Procuniar: Please discuss the development of your work since late 1992 when you completed "Beware of Dog."
Golub: "Beware of Dog" was, in a way, the beginning of this development except it wasn't the beginning. Before "Beware of Dog," "Try Burning This One ... Asshole" referred to flag burnings, the macho-patriotic response worn by guys who carry their patriotism ...
Procuniar: In their pants.
Golub: Or had a chip on their shoulder, ready to take off. And earlier, I had done the Horsing Around paintings which were kind of ironic plays on gender and sexuality. Which is not exactly the same thing but isn't that different because in these pieces I'm trying to work between and against conflicted situations and in the Horsing Around paintings I was trying to work in various ambiguities. And one of the mercs in "Mercenaries III" (1980), for example, sports tattoos. Nevertheless "Beware of Dog" is actually a shift since the painting style is more informal, it's more direct in its handling, the surface isn't scraped. The words "Beware of Dog" are approximately 10" high move across the surface quite independently. That started me off. You made an interesting comment the first time you were here, regarding a recent painting you remarked how the forms were collapsed in the space, a good reach into the painting.
Procuniar: It's the layers; text, figures, and dogs combine in a compacted space.
Golub: Yes. The earlier work was highly structured. For example, in "White Squad," a guy is holding a gun to a victim's head. The whole point is to complete the originating concept, the originating structure, in that somewhat architectonic point of view. I am also trying to explore and/or break down the psychic and confrontational interplay. Nevertheless the painting is highly structured.
Procuniar: The composition is set. The psychological play is meant to operate within that structure.
Golub: Absolutely. If I change aspects, it's because they're not quite working. Ordinarily I was not trying to upset the system I started with. Now however I'm interested in interrupting the visual and conceptual designations I start with. I begin with a piece of an idea, often with dogs. In these paintings, dogs typically represent an irregular force. They are more or less street dogs, or at least not cuddly types. The dogs are not so much man's buddy over the millennia but a creature of irregularity under urban circumstances. Running loose! When you say, "Beware of Dog," in one sense you say beware of all the forces you're up against.
Procuniar: Especially when you're out on the street.
Golub: Even in enclosures, there's a warning beyond just beware. An implication of threat, and then ... like the painting that's unfinished on the wall. A head and a hand, but no connecting body. Why connect? If I connect the body, I have a figure like always. Now what to insert? [Now completed and entitled "A Baleful Eye."] Currently I like to freely associate. At the end there will be a seemingly more casual kind of coherence but paradoxically infinitely more difficult to arrive at. But in the process, I can't anticipate subsequent interjections. Starting "Like Yeah," I began with the dogs, I had a figure at the far left where the head is now but I was dissatisfied, and I substituted that more or less white square. The head is sort of ambiguous. He's either vomiting or doing the yoga cleansing ritual. Next the idea of the tarot card "Hanged Man," my version of a skeleton on which there remains the trousers, a label identifies him as "L' homme pendu"-a way of divining the future! ... I am poking around with (not all) nasty comments: "Another Joker Out of Business," arrow pointing to "The Hanged Man" ... that's the process.
Procuniar: The arrangement of the figures and text remind me of "So Much the Worse."
Golub: I'm still dealing with the effects of who I've been as an artist, my temperament as an artist and what are virtually the residues-the fragments, the collapsed circumstances of what I've worked with, what comes out of our culture and I'm trying to both push and ease my way through them. I'm trying to set up, if possible, casually contradictory messages, or at least, messages that don't have parallel meanings.
Procuniar: As opposed to the particular goals you had before.
Golub: That painting "Like Yeah"-the first language that I thought about using was "Convince me of my errors."
Procuniar: For the dangling man?
Golub: For whatever. Maybe its for the artist. And then I put in this funny T-"Convince me of my terrors." Then I put in "Like Yeah" which is like some smart-ass street talk.
