By Clayton Eshleman

Golub the Axolotl

   Over the years Leon Golub has been an important example to me of the necessity to do exactly what you want to do as an artist, to take your knocks for it, but at the same time not to become bitter or to confuse the reception of your work with its ultimate worth. It is tough to practice one's vision and to remain receptive to a world that for the most part rejects not only the vision but the life behind it.

   Golub's tender armored tenacity, his resistance to any easy assimilation, his insistence on the artist as one who does not filter out society in his work--these aspects of what I would think of as integrity and solidarity with the genuine human condition--inevitably result, in our society, in a peripheral location. Most artists and writers who take a peripheral position, or who are peripheralized by the art world, seal over at a certain point and begin to cannibalize themselves. There are a couple of points in Golub's artistic evolution where I can feel the work stammering in place, starting to wear a cowl of despair and confusion--but in both cases, stasis became gestation, and he moved ahead. Golub's entire body of work to date has a peristaltic reflexibility of contracted insearch and expressive outreach.

   In the early 1980s, Golub's paintings of mercenaries, interrogation and torture, became a subject of great interest in the art world, and the Rutgers University Press monograph,* with a substantial text by Donald Kuspit, is to a certain extent the result of such attention. The optimistic part of me takes the attention from the art world and the monograph as a moving and reassuring sign that one can paint like Leon Golub has for thirty-five years and, during one's lifetime, be treated with respect and genuine acclaim. Another part of me believes that only when I can walk into a Bank of America and confront Interrogation II hanging over the bent heads of the tellers, will Golub's art have been truly received. And I don't expect that to happen in either of our lifetimes. In fact, if it did, a whole set of paranoiac speculations would be set in motion, like: Has North American society now assimilated (co-opted) even Golub? The pessimistic part of me says that seeming acceptance by one's enemies is much more undermining than their rejection. Paradoxically, one needs, is even nourished by, rejection on the part of a society that in its actual daily performance denies the self a sense of worth and imaginative fulfillment. So, except for a few people like Donald Kuspit, whose affirmative response to Golub's art is unquestionable, the warring parts of me wonder what the art world's current interest in Golub is about. Nevertheless, I would like to think that there are at least several thousand North Americans on earth today who can receive and respond intelligently to an impassioned, harsh and confrontational art that does not, for a moment, release them from their complicity in their country’s imperialistic role in domestic and world politics.

   At the beginning, in the mid-1940s, Leon Golub finds himself, with a paint brush in hand, standing before a "liberated" Buchenwald. Unlike most artists of his generation, he did not whitewash this backdrop and begin to work out schematic, abstract diagrams on it--or cover it with landscape that would make the viewer feel that he was still in a nineteenth-century relationship to nature. The core of Golub's career is in its complex response to annihilation. It is to some extent sounded by two lines by Charles Olson in a poem called "La Preface":

My name is NO RACE    address
Buchenwald     new Altamira cave

   Olson's poem was written in 1946, the same year that Golub’s, "Charnel House" and "Evisceration Chamber"--based on concentration camps--were painted. Olson's presentation of Buchenwald and Altamira, with space rather than a verb between the two nouns, presents the reader with an overwhelming question: What do these nouns have in common? The meaning that I draw from them is that the astonishing ancientness of man's creative impulse, which was discovered in this most inhuman century, may somehow offset total despair. Olson's choice of Altamira is slightly inaccurate for my meaning, as it was discovered in the nineteenth century. However, the bulk of Upper Paleolithic cave art which we are now aware of was discovered between 1900 and 1940, and thus comes back into time as mankind nearly passed out of time. This seems to represent a staggering synchronicity, and the pairing of the first imaginative constructions with the most recent inhuman destructions argues contra Adorno that there can be poetry and art after Auschwitz and, most important for both Olson and Golub, it did not have to jettison the mammalian image. Olson went ahead to write a body of poetry that attempted to be responsible for human culture for the past 3000 years. Golub, while not going back as far as Olson, made use of Primitive and Classical art to construct an ontogenetic vision that is at the same time his own artistic birth and evolution. He was not crushed by man's inhumanity nor--as his career magnificently bears out--has he evaded it.

