in his hand for anyone who might want one, which the museum security guards forced people to give back to him. Ben Davis published an interview with Blasenstein which foregrounds the spontaneity and modesty of his impulse to do this: “I just felt this is an important issue. I’m not really an artist or an activist, but when I heard that they took it down, it just seemed to send such a clear negative message. So I thought to myself, I would send my own message and bring this art back into the museum.” Could an instance of activism be any simpler?

The week ended with Senator Bernie Sander’s nearly 8 hour filibuster-like speech Friday December 10th, explaining and lambating the tax cut deal arrived at by President Obama and the Republican Party.

The speech can be seen on Senator Sander’s website as well as on C-Span. Here is a clip:

I only found out the speech was happening late in the day through comments on Facebook, I would have loved to watch it live but I watched about an hour and a half later that evening. I kept on trying to change the channel, thinking well , this is very interesting but let’s see if there’s something else on, but then going back to it: it was in its own plain spoken way, riveting. Sanders reminded me of the kind of politician I grew up witnessing: contrary to today’s cookie cutter hairdos with pre-fab talking points, you could count on a greater number of stalwart liberal figures, often speaking with emphatic local accents — Sanders is the Senator from Vermont but he’s from New York and sounds a lot like Bella Abzug to me — and they weren’t “Socialists” in those days, they weren’t “Independents,” they were in the Democratic Party, one of the reasons I’ve stated for being a “yellow dog Democrat.” It was fun and inspiring then, it was inspiring and a welcome respite now. I couldn’t help but think of what might happen if just one other Senator did this, and then one other one and then one other one, maybe pretty soon the cautious, craven and cowardly would begin to see a group to blend into and next thing you know you’d begin to have yourself a movement.

One can dream: each of these events is a drop of water in the worldwide tsunami of reactionary activism (tsunami, uh oh, cliche alert, but I’m thinking not only of the big crashing wave type of tsunami, but also the slowly inexorably rising water type that seems to have us suddenly clinging to lamp posts as our feet unexpectedly get wetter and wetter), seemingly, maybe even surely, futile for the moment, but still, are we not better off that a group of students and teachers occupied the National Gallery in front of Manet’s wonderful painting, and that two guys just decided to show up at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. and use an ipad for peacful protest, and that a United States Senator had the guts and stamina to give a speech that if people could hear it, they would be persuaded by it? Let’s say they are all dreamers and what they did won’t change any immediate policy. OK. But what a greater nightmare we’d be in if such people did not do such small gestures of activism.

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