Procuniar: What I'm curious about is why you still depend so much on media sources when these paintings are clearly out on the street. In the early 80s your sources were necessarily far from your everyday life. But now you are painting what is around you each and every day.
Golub: When I see slogans, images on the street, I grab them. In Germany, I bumped into a huge wall on which there were 3-ft. letters, "Ich habe Angst." I have anxiety, I have angst. I put "Ich habe Angst" in a drawing. "Beware of Dog" came from a sign I saw.
Golub: I pick it up where I see it.
Procuniar: Such as "Fuck Off Japan."
Golub: Yes, another wise-guy shirt. If I buy a biker magazine, a photo of some guy and I like the words on his sweatshirt. If I find it on a wall, if I hear you say some thing and I can use it, I'll swipe it. I had seen in a photo "Happiness is a warm gun." I didn't know it came from the Beatles. And once I knew, it just added another dimension. It was already in the painting.
Procuniar: You can't change the painting.
Golub: No. The last item in "Like Yeah" was the word "deliquesce," to liquefy, let it flow!-Let go!-that kind of reference. So its more lyrical and orgasmic. Let go! As against the other stuff which is more violent.
Procuniar: I sense freedom in the presence of the dogs.
Golub: Yeah, that too.
Procuniar: Especially that they now run in packs.
Golub: In a way, I've collected a hell of a lot of comment. I also make up a lot. So I collect images and photos of graffiti, or whatever I encounter. But the work isn't just graffiti, it retains, to my mind, a political aspect. It has something to do with our attentions, urban locations, American experiences, who we are.
Procuniar: The words tend to be declarations.
Golub: In part. At the same time I'm trying to loosen it up. Our world is so full of information chaos, I'm trying to respond some way, maybe make it worse!
Procuniar: The shift in process brings it through in a way that the paint and scraping could not even begin to address. The paintings from the 1980s were about momentary glimpses of something that we are not meant to be a part of.
Golub: I was attempting a kind of heroic/antiheroic public art. The kind of thing which is emblazoned in a big way on the walls of a culture. Take, for example, "Interrogations"-a painting that is 10 by 14 feet. Perhaps that's not public art in the conventional sense as torture scenes are usually hidden from view and are not ordinarily celebrated on public walls. At the same time it is an ordinary fact that in many countries torture is a day-to-day reality, people are yanked off the streets, jailed, and tortured. In that sense, to put out an Interrogation is to make a public statement. Even if the statement has to stay in a studio-if you're lucky, end up in a museum. Even a museum might be reluctant to acquire one.
Procuniar: Ten years down the road, somebody will receive that experience from the painting.
Golub: Or fifty years! Actually I have had a lot of exposure. The recent painting is more enigmatic, a different kind of urban impact, urban flow. They're somewhat easier to live with than an Interrogation or "White Squad." But they're not that easy to live with either.
Procuniar: Not at all. Why are there multiple dogs now?
Golub: The dog has an atavistic relationship to humans. When men first began to hunt and the dog associated itself with man, dogs would surround or attack the hunted animal and the men would come up and finish the job. The dog represented an extension, even a vanguard, of man's savagery.
Procuniar: What is that painting called?
Golub: "Strut." The dogs are more respectable versions, they're more like breeds, perhaps boxers.
Procuniar: Starting with "Beware of Dog," the dog was shown as an outline. It was not real.
Golub: Graffiti on a wall.
Procuniar: By early 1993, the dog would move across space. "Like Yeah" has them moving towards us. "Strut" returns to the side views. How are these choices made?
Golub: Whatever takes!
Procuniar: It just seems that now, the dogs are playing a pivotal role in the composition, while in early 93, they were merely an element.
Golub: In "Strut," the guy is giving the finger. A gesture equivalent to "Fuck you." Who's he saying "fuck you" to? Is he saying "fuck you" to the world? Maybe to the public? Or to me, Leon Golub? [laughter] I'm painting him, he responds by saying "fuck you." But, at the same time, the dogs are with him, which means he's not a totally alienated individual. He's a little rough, but he's got two dogs. One is leaping up on him in a loyal way.