   After his initial recognition of the Holocaust, Golub himself seems to have disappeared. He slipped into the water-filled wreckage-laden basement of Western culture and transformed it into a primordial bath, or foetus world. The murky paintings of the early 1950s, with their grotesque quasi-human forms, are entangled with the "Birth" series in such a way that they prefigure the emergent child. In Golub's uteral world, amputated members have a curious finlike appearance, i.e., end-man is beginning-man. And while such creatures seem to be struggling against a "primitive" dissolution, they also seem to be fighting the wind tunnel of Abstract Art. They are thus "edged" with contemporary time as well as being evocations of the artist's immemorial struggle to give birth to himself in his art. Without wanting to push it too far, I would suggest that at every stage of Golub's career there is an active resistance to Abstract "dissolution." For example, the flecklike burn-rubbled interiors of the "Burnt Man" paintings of the early 1960s are in themselves "abstract" and are only restrained from spreading out across the canvas in a particle flow by their bounding Classical outlines.

   At the point when an artist is on the verge of creating an image that is uniquely personal and universal, there may be an unbearable tension. Psychologically, it can feel as if one is at the same time engendering oneself and opening a conduit through which the new engendered self canemerge--as image. In the work of the majority of artists and writers, the effort of bringing oneself forth is not represented as subject. Golub's paintings are unique in their time for the extent to which they openly parallel emergent artistic consciousness with a recapitulation of mammalian birth.

   I say "mammalian" here instead of "human," because the images of emergence are hybrid: The amoebic tension of parturition is emphasized by the "Sphinx" series, several paintings of which depict "fabulous" two- (or five- ) headed beasts that seem to be on the point of division. In "Siamese Sphinx 1" (1954), the head placed over the animal's rump seems to be excrementally twisting its way out, while the frontal head grimaces at the viewer as if it were giving birth. In all the paintings of the early and mid-1950s, I feel the struggle of unborn man in a Holocaustal/primordial limbo, which, on an aesthetic level, reads out as a tug-of-war between Nihilism and a yet-to-be-resolved sense of how the human figure might become a vehicle sturdy enough to support a lifelong meditation on man's destiny. The great "Damaged Man" (1955) reveals a furious, gagged, adult foetus in the strait-jacket of a spiky caterpillar body.

   This vision of the figure-to-be-born as already possessing a mature body--or to put it another way, the figure in larval state already possessing adult characteristics--is mirrored by Golub's "Philosopher" series of the late 1950s, where massive quiescent adults, the first Golubians clearly out in the world, seem to be mainly reflecting on having just been born. Like the baby's face in "Birth VII," the Philosophers have utterly innocent "infant" eyes. The expression on the baby's face in "Birth VII" seems as old as the expression on "Philosopher I" ’s face seems young. As I glance back and forth between the two reproductions of these paintings, the faces momentarily fuse, each the mask, or stone hood, of the other, out of which Leon Golub's just-emerged soul gazes with a pristine, undirected stare.

    To reflect on figures in a larval state that already possess adult characteristics is to evoke the Mexican axolotl, a curious amphibian which keeps its gills throughout life and breeds in this larval state. And to think of certain artists, like Golub, as axolotls, brings up the matter of theadvantages and disadvantages of prolonged immaturity or, in a phrase that has almost become archaic today, artistic apprenticeship.

   Because we cannot imagine our grandchildren living the same kind of life as we do today, old-fashioned apprenticeship has given way to an obsession with immediate "arrival." Originality, which in the past, especially in the East, meant a slight modification on the style of one's master, now means a quick sizing up of the "art situation" and flicking a twist into current trends. In short, the artist today is under pressure to be immediately mature, to not allow his art a childhood.

