I don’t usually peg artists to their race and gender unless they make a big deal out of it themselves. As in this case they do, I’ll say that the Kiefer and Golub shows occurring simultaneously (by chance or design?) have much to tell us about white male culture.
Why don’t we give them a White Male History Month? The rest of the year they could vie for attention like the rest of us—only on a more even playing field.
Golub and Kiefer feel a terrible guilt and a fascination with its source, and neither can take their eyes off it for even a moment. Neither shows any interest in women except as symbols (for Kiefer) and passive victims (for Golub). Both have created a world that has no way out. And both men have mastered a gorgeous seductive painting surface—in almost opposite ways. Those surfaces are what keep this viewer engaged in their very disturbing paintings.
The Kiefer show is comprised mostly of works on paper but the massive painting, Bohemia Lies by the Sea is the star of the show. By putting so much physical work into the painting he gives the poppy field and the road a shimmering, shattering staccato, he has transcended the symbolism and captured an image of beauty and horror, a glimpse into the nightmare of the fields fertilized with blood. The words are unnecessary—except perhaps for the painter. The reason that this works so much better for me than the other works shown is that I’m looking at it longer, the words don’t swallow up the meaning, there is time to think.
The work on paper is more direct, less time was spent on it; it is ponderous with romantic symbolism. A Woman, seen floating through a river, She is the Vistula, the river Hitler crossed to invade Poland. (There are no pictures of women, only of Woman. This is very typical for the male of the species, I might add.) A wheat field, a very beautifully painted one—written in the sky above it, “let down your golden hair, Margarete,” quoted from a Paul Celan poem about a song that Jewish concentration camp prisoners were forced to sing for their captors—about German womanhood. Essentially, these images are drained of metaphor, turned into symbols and those symbols are discredited.
If a German artist were to paint a beautiful wheat field or a river even now, it would be quite likely that they would be accused of being a Nazi. It’s a problem. How then can “the amber waves of grain” be recreated so a new generation can see them, really see them and find new meaning in them?
Kiefer gives an answer here but typically does not let the rainbow speak for itself so maybe he didn’t even mean it sincerely—the names of German philosophers are written all over it—all males, of course and maybe they didn’t, and don’t, deliver salvation.
The Golub show, two floors down, also opens with a giant painting, surely one of the ugliest ever painted, “Gigantomachy II”. It does not have the beautiful surface of many of his other works. The male figures are not heroic and beautiful in the slightest, and this was totally deliberate on Golub’s part—they are monsters with one thought: to kill. Golub poured his heart into this one, all the hatred he felt for male violence.
I’m reminded of this classic, an etching I’ve thought about for 40 years and drawn many times. The grimacing fighting men’s faces are not handsome; their bodies are—very. Gorgeous asses, thighs, chests, delicate sexual parts; they are single-minded too, but I care more about them. They are not monsters, and neither are most of the soldiers and most of the men (mostly) that send them off to war. And yet they fight on—I even look at this picture and give up on them, thinking well, if they would just kill each other, then maybe…but of course there’s a lot of what they are so insane as to call “collateral damage.”
Golub also has no truck for metaphor, and none for symbols either; he is astonishingly literal. His paintings tell you exactly what to think. There are almost no women. These two sweating on a bench exist only insofar as they are oppressed by a white man. Their intimate conversation perhaps has been interrupted by his presence but I don’t think Golub would have been interested to portray it anyway. Nothing else is happening in these bare spaces aside from this tense interaction—except the wonderful yellow, purple, red and pinks. Golub’s paintings have no hope, but I do. If they are waiting for a bus one of those women, I can’t decide which, either the lady in pink because “she is tired” or the other because she is as strong as a horse, is going to take his seat. The white man is not as powerful as he and Golub assume.
Conversation is a painting of two black men talking with an inspiring poster in the background. There is no suggestion that they are being inspired; their distance from each other and the very casual stance of the younger man give no hint of that. I wondered for a moment in this painting if Golub also hates the victim as in “Why don’t they do something about it?” However in my own view they have.
“I record the action, these particular kinds of actions. In this sense, it is a realist art because it essays to show power,to make power manifest as it is frequently encountered. It’s not a call to action as much as it essays definition. This is how it is…”
—Interview with Matthew Baigell (1981)
I cannot say there is no truth to what Golub is depicting, of course there is. It is the image of fear and, seen in that sense, Golub’s heroism lies in depicting it unflinchingly. When Golub looks into the hearts of men, he sees Tete de Cheval and feels the truth of it so strongly that any resistance seems hopeless.
(Tete De… reminds me of the aliens in Alien. Funny that Sigourney did find a way to stand up to them.)
I won’t lie, I left these exhibitions feeling sad and oppressed. Nevertheless, the Met Breuer rocks, it’s off-the-chain awesome.