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Leon Golub discusses recent art with Studs Terkel ; part 1

BROADCAST: Nov. 25, 1964 | DURATION: 00:26:39


Golub discusses his work "Man" and talks about his process as an artist.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel A couple of years ago. November. 1962 when I I blew it. It was a very exciting conversation with Chicago artist living in Paris at the time Leon Golub. I say monsieur Golub. That's what the Paris French operator called

Leon Golub Bonjour monsieur

Studs Terkel Bonjour monsieur

Leon Golub Bonjour monsieur

Studs Terkel Fortunately Leon Golub is now visiting Chicago and his works are an exhibition at the Allan Frumkin Gallery at 620 North Michigan. And I say blew it I lost the tape. It was, you remember Leon it was in your atelier off off the alley there and you were in the middle of something that I found terribly exciting because the day before we had gone to the Etruscan Museum and I saw all over your gallery as I see here now looking on the walls of the Frumkin Gallery some of your works. They were heroic figures I remember and they were charred and scarred you remember that?

Leon Golub Oh yes. That was my basic style for many years and still is. I love very much the quality of Etruscan art. It's crude rough implacable eternal quality something that persists. An image of man that continues. That shows the frailty the vulnerability but the power of man Etruscan art has this. It's the quality of the Greek art man conquering his destiny. But it's an eternal art that comes down to us today.

Studs Terkel As you're saying this, course this, I remember now two years ago conversation and we're now talking in 1964. Much has happened.

Leon Golub Things have changed

Studs Terkel At the same time a certain certain eternal truths are eternal haven't changed. At the same time you spoke of Etruscan art, here's something centuries old. Yet you in '64 what led, I'm looking at a huge painting on the wall here to my left to our left. The two figures. A-This influenced, this we look at now. See to your left right now. The two guys the two faces huge torso. Face below.

Leon Golub It's a fallen figure being supported by a victor. There are two men who have been in conflict. One supports the other. But there is an alternative possibility in the painting. He is either conquered the man or he's helping him. And this ambiguity lends a kind of contrast and excitement to the painting. What I'm looking for is a quality of endurance of of the kind that we spoke of in terms of Etruscan art and I want something that is most central absolutely contemporary something of today. And you look at what is what is vital in today what endures. What means something in terms of our images. And I find in this idea of brutality, of struggle, of man conquering, of survival and the erosions that take place but nevertheless the survival. This is what I find in myself in a sense when I'm trying to portray and what I still love in the art of the past. And this is why in a way I look to classic art of which Etruscan art is a very vital part. And I think I'm trying to do something very avant-garde at the same time.

Studs Terkel The same time avant-garde but not unrelated to man. I mean is avant-garde at the same time you are not disaffiliated you're so much involved with it. You have these two human beings these two guys we're looking at now and they're in conflict you say. Now we don't know whether one is beating him or helping him.

Leon Golub That's right. And in a sense the the issue is always unresolved in a certain kind of notion of the quality of endurance which I wish to portray. This particular painting was influenced, the gesture of the man, his arm over his head, was influenced by certain relief from Pergamon and there are also certainly Etruscan reliefs of this kind.

Studs Terkel I look at, it's the strength of course immediately I think we're impressed. I think anyone is and watching a, and seeing a Golub work the strength of it as, as of, well another word I suppose just just came to my tongue at this moment virility. Perhaps an old-fashioned word, the virility and the vitality of it. This is is you would say this is sort of a hallmark of yours.

Leon Golub Well I think this is basic like in the drawings along along the wall here I'm trying to show different positions. Old men, young men, fallen figures, victorious figures, indeterminate figures in a certain sense, one is running, one is retreating, one falls back, one attacks, but they are really in a certain sense this is. They are in a there are in a way they are brothers they are antagonists but they are eternal figures.

Studs Terkel Figures, you say, figures and throughout we've just been talking about one painting these two these two men in conflict to the wall, to our left as we see it. But through the, all the walls of the Frumkin Gallery are figures human figures. Isn't this a little, isn't this a little, how can I put it out of style?

Leon Golub Well people have said for many years that the figure has gone from modern art, that man, that artists have said everything that could be stated about the human being. But insofar as man is still capable of manifesting his own future, that is, you have your hands you determine something you make it move you change it. This is characteristic and is a both subjective objective attitude of man and I think can be best personified in activity in man's activity. And this means a kind of representational art not imitation so much as a certain dominance and a certain gesturing that takes place. And you if you gesture and you manipulate then in a sense you are overcoming and this is what I wish to portray.

Studs Terkel Overcoming survival certain keywords. You mentioned that obviously are keywords in the art of Leon Golub overcoming survival. My question of course was a sardonic one about being the human figure out of style.

Leon Golub Well like the big painting on the wall and-

Studs Terkel Perhaps you should describe this a huge painting directly in front of us a man holding two other figures in his hand. You describe it.