   The most obvious example I know of a prolonged twentieth-century painter apprenticeship is that of Arshile Gorky. Golub's apprenticeship (which might more accurately be described as an artistic neoteny) is less obvious than Gorky's, and more complex, because the ontogenetic element is so pronounced, and because it constantly seems to be shaping stylistic influence for its own purposes. On one hand, Golub is "in time" from the very beginning, from the point at which he paints "Charnel House" in 1946, and there is no time in his body of work when he appears to forget that he is a conflict-ridden twentieth-century man. On the other hand, Golub's paintings do not address historical time until 1969 when in "Napalm I" the rash of red paint smeared across one of the fallen, naked combatants suddenly links the painting to the Viet Nam era. This is to argue that from the early 1950s, when the first axolotl-like forms began to breed in his canvasses, to the Gigantomachies of the late 1960s, Golub was working an image of man (from foetus to adult-in-action) in a frame that resisted man in historical time. It is as if for nearly twenty years (the time it takes a human male to go from birth to manhood) Golub allowed himself to remain immature, to very slowly amass a concentrated biological sense of becoming a man, of approaching manhood as it engages, and is worked over by, post Second-World-War North American society.

   The risk in allowing himself an almost molecular development was considerable. While I think there is a handful of paintings from the 1950s and the 1960s that now can be recognized as masterpieces, I am not sure that they would look the way they do today if they lacked the encompassing context of Golub's advances in the 1970s and the 1980s. His insistence on taking his time in a world in which the present seems to be whirling electrically into the future is courageous, for if an artist does take his time and does not "jump on the bandwagon," it may look to the world as if he is not meeting the nuclear reality of today's pace.

   Indeed, if the devil is loose in the world, and if the sky is already cracking its pillars, why scurry about for years at the shadowy edge of the spectacle, trying to figure out how to make monsters more viscerally real? I am sure there are many responses to such a question. In Golub’s case, I would propose that while he was painting to his maximum at each stage of his career, he was also calculating the amount of density necessary to solidify his figures in historical time once he de-eternalized (or de-primordialized) them. Furthermore, it seems to me to be more affirmative to paint man as an ugly brute than to not paint him at all, more humanly responsible to show North American mercenaries torturing Third World people than to make a painting that can be hung in a restaurant and blend into the decor and music--a painting which affirms the status quo by refusing explicit political content. The predicament that Golub had to work through in the 1970s seems to go like this: How eliminate the anonymous Classical aspects of the figure (which in the early paintings inevitably look backward, and may be dismissed as too concentrated on the past) and yet anchor historical figures in a context that will not be sucked into the velocity of our age and become a computer chip in the millrace of the instant?

   In the mid-1960s, when Golub's Philosophers sprang into action, they discovered what they wanted to do: physically fight. The 120 x 288" canvas of "Gigantomachy I" is a web of striking, thwarted gods and Titans who cannot be distinguished from each other. The body textures--chalk-white with rust and charcoal-colored sketched-in muscle suggestions--hint that because they have not been burnished forth into social identity such figures are ghosts. The background, without specificity or setting, like nearly all of Golub's backgrounds, is a neither-here-nor-there murky mustard color.

   In "Gigantomachy III," the background darkens and at one point seems to soak with blood, as if history is approaching through the back of the canvas (such "blood," in the paintings of the 1980s, becomes a solid bricklike background). While the painting virtually sweats with desire to express and contain male violence, the figures remain phantasmagoric. Their anatomy does not add up--certain feet are like massive, brushlike clubs--and the cause/effect timing seems oddly "off." Here the central kicker is swinging a gigantic foot over a figure who appears to have fallen before the kick. It is hard to tell if this "out of sync" quality is intentional or not. It tends to emphasize the anti-natural mood of the scene and make it more dreamlike than imitative of its source, the Greek Pergamon altar.

