Leon Golub and Nancy Spero, October 14, 1991, SoHo, New York City
WALKER. How difficult it was for you to do a critical portraiture... your portraits in the '70's, the difficult with expressing imperialistic power with a portraiture, Kissinger and the lions. I'm curious if you feel that Robbie's work perhaps works on that level that you thought you couldn't....
GOLUB. Well, I didn't feel I couldn't represent power. Uh, my notion was, I was trying to show that these guys who had power how flaccid their faces really were. In other words, you don't necessarily make an immediate connection between the power that they have and the way one could represent them. So, we associate power to them. Uh, but unless we make some immediate association to it, they might look like anybody's father or anybody's uncle or something else.
So how do you, see I was interested, which may not be the same thing Robbie's interested in, I was interested in draining them in someways of. In order to show power, I was trying to do it in an inverse way. By draining these images of their um, certain lifelike qualities, well I was trying to make it lifelike in a representational way. I was also trying to strip it down so they were almost like skins um, separated from lets say skull structure, you know and so on. It was there, but somehow it was emptied out.
So one of the analogies that I've used has been that they're almost like, although they're more realistic than that, some of those rubber masks you buy for Halloween or other things that you can put your hand in. (Nancy laughs) You know, these sort of faces but it's rubber in a certain way. So, while I'm more realistic than that, somehow in the back of my mind is this notion of stripping them. You see. But not even so much visually as through some subtle ways of perception.
Now I think Robbie is doing something a little different, you know. Uh, he would have to speak for himself, but I think what he is trying to do is, he is trying to show them for example, uh, when he emphasizes, teeth, you know, or certain looks or texture of skin or something like that. He is trying to show them as in a way, wrinkled into their power you see, almost coruscated, you know. Or worked into this kind of thing. So he almost has an opposite way, you know in some sense of working with it. He piles on his paint and through it he wants to get a sort of worn, roughed up and vicious, you know, look to these people.
I'm trying to drain them. So, it's, they're not exactly the same, you know, points of view, but we're both circling around aspects of power. He's trying to show, and he's representing these uh, men and women, as people who are, in a sense, basically corrupt, you know. And mean, and so on. and I recognize that about most of them, but I'm trying to show them as almost like flaccid skins because if they weren't there there'd be some other guy there. And if he wasn't there, there'd be some other guy there. And if she wasn't there, there'd be some other guy or if he wasn't there, there'd be some woman there. You see. They're almost interchangeable in a funny kind of way, because they are almost cyphers of the system.
WALKER. Nancy, it was mentioned in Leon's book that ever since the 1800's it's been very difficult to represent politicians in a critical manner in paint because it's not the most powerful medium of it's time anymore - you have photography, um, just a bombardment and saturation of different images that it's very difficult to deconstruct that through painting. Do you think it's possible to do that these days?
SPERO. Well, I certainly think Leon's made it possible. So you can't say that it's impossible and another way, Robbie through his paintings, I was interested to hear what Leon said about this adding paint and then I hadn't thought about this before, it is quite oppositional to Leon's in the sense that uh, though, they're both exposing power in different ways. Robbie's is almost the way Ivan Lee, what's his name?
SPERO. Albright did in Chicago. He added. It was like he kept adding. It was like the painting would age in front of the viewer until the self, and he did a self-portrait.
GOLUB. So the corruption really oozed out.
SPERO. So the corruption, literally oozed out of the skin. And I think that Robbie's looks very much like that now that you mentioned this surface coruscation and I think that might, well, I, my whole approach to power is so different that I have not attempted any particular portraits of power to expose particular political persons.
SPERO. (continued) Uh, but certainly the idea of power and what it exerts in this world has interested me in my work and certainly what Leon does, and Robbie in a more public and in a sense, uh, he has slogans with it like "teeth" or whatever and the skin thing, which kind of implies disease and to make it kind of, in a way it's more, it's what it is. It's a painting but it's a poster too. So it's both, it's in that wonderfully indeterminate sense of the, the um, studio work and the public, you know, the painting and the poster. And so that's an interesting dichotomy as well.
WALKER. You don't ever think that runs the danger of becoming an advertisement for him. He seems to be locked into a format with his paintings. To the point it's almost an invitation for his exhibit here (in New York). Some people accuse him of just being on this great self-promotion campaign.
GOLUB. Well, that's always a fake accusation.