Leon Golub It's a father fleeing holding a son. Now the son is really not a child. It's a youth, it's portrayed in terms of a classic figure almost like a statue although the painting itself has a fresco like appearance the man is running he's supporting it. There is fear expressed in their faces, horror expressed in their faces. At the same time they're running in a certain kind of way which has dignity which has force to it. The man has power and it's very possible in a certain sense that the outcome of this essentially pessimistic kind of flight is positive and successful in the very nature of the painting itself and the very nature not of merely of the of the figures but in the very nature of the kinds of proportions the spacing of the figures in an abstract way on the canvas itself in a symmetrical way and in a way that the verticals and the diagonals and the whole gesturing points to this kind of upright successful conclusion.

Studs Terkel I want to come to this matter of what what you were talking about earlier the form itself it stru- I said I thought as I'm looking at it now this huge heroic figure, that's the word, perhaps we can talk about little too. This man who as you say seems to be running from yet maybe toward. This protectedness about this huge figure with that youth in his arms. I thought there were two figures. I see over and beyond the boy I thought was another figure. I'm a little nearsighted, I haven't got my glasses on, but there's this figure beyond the boy I thought.

Leon Golub Yes. Well in a sense that's a kind of I would say that's a kind of momentary visual after image which comes out of what I would like to think is the, a certain dynamic quality in the painting but it is in motion you see and the paint I hope is put on in a kind of broken fleck flecked way that presupposes activity and motion and drama. And insofar as that is true. This, the contrast between the stability which suddenly gives way to the motion would tend to provide a kind of afterimage [phone rings] a kind of retinal image.

Studs Terkel As you're talking Leon, I'm looking of course. I think anyone who looks at this particular work would be impressed with the strength of it. I use the word heroic or you spoke of overcoming and survival, heroic. Is this, am I imagining too much describing your figures as heroic. You know this day with with you know, we're told so much of the impotence of man, the littleness of man in face of everything, technology, the bomb the world-

Leon Golub Yes

Studs Terkel yet your figures seem to be heroic.

Leon Golub Well this is a, in a sense it's a gesture on my part towards the, I mean this sounds in a certain sense and in a most extreme way a kind of egoistic grand, a very extreme egoistic statement on my part but in a way in trying to portray the heroic I'm trying to relate certain feelings and certain qualities of experience in the present to the past. I'm trying to find a certain kind of magnificence. And I search for this I may fail in this I may succeed in this. The outcome is never known to the artists in that sense, but I wish to portray this, I wish to in a sense demonstrate it. And I find in the art of the past a kind of quality of experience which can be demonstrated in the art of the present.

Studs Terkel As you're saying this Leon I can't help but feel you spoke of the art of the past and in that way because of what you have learned of the art of the past. The eternal out of the Etruscans for example you're portraying a present. I wonder if this isn't perhaps if you're not a harbinger of something else we talked about this two years ago. If we're not ready for a new phase man in life as well as in art. This new phase you spoke of the human figure now again perhaps returning the strength of them there. We've been through what seems to be another period. And since you yourself we spoke of avant-garde quality yourself seemed to be searching for something that is of tomorrow.

Leon Golub Well there are many realities and different artists portray different kinds of reality. All these are justifiable and significant. However one of the things that is often ignored in modern art. Modern art concerns itself with many kinds of things, sensory things, dynamism in pop art it exploits certain conventions and the vulgarities inherent in contemporary life. But there are other things I find, they're the kind of brutality and struggle that goes on in the modern world. There are conflicts of tradition and innovation. There are there are the problems of in a sense of the very nature of what man is and how man conducts himself. Much of this which takes on the tragic form and which is in a way classical insofar that it's come down to us through the century. Much of this has been ignored in modern art and modern art which is a kind of in its most basic quality. Art for art's sake that is it has its own it claims to have its own intrinsic modes regardless of what the world itself may be. I prefer a different concept of reality one that finds a kind of mythic and rhetorical and dramatic sense of the nature of man's conduct and I'm interested in this sort of notion of conduct and behavior and activity and success and failure in these particular activities.

Studs Terkel Isn't yours, I mean this is an editorial comment isn't yours the art that has a far more chance of being eternal. I mean this kind of art than that which you had been touching upon which may be fashion you know and pass away and gone isn't yours the-

Leon Golub Well that's a very dangerous thing to say. And we all hope so. All artists carry the belief-

Studs Terkel I mean the fact that you have looked back into the past into a historic and rich past, the Etruscan one for example, ask about other influences too look to that and you you point to '64. Yet yet there's something else here. You spoke of the flecked qualities which I called remember then two years ago the scarred qualities. Remember I said I've seen the old widow of Antoine Bourdelle [Constantine Bourdelle?] he was a friend of Rodin and they spoke of the heroic figures you say. Yet yet heroic in a romantic way that would not be your way of '64.