    By the end of the 1960s, the blood-splashed background of "Gigantomachy III" has been localized as napalm gore in the chest of a fallen combatant who is otherwise as ahistorical as the ambiguous gods/Titans. By 1972, Golub must have realized that his "murals of conflict" were as problematic, relative to the twentieth century, as Picasso's "Guernica” with its old-fashioned weapons and mythological beasts. In "Vietnam I" (1972), the combatants are given black pants and guns, and their ruddy hatch-marked torsos consequently feel flayed. They are firing across a tank-shaped rupture cut out of the canvas itself at a man and a woman. The "gods" are now starting to look like soldiers and the “Titans" like embattled peasants. Golub's art has become a kind of zoom camera depositing fragments of the war "over there" at the viewer's feet, insisting that any aesthetic contemplation be accompanied by confronting America's role in global terror. As Golub moved toward the 1980s, the challenge increasingly became to paint well (not beautifully, but with verve, precision and abrasive particularity) and to confront the viewerwith the fact that the inspiration behind such work is humanity suffering now.

   In the 1980s, the groups of soldiers and peasants have metamorphized into mercenaries and victims. Golub has moved these figures forward, as if on wide-screen TV, with the feet of both interrogators and the tortured eliminated, thus by implication standing, or hanging, in our own space. Because the mercs are dressed as we are, in fact smiling at us as they go about their "work," the "DMZ" between an Asiatic "there" and a North America "here" has been eliminated. The mercs are grinning at us because they know the "news" is part of our daily entertainment, and because they believe that we can be entertained by the pain they are inflicting on others.

   Viewed as a whole, Golub's work to date, as Kuspit's monograph makes evident, seems to be built on phases that increase in tension before recycling into a new phase. To put it in one sentence: It is as if the propeller-foeti amoebically divide and birth themselves into large block-wall-like "philosophical" babies, who slump and pose as burnt or destroyed men and then, discovering that they can act, begin to smash their way into history, creating a route into our awareness that leads from Rome via Viet Nam to El Salvador. Golub's most difficult and crucial advance seems to me to be the move from "Vietnam II" (1973) to "Mercenaries I" (1979). I know that this was a very difficult period for him. He mentions in one interview that he nearly stopped painting at this time.

   On a superficial level, it appears that the breakthrough into the "Mercenaries" and "White Squads" was contingent on having allowed newspaper photos to become naturalistically dominant in the "heads of state" portraits (1976-77). However, I think this move was dependent upon a more complicated one which meant cutting himself off from the Classical and Primitive "compost" that had nurtured his work up to this time. Such compost was permeated not only with the affirmative elements in Golub's long apprenticeship, but with that vague sense of timelessness, or primordial connection that many artists yearn to maintain as an active component in their work. If Golub's shaping of the "Mercenaries" series had failed, he would have been exchanging an art that through its resonance at least connected him to great art of the past for an illustrational, message-oriented, political one. Most artists and writers are put in this position at least once or twice in their careers, and most opt for ambiguity because, for one reason, it is just too frightening to stake one's neck on a single theme or subject in an age without a central story or myth.

   For every great or unique artist there are thousands of intelligent, highly sensitive artists who, as Blake put it, "keep the divine vision in a time of trouble," and are thus part of the evolving poem/painting of the world that involves the imagination and fate of each of us in each other, including those of the past and those of the future. There is an eternal pathos in creative activity because the vast majority of artworks quickly become fertilizer which, in turn, stimulates new shoots which, in turn, also join that earth. While every artist in some way desires his art to outlive him, most stay very close to the image compost that enabled a seed to take root in the first place and, in that way, predetermine their development. Great art may be a demonstration in a single shoot, as it were, of the depth and the complexity of the compost itself. Unique art, on the other hand, may add to the stalk a bloom of a peculiar color or tinge that had not been seen or grasped before, stating in effect that the compost is lacking in something that this art is adding on its own. Such art almost inevitably appears to be incoherent or ugly until, in time, enough of it is absorbed by the compost to become part of artistic nurture. One of the unending ironies of art is that the more an individual artist desires immortality the more he will be magnetized by the imaginations of those who have come before him, and probably co-opted by their awesome quicksand. The move toward uniqueness on the part of an artist can appear to involve jettisoning art itself in an attempt to show life without artifice, psychology, established and occult religions, the initiations of others, etc., that is, without all the filter systems humanity has for eons employed to keep itself from remembering itself and exercising its imaginative faculties at large. Were these filter systems to totally disappear, would it be the end of art, or would art truly become the mental gymnastics of paradise?