GOLUB. About self-promotion, you know. Uh, there is no such thing as an artist who doesn't self-promote. Even by saying they don't self-promote, you know, they're self-promoting. By proclaiming their innocence, you know and sweetness of attitude about these kind of things. There is no reason why he shouldn't present these things this way.
And uh, part of the thing about his work is that the language is crucial you know to, not that all his work necessarily will have language, but the language is crucial to these, to many of these. What the language does, the language makes an immediate connection in a popular way to both public concern and let's say, your average citizen, you know. Uh, wandering around and encountering this. Whether they encounter it on a wall or in a gallery, in reading it and sort of doing a double read, you see. They're reading the language and they're reading the image so it's a double read. And, as many of these uh, uh, language, I mean these ideas or slogans, cross the image, they intersect the image with a kind of irony or let's say vehemence.
Okay, so when for example, uh, it says FALSE PROFIT and PROFIT is spelled PROFIT, most people can get it and that gives them a certain kind of a twist into, you know, a curve into the work. I wouldn't call that self-promotion though. you see. It's simply a way, a way that Robbie has developed, which worked, which is extremely effective to bring his work to a public level, so I don't see the self-promotion thing.
SPERO. And uh, he's got the work out by posters uh, and also uh, the one thing feeds on the other, which I mentioned before, I think is an interesting thing...
SPERO. (continued) And I think that political art, per say, is attacked uh, in a lot of ways that other kind of art, let's say "art for arts sake" may not be in that there is always the debate raging, no matter at what period of time about whether it actually is art and is this self-promotion and is this message selfish? And I think that in this way, because uh, Robbie has uh, you know, his, his uh, um, image has escalated and he he has become very public and so that the more he becomes public, naturally, the more he gets some sort of negative as well as positive feedbacks, I'm sure. But this is absolutely bound to happen. You get out there in the public and there's bound to be this kind of criticism that it's self-serving, it's this, it's that, but you've gotta get your voice out. I think that's the aim of art, to get one's, one's voice out and especially if you're doing political art it's extremely important, and I think it's been extremely important to Robbie not just within the artworld itself, but to get it outside of the confines of galleries and museums in the traditional um, protected art spaces. And, he's gotten both good and bad from it.
GOLUB. Actually in the long run, short run too maybe, that ambiguity between the gallery space and the street space gives him a certain kind of power. Certain kind of flexibility and a certain kind of dramatic, drama, which if it was just one or the other, it wouldn't necessarily occur. So, if he can exploit, and I mean exploit in the really good sense of the word, you know, If he can exploit uh, the connection or, or conflicts between the streets, you know, and the gallery, he's got a nice interesting, changing, twisting territory to work with.
SPERO. Uh-huh, and sure he's got a recognizable style, sure he does, you know, a repetition of the same thing, but don't we all, in a way. I think I try to be flexible in my artwork, and to change and shift, and yet essentially, I think, one remains true to the impoten, self-impotence that occurs here and it's bound to happen and and that he would be accused of repetition but you look at some other artists' work and it is this kind of repetition and it becomes a signature. It becomes something that the public or the art public really hangs on to.
(out of film)
GOLUB You're only going to give us one minute in this film?
GOLUB Well, sure, sure but that doesn't mean. Let's say somebody comes and buys an object which uh, uh, which is against Gates, okay, alright, a painting or poster or something about Gates, okay. And maybe they're supportive of Gates and maybe they do it as a big joke, you know. And they think it's very amusing to have this and then when Gates comes to visit them, they all have a big laugh, you see and so on. Even at the most extreme example, this is the most extreme example I can think of, you see, try to co-op the thing, or just absorb it and so on, even at that point they are effected by it. They are recognizing it, they're uncomfortable with it, they are laughing at it but they are uncomfortable.
SPERO. Don't you think they're flattered too?
GOLUB They're flattered too.
GOLUB That's also true, that's also true. Depending on the individual. They're also flattered. Now that's an extreme example, okay. Uh, all of this work enters a wide diverse situation of public response and awareness. Uh, the world is a little bit more, maybe sophisticated because of some of these objects and there appearance, okay. There new tensions around and so on. Sure, it's not gonna change Congress, you know, and it's not gonna, you know, get rid of Bush, you know, and through him out and stuff like that. But it makes certain kind of awareness, certain people pick up on it and that's how things move around.
SPERO. I think it articulates.