Procuniar: The other is looking at us.
Golub: Not viciously. You might even say that the dog represents a more civilized version of the guy. [laughter]
Procuniar: The paint handling is what strikes me about these paintings. Starting in late 1992, frottage brings the wall of the studio directly into the painting. Bricks are no longer depicted illusionistically.
Golub: I've used that wall for years. When I want to get certain textures, I will rub against it, almost like dry brush.
Procuniar: It seems that with each of your periods, roughly coinciding with the early 70s, early 80s, and from late 1992 to now, there is an increased articulation of background and environs as the subject matter begins to come into its own. The imagery becomes packed in as the concept develops.
Golub: It's not exactly parallel in that way. One of the things I tend to do is, to use your words, to pack things in but I also eliminate, strip down, so some paintings I would like to be quite bare. For example, there is in "Beware of Dog" a lot of emptiness.
Procuniar: You will return to compositions that sparse?
Golub: Oh sure. It can be harder to be sparse than to load up. Now I'm trying to be more indeterminate. "So Much the Worse" was originally 10 ft. high by 10 ft. long. There were two police types standing over a victim, the guy bent down. I decided to eliminate the paramilitaries. If I took out the prisoner those guys standing over him would be still representative of previous paintings. Even the bent-over figure is fairly representative. Adding the dog, tension develops.
Procuniar: Whenever I look at it I wonder why he is bent over.
Golub: He obviously is tied at the wrists. The figure is not built up, scraped, repainted, and so on. It's much sketchier.
Procuniar: In the early 80s, an assistant would help the process?
Golub: In the late 80s. In the early 80s I was still doing it all myself. But it was probably around 87 when I had a hernia operation. I found that when I started to scrape after the operation it was difficult, although in time it became easier. Recently I got a pacemaker. When scraping that figure [he points to "Strut"], it affected my actions. It makes it much harder to scrape. Maybe fifteen minutes, not much more. Instead of hours. I had made the decision not to scrape surfaces before the pacemaker. But that kind of certified it. The point is after the hernia operation I began to have assistants help. It always was tough work. Eventually your body starts to make demands upon you. Knees, elbows, tendinitis! Between all these factors, you can see how one shifts out of something! Nevertheless the main reason for shifting is not physical. The main reason is that I've been doing it for so goddamn long. It's great to try variants, something else, partly shift process, orientation, conceptual modes.
Procuniar: It's nice to know that you are doing it by choice. Diebenkorn was finally limited to works on paper by his health.
Golub: The main thing is that I want to move on. I could work out methods in which assistants could do all of the scraping. Stand over them. That's not so difficult to do. The problem of interest is how can I work into new areas-what are you going to take on? Earlier paintings were more conceptually defined and structured. Now the process is seemingly more aleatoric, chancier. I frequently start with dogs. A day or two later, perhaps a figure, perhaps a slogan. The painting develops, gets revised, "collaged" into a form that, of course, is recognizably how I am now working. However for all its informal and chance elements, it becomes a more or less systematically organized process.
Procuniar: Do you feel, two years into it, that you are comfortable with the process?
Golub: I like it a lot. It's keeps me edgy because I have to keep figuring new additional elements.
Procuniar: Have you reached the first plateau?
Golub: I don't know. You never know when you reach a plateau. I don't think so, I haven't been in it long enough to get too frustrated by it. If I knew, from the beginning, what I wanted to do-it would be pretty much like my previous paintings. I'd have a substructure in place. Artists have certain mindsets that don't shift that much. I am still basically the same guy I was ten years ago. So the work can't be totally different from previous points of view-the same person is still at it! Nevertheless we can have different takes on the world.
Procuniar: Speaking of which, can we now go and talk about some of the smaller canvases? Let's begin with this one because you say it's almost finished.