   In the paintings of the 1980s, Golub has eliminated the combat frenzy of the paintings done in the 1960s and the 1970s and, by matching his own peripherality with peripheral subjects, has come to terms with his own position in today's art world. I believe that one of the things that he had to confront was that the "heads of state" portraits were an instructive dead-end. In this respect, I think that W. H. Auden was on to something when he wrote in an essay entitled "The Poet and the City": "It is extremely difficult today [1962] to use public figures as themes for poetry because the good or evil they do depends less upon their characters and intentions than upon the quantity of impersonal force at their disposal." While the "heads" enabled Golub to focus on media images, they seemed to be too far removed from his own social "station" as an artist at the periphery of both the art scene and North American power to advance the energy of his complex vision.

   To move from Pinochet to a tacky merc (forgetting the head of state and concentrating on the guy who does his dirty work) was an acute and astonishing adjustment. Mercenaries, like Golub himself, may be seen as peripheral figures, a kind of Hermic trash, scuttling back and forth between military elitism and civilian desperation for work. If the figure of the peripheral artist evokes the Dostoevsky "creature between the floorboards," the mercenary intensifies the connotations of such a figure into a livid focus: The mercenary is not only marginal man, but marginal man without politics, willing to kill or torture anyone for a price. He is like the medieval masterless Japanese samurai, known as the "ronin," or wave-man," a warrior tramp with day-to-day allegiances who goes with the flow.

   At the same time, far from being a TV dot pattern who can snuff thousands by signing an order, the merc, like most North Americans, makes a few hundred dollars a week, can be fired at whim, and has no real significance. While he is "over there," he is very close to most of us here, if for no other reason than like most American workers, his is a lifetime of meaningless labor. In the technological world, workers are laborers, for they feel no personal pride in what they do, and are not responsible for what they make. This, of course, does not make them killers, but if one thinks about American society today--from the consciousness level of Saturday at midnight in the typical local bar, to wife, child and animal abuse, and all the land mines of violence to others and to the self across which millions move on a nightly, daily basis--if one looks unromantically and unflinchingly at how people actually treat one another in our "great society," the mercs not only blend in and are absorbed as part of the machinery of violence, but they typify a certain kind of cruel pointlessness which every North American soul bears as a scummy watermark.

   Golub's mercs often stop work for a moment and turn to acknowledge our fascination with what they do, as if they were chefs in a see-into kitchen, and we were the well-heeled clientele, eager to not only dine but to watch our cuisine being prepared. For these mercs are making something for us, are they not? They are whipping the out-of-line into line, crushing the testicles of a rebel who has refused to make his daily contribution to the "American dream." In Golub's corrosive clarity, it is one Satanic ball, from interrogation and torture in the afternoon to horsing around with whores and booze at night. Work and play, torture inciting sex, sex inciting torture. In these paintings, Golub has once and for all boiled the fat and anonymity out of his Gigantomachies. There are no gods--only these lordless henchmen. As for the Titans, they have become unidentified suffering flesh, the power of the earth as manifested in a human being strung up and pummeled because he lacks the correct identification card.