Leon Golub Yes I remember very well Riddell comes out of the certain great traditions of the 18th and 19th century and he's he's a kind of penultimate like Rodin of these expressions. And there may be elements which relate me to him but in a certain way I have found it necessary in what I search for to discard not only much of contemporary art but much of the art of the past. And I find in a kind of public art the public art of Rome I find a more in a sense shall I say contemporary feeling that individualism which came during the Renaissance which then became the individualism of the private thoughts of the person which developed into the 19th century and therefore into art for art's sake. It was a kind of extreme nature of individualism. In a sense I turned from this kind of individualism. Although I know that I do this in a very subjective personal way and I am looking for a kind of public art. And this these figures which are a kind of mythic battle are an attempt to recreate the kind of notion of a Pergamon of a great public monumental art.

Studs Terkel And

Leon Golub That's a, I know this is a very extreme claim and but it's a kind of necessary basis as a kind of operating procedure by which my day by day activities as a painter go. That is, when I work on a painting and I change a painting I do not change it in terms of certain balances I take for granted that these will occur but I change it in terms of the kind of image and therefore the kind of public image that I want it to appear.

Studs Terkel Let me ask you more about public art in a moment I want to come back to that because obviously it's pretty fascinating. I think it an overwhelmingly important theme but come back. Yet your figure is different from Bourdelle's figure because we. A half a century 60 70 years later so much has happened to our world that is so different

Leon Golub That's right.

Studs Terkel And am I imagining when I see charred. To me they seem like scarred figures although they have been through a crucible.

Leon Golub Yes yes. Well they're scarred by the nature of circumstance that is we all become scarred as time goes on and the relative innocence becomes heavily charged. Runs down the we all become eroded. And I like this notion of erosion but in a sense there something that remains or there is something that supersedes it or there is something that grows out of it overwhelms it in a sense. The scarring is the surface. And yet these figures are intended to manifest a strength. The scarring really in a sense is like the scarring on a piece of stone. You see the stone is still strong although it's been weathered.

Studs Terkel Yes, if anything stronger perhaps.

Leon Golub Perhaps.

Studs Terkel I'm just wondering that

Leon Golub More unified by nature at that point.

Studs Terkel To me at least, as a guy watching your works Leon Golub here in the Frumkin Gallery by the way this exhibition is here until November 30th and if if by the time this program is on. The exhibition has ended there are Golub paintings here to be seen. But but back back to yourself I want to ask about yourself and your, why you've been to certain cities. What you were seeking in certain places. I know you've been to Greece after Paris and also Rome and the Etruscan Museum and also outside the museum. But public art, we come back to this a minute. It's I suppose in a world man the artist through the centuries has gone through different relations to society hasn't he?

Leon Golub That's

Studs Terkel And you spoke of art for art's sake. I suppose being this. May have been originally a rebellion against the middle class bourgeois values that came into play after the Industrial Revolution.

Leon Golub That's right. Yes.

Studs Terkel But originally before that. There was something called a public art wasn't there?

Leon Golub And in a certain sense one might say that there, that there was no private art although there were objects that that individuals might have, had decorative objects. But there were the kind of ritual nature to the art which encompassed. We think the whole of society. And when you would see a frieze in a temple. That frieze was not something that could only be enjoyed or theoretically should be separated from certain elements in the society. But it was an open thing who's the ideological basis of which could be comprehended by all. Now of course anyone could object very easily that our life has become ever so much more complex that our society is much more broken up and separated and there are great problems with communication and all kinds of things have happened. To this we all assent. And we are very much aware of the these problems. And yet I in this sense I take a very neoclassic position. That is I find that there are certain continuing themes. We are still the heirs of the Greeks. That nothing has really intervened to have changes this much. We may be somewhat disinherited inheritors but we're still there. And insofar there have been all sorts of elements from other cultures come in. For example artists in the early part of the 20th century were very concerned with African art and I have a great admiration, love African art. And African art also was a public art in this sense, you see, and spoke to the values of that particular society. But these elements then for example when African art came in it sometimes became used in a very private kind of way. But in its original basis it was kind of societal. Well in this sense I would say that the classic art can still operate for us.

Studs Terkel You then you in a sense contin-continuity, man's growth through the years starting say from the Greeks through the years this this element of continuity you yourself have never abandoned.

Leon Golub Well it seems it's it's a curious fact and that in a way I'm closer to it now than I ever was in my origins as artist and as a student. And the changes that have taken place. I was much further in from classic art and I come closer to it all the time. It becomes an ideal to which I hope to approach.