Golub: These three pieces were one canvas and I began smearing black on it to get an irregular ground. And then I decided, maybe I'll make three smaller paintings. I guess there's a fourth piece somewhere. So beginning with this chunk of canvas, I started with the guy with the red outline on white, like an old revolutionary or patriotic wall mural or poster. The figure was painted over these black smears and the gun with the silencer was originally much clearer. Then I inserted a head to the lower right and in this instance I scraped the head-the rest of the painting is direct handling, unscraped.
Procuniar: The figure is shimmering.
Golub: And the head lower right wears an enigmatic smile.
Procuniar: The title?
Golub: It's still undetermined. [Since the interview a nude spread-legged female figure was added the name Uta above her head!] This other canvas is even less resolved.
Procuniar: It would almost read as if the head was on the wall.
Golub: Well, yeah.
Procuniar: For example, in "Like Yeah" is that head supposed to be a poster on the wall?
Golub: No, it's just an appearance, not a poster. The head is more real than that but at the same time, it's in no space.
Procuniar: With nothing grounding it.
Golub: Exactly. [he points to a small painting with gun] His finger gestures, signals. The finger's up and it has a totally different significance than the Up-Yours gesture in "Strut" [on the opposite wall]. I was thinking of inserting a phrase from a biker magazine, "It just doesn't matter." And I may still paint it somewhere on the canvas, or some other canvas. It just doesn't matter.
Procuniar: It just ...
Golub: Doesn't matter. Exactly (laughter). That's part of the pleasure. And it doesn't matter if the fucking art world doesn't like it either.
Procuniar: Regardless, one would have to keep painting.
Golub: That's what artists do and they go through all this hell we were talking about earlier. And they know, like you know, what the odds are. You know the odds.
Procuniar: So did you.
Golub: One has to figure out survival.
Procuniar: Especially for you during the 70s.
Golub: Especially for everybody. Your father had to figure out survival too.
Procuniar: With these small paintings the ambiguity is lessened.
Golub: Sure. Maybe!
Procuniar: There's a word, an outline, a gun, a head-that's it.
Golub: That a lot!
Procuniar: Not visually.
Golub: We can argue the proposition!
Procuniar: Reading a transcript of a panel discussion broadcast on WBAI in 1967, I found that you and Ad Reinhardt had a deep disagreement.
Golub: Rhetorically he was doing two things. He was tongue-in-cheek, cleverly denying representation. But it also reflected his deeply felt concern of what painting should be and that he represented this ultimate logic, what I call the terminal argument. After me, nothing. After my black paintings, nothing. After Frank Stella's early paintings, what could come? After Ryman's white paintings, what is there left to do? After a totally blank canvas, now what? The pseudo-heroicized claim that the problem of painting is solved. Of course, nobody will ever finalize painting. But Reinhardt, I think, deeply believed this, that he had the final argument. He had a contempt for figurative painting that permitted him to be ironic and sarcastic.
Procuniar: He didn't have the figurative origins from art school.
Golub: That I don't know.
Procuniar: For Reinhardt it was straight into abstraction. The only illusionistic elements were tiny glimpses, cut up but found in the newspaper collages he did early on.
Golub: Those beliefs in abstraction come from a not always articulated but deeply held belief system that representation has failed the world and the world can only be saved in a spiritual, even physical, sense through abstraction. A new order.
Procuniar: A new world order.
Golub: The Russian suprematists and constructivists said it best.
Procuniar: The great utopia.
Golub: Their hopes were cathected to social forces that were attempting to change the world.
Procuniar: On all levels, in the house, on the street, in the school ...
Golub: These were the arguments. For me, figuration is a way into the world.
Procuniar: Ad Reinhardt painted exceptional canvases.
Golub: No argument. But they are not what he announced that they were-which is the final statement of what painting can be. He was naive to deny the possibilities of representation just like Clement Greenberg was naive to think that his theories of painting could resolve the irreconcilable issues of representation.
Copyright 1995, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc., New York