   Baudelaire wrote, "Caricature is a double thing; it is both drawing and idea--the drawing violent, the idea caustic and veiled." Leon Golub's mercenaries, the violent carriers of caustic and veiled North American hostility toward "the other," would seem to meet Baudelaire's definition, but they extend the ground of caricature too. They fuse the grotesque with the documentary (we sense the verisimilitude of the news photo moving like a Procrustean frame behind them), and Satanic laughter with winks and friendly fuck-yous. In "Mercenary V," the squatting white holding his revolver to the forehead of a black in raised push-up position turns to look at us, as if posing for us, and raises his left hand in a kind of pointless open salute and wave. I am not sure if he has just waved or is about to give me the finger--and his leer and half-mast eyes are so out of focus that I cannot tell if he is making a face at me or anticipating my applause when and if he "blows that nigger's brains out."

   While the Mercenaries have social identity, like the Classically inspired warriors, they are anonymous. By placing them in a limbo between caricature and representation, Golub has contained the nature of the mercenary, a being whose identity is clear yet unrevealed. The ambiguous gesture of "Mercenary V" ’s left hand is repeated by body as well as hand gestures in groups of figures in other paintings. The "out of sync" aspects of "Gigantomachy III" have become orchestrated into a functional motif to prevent these paintings from slipping into cartoon-like caricature or photographic representation.

   In this regard, the masterpiece of the series is Interrogation II where three mercenaries are involved in torturing a naked, tied-up and seated, hooded victim. Golub has painted the torturers so that they appear to be more interested, for the moment, in our response to them than in their "work" itself. The two mercs to the right of the tortured man are grinning at us (one is black, the other white; Golub is careful to leave no single social strata unimplicated)--in fact, they look as if we had just yelled at them, Hi, Benny! Hi, Will!--what are you guys up to? The third merc, let's call him Frenchie (he has plastered back hair, a pencil moustache, and a neck scarf tucked inside his blue short-sleeved workshirt) is a little suspicious of Benny and Will. Are they getting too much attention from us? He holds up his left hand in a slightly effeminate pose with cigarette (one can smoke and torture at the same time), and with his right hand, in a rather wooden, puzzling gesture, seems to be on the verge of grabbing the front of the hooded man's face--but the gesture is more baffling than it is precise, as is Benny's hand gestures, for while he is turned toward us, grinning, he is also slightly advancing toward the tortured man, with his hands held forward, thumbs raised, but the gesture, like Frenchie's, is baffling--and curiously still. In contrast to the slashing action of the Gigantomachies, these mercs seem as if they were rehearsing a play, or as if they are at play, like big kids on stage, where they just happen (by unavoidable implication) to be torturing someone. All six hands of the three torturers are as much involved in a mudric sign language as in manhandling the hooded victim.

   To see the mercs as actors turning to us, a composite director, for a confirmation that they are accurately portraying the roles to which they have been assigned (or as in my previous example, to see the action as that of merc/chefs and viewer/clientele), is to emphasize the interplay that Golub establishes between image and audience, an interplay that is rich with psychological entrances and exits--lubricious, intransigent, and condemnational. This space between caricature and representation is one we all share. All of us move in an unfathomable and unclosable gap between our image of ourselves and the way we fear we appear to others. We are definitely real, we think, but we are never sure that our appearance to others is what we see in the mirror. It is as if we wander around in a peristaltic aura, which shakes with the gray jelly of father and Dagwood as well as of soul and man. Golub's mercs are like worms slithering around in the interstices of our baffling and pathetic self-regard. Their smiles go into our eyes with the same subtle and voracious glee with which they offer their zippered fly-covered hardon to a whore or their boot tip to the forehead of a crawling man.

[November 1985, Los Angeles]

*Donald Kuspit: Leon Golub, Existential/Activist Painter, (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1985).

"Golub the Axolotl" is reprinted from the book Antiphonal Swing: Selected Prose 1962/1982, ©1989 by Clayton Eshleman (Caryl Eshleman, ed.). All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author, and the publisher, McPherson & Company ( The essay first appeared in Temblor 6, 1987.