GOLUB Robbie's not gonna change the world. Nobody's gonna change the world on these terms. But when your talking about the picture of, what, I interrupted you, sorry.
SPERO. No, I said that's all I was gonna say.
GOLUB. I just wanna finish this up. But when you talk about what the, what this time looks like, you see, either now or in the future. What the 1980's or what the 1990's are like and so on. The fact that there are these portraits of these men, done this way, and it depends on how important they will be in the future or how important they are today. They will have played a part, a bigger part, who can decide that, you see? They're playing a part in how we visualize contemporary events. That's a big item. It's a really big item. And what if they were only rectangles around, okay, painted rectangles. okay. So that represents something too, but there's a difference when these other things start moving around in this society as well. So I think it does play a major, you know, role. How big a role? Who knows?
That's true. But some of these people become icons. Okay. Alright, so let's say the Bakkers or Daryl Gates or even Bush disappear from view. And people say, "who is that?" looking at Bush's portrait. Okay. Alright. But there's a second message in this work, you see, which is the message I mentioned earlier, the way their skin looks. Who they typify. So even if it doesn't necessarily be recognized as Bush, it somehow representation of some (phone) mean guy who looks like he has certain kinds of power in (phone) our society.
WALKER. Robbie had mentioned that he had invited you as a lecturer at certain places, like the University of Georgia, and you would come in and "shred" his work, that he would have stuff that he was satisfied with, then you would "shred" it apart. That's what he would refer to it as....
WALKER. (continued) I'm just curious what kind of direction you think you put him in? He kind of credits you as being the one who helped him to evolve into his present format.
GOLUB Alright, but it didn't happen that often, okay, first of all. okay, once or twice at most. you know. And basically, um, he was doing kind of, kind of expressionistic, distorted figures, but they looked quite unreal to me, you know, the whole thing, and they were kind of floating around in space, you see. And um, for many years I've been interested in, in terms of my own work, work that had a closer connection to let's say history, events, uh, tactile, physical concrete, circumstances but which also had, related kinds of psychological aspects to them. So, uh, ordinarily I don't push, you know, these kinds of things at people. I've taught for many years. And um, my students have never worked like me, you know, and so on. And I don't push it, you see. Uh, nor do I push political art. People go there own ways.
So I wasn't really trying to orient him, but we got into a number of discussions and the discussions had to do with certain attitudes about reality and uh, how one views the world and so on, and because he was politically minded, you know, and so on. And he thought that his work, um, in these paintings that were talking about, if I remember correctly, he thought of them as having political content and that's why I, you know, had a somewhat critical attitude toward them. Cause I couldn't see the political content. And I needed to have it verified.
So, these kinds of discussions, you see, uh, and maybe in part, my own example, so simply media, and other circumstances in his life, you know, and the impact of just how things happened in the United States in general, you know, in terms of politics and politicians, uh, shifted in his estimation. And he took on a, uh, what to me looked like a much more logical and realistic and tougher, much tougher attitude towards form, okay. Visual form, human physionomy, uh, physiognomy rather, human physiognomy, human position and demeanor, you know. And a certain way of trying to interrupt the sequence of stereotypes under which we operate by opening up, you know, uh our views about some political figures.
Now, I can't take credit for all of this, obviously, you know, this is his work. Okay? He's done this. We did have some early discussions, you know, but not many you know, arguing these positions back and forth, and I probably came around, this is how these things usually work, at a point of decision making of his own, you see. Where he was, in a sense, uh, trying to decide in his own mind, to what extent, you know, and how relevant these ideas were. Especially to a kind of political content. And so these kinds of discussions probably helped orient him, you know, in these kinds of directions. But, I am not responsible for his work, I cannot take credit for his work, can't take blame for it, I'm only joking now. Ha, ha, ha, ha, you know? Uh, he has developed these things over a relatively long period of time. Arduously, you know, and consistently and they're to his credit.
WALKER. Do you think Robbie has a certain responsibility, he's created this need for himself. People say, "well, why didn't he do a poster about the Persian Gulf war or why doesn't he do Clarence Thomas? Why doesn't he do Robert Gates? Has he created a responsibility to himself, since his created his audience that is under the influence that he is on the most topical issues?
GOLUB He can't uh, well nobody can drop anything on an artist. You see, it's just like nobody can drop anything on your filmmaking, you know. You're gonna have to edit it and Robbie, