Leon Golub: Mercenaries II (section III), 1975, acrylic on linen, 93 by 76½ inches; at Hauser & Wirth.

Leon Golub’s death in 2004, at the age of 82, coincided with the full flowering of the privatized guerrilla warfare that he caustically portrayed in his most celebrated paintings of the 1970s and ’80s. Mounted to coincide with a retrospective at London’s Serpentine Gallery, this exhibition shoehorned works from five decades into Hauser & Wirth’s opulent Upper East Side town house. The most significant works were paintings made between 1960 and 2000; a selection of modestly scaled drawings from 2002 to 2004 extended the themes of the paintings, underscoring their dark humor.

The earliest paintings on view illustrate Golub’s debt to both classical statuary and Art Brut. The coarse figuration in Colossal Torso III (1960) and Le Combat VII (1963) emerges from worn surfaces that evoke the rough urban walls Dubuffet loved as well as the heavy patinas often found on Roman sculptures. 

There was something unsettling about walking between the delightfully air-conditioned floors of the gallery while gazing upon crusty paintings of men wielding power badly—and that dissonance may have been what Golub intended. In a 1995 interview with his wife, artist Nancy Spero, and curator Helaine Posner, Golub spoke of his fascination with a sculpture of the late Roman emperor Trebonianus Gallus that was “gross and brutal looking” even though it was made in “a sophisticated and knowing milieu, perhaps decadent, claiming very little innocence.” For Golub, a similar milieu had emerged in the imperial U.S. of the ’70s, and so nothing less than a new form of gross and brutal art would do.

Brutality oozes out of the two perspiring men in Mercenaries II (section III), 1975. They warily peer out from behind a few roughly brushed tropical leaves. There’s a provisional feeling to the work, conveyed in part through its unstretched linen support, which has been cut into an irregular shape and is hung on grommets. The rough-hewn quality is reinforced by the four scraps of stained fabric Golub glued to the work’s surface. One man, shirtless, raises his right hand, a gesture that could be a wave or a signal to halt. His left arm blends in with the flecked paint of his pink potbelly, so that the hand silhouetted below, lightly holding a machine gun, jumps out unexpectedly. The work could be taken as a literal depiction of naked aggression—the men are in total control, obviating the need for a hint of armor. 

Golub is undoubtedly a significant figure in the history of politically engaged art. Still, there’s a nagging sense that his sometimes-massive canvases could resemble, at least in scale, the Neo-Expressionist paintings that epitomized market-driven banality in the Reagan-Thatcher-era art world. The Uruguayan artist Luis Camnitzer, a friend of Golub’s who holds similar political views, criticized his colleague’s work for failing to transcend its elite art-world context: “while the paintings declare his opinion about this topic, they don’t do much to convince anyone who is in the opposite camp.” There’s something canny, however, about Golub’s decision to depict the viciousness of hired killers on a scale associated with history painting. Overwhelming size can project power. Being swept up in a gigantic Neo-Classical history painting or a sublime Abstract Expressionist canvas can also be exhilarating. And as we admit to the possibility of taking pleasure in Golub’s work, we may also realize our own complicity—as citizens of the Empire—in the vicious crimes he depicted. 

The paintings get us to look at this unsavory reality, in large part because of the weird specificity of the hairstyles, costumes and poses of Golub’s figures. Riot V (1987)—at 10 by 13 feet, one of the largest works on view—shows a group of men scattered in the bottom half of the dark linen, below a streaky nighttime of grays, blues and blacks. One shirtless figure wears a bright red bandana around his neck and stands with his hands at his waist, elbows out. Behind him there’s an angry bald man in green pants, lavender shirt, and yellow jacket and tie. We don’t know the specifics of who these men are or why they’re in this jungle, but the work puts privileged viewers with access to high-end galleries in a disconcerting spot: staring at these apparent “freedom fighters” and knowing that they could be operating in our name.