Studs Terkel You know the reason why at least I for one just as an observer a layman. Noncritic just a layman take Golub as very important as, somehow in this year 1964 and the years that followed we know there are rumblings underneath in the world of revolutionary changes taking place. There's triple revolution we here about. Weaponry which makes war obsolete. Cybernetics which will make a great deal of work as we know it obsolete. The human rights revolution all three impinging on us. Some call it the revolution of rising expectations in countries hitherto underdeveloped. And yet because of this we know that man can really be more free than ever despite the trials of the machine. You know there's a phrase a guy used that's why I think of you and, again you and the Greeks and the Etruscans. And this is Leon, it seems so. To me, even if I may not express it properly so pertinent. Says "Work may have to be redefined we can be we can be an Athens but instead of human slaves mechanical slaves. And if we are free from this drudgery this, what you call a public art, can really flower and blossom man can reach heights hitherto unexploited." In a sense you, the heroic figures we see, again I use the word heroic, charred though they may be, these big huge figures in contrast to the impotent image we've been fed from the past and perhaps justifiably. You represent maybe of tomorrow too. That's the point. To me.

Leon Golub Well I think you in your your statement you express very well some of the things I would like to be able to state in the work. Yes.

Studs Terkel Go ahead. I want to come back to you. How did you arrive? Now we have to come. The thought processes or the work of an artist. Leon Golub. You went through you yourself. Did you go through various stages?

Leon Golub Yes and when I began as a student the things I was most interested in were primitive art the art of the Near East which seemed to have a kind of crude vitalistic and ritualistic quality to me. In that sense I was searching in a more totemic way for a kind of communal statement although I didn't realize at the time. The same time I was interested in it in its because of its implacable quality because of its cruelty sometimes subsumed in the art sometimes conquered by the art. And then I became influenced by certain aspects of of contemporary art. But I never really was directed toward French art. When I did become interested in things it was the art of Mexico, Orozco particularly. The art of Germany particularly in this case Beckmann and maybe the early growth at the time of World War I. Subsequently another dose in a certain sense of primitive art. But in but in the early fifties I began to do figures which tentatively in their in their stasis in their simplicity, although I wasn't really even aware of this, began to have a kind of quality which subsequently looking at them in the light of my present work, I realised were kind of indicator classic interest certain simplifications and a certain kind of, shall I, would I dare say humanisation of my own brute impulses. Which had been expressed earlier. The great turning point however came in 1956 and seven when we spent a year in Italy and I saw the Naples Museum. We lived on the island of Ischia for a while where I first encountered this fantastic Mediterranean climate which had created helped create these things fifteen hundred years ago perhaps. And since then my art has taken on a a much greater direct influence. And I would have no qualms at any time nor have I of copying directly from Greek or Roman things in the same way that some artists they may copy from a Campbell's soup can. I'm just as willing to copy from a Greek statue. However in so doing it it changes considerably. One of the one of the figures I did not so long ago was a redoing of a theme I'd done in '54 called the burnt man. And I took there the statue in the Copenhagen Museum of a youth of an athlete tying his shoe. He's bent over and the figure has a certain dignity and relaxed quality. Well I took this position but in my doing of it it became a burnt man. That is it had. And anyone who knows the original statue can see this in it. But nevertheless it's a figure who is in a sense consumed. Unlike the tranquil figure. Now some of them are not in a way consumed this way. Some of them are more tranquil I've done seated figures which kind of have a, to my mind, a restful tranquil quality. I try to do dramatic figures, I try to express violence. I've done a series of philosophers who are supposed to represent the wisdom in a certain point at the moment I'm trying to do conflict.

Studs Terkel So much you say Leon that that calls for questions and comments. Just thinking you say some choose a Campbell's Sou-soup can. As the model as the influence you choose maybe a statue Praxiteles. I think of a Brendan Behan phrase when he was arguing with someone who didn't understand a word he was saying. He said "Well you have your people, I have mine." And a sense Leon Golub has his influences and they have theirs

Leon Golub Of course they could say very easily. You see the counter argument to all this is they would say that it is much more unconventional to take a Campbell's Soup can which has never been used in art than to take a Greek statue which has been used let's say in the 15th century in the nine, in the 18th century to 19th century and to redo it today and therefore that this position could be much more conformist. However I prefer to take a different point of view about it.

Studs Terkel Well as far as that comment about unconventional. There's the old, the old new and obviously superficial to use one of them. Newness for newness' sake. This has been part of it too hasn't it? Innovation innovation innovation's sake.

Leon Golub Yes. I actually think that much of this work does have a kind of brazen brassy quality which is characteristic of our world. That is much of pop art does reflect the kind of certain vulgarities which are intrinsic in the 20th century. This is one aspect of of our time. And we all experience it in one level or another. But there are other aspects which which I think have been ignored. And I am interested in these particular things which are more natural to-

Studs Terkel If I may go along with you and say I'll repeat Brendan Behan's comment again to this guy he would tell me this. He would say you have your people. I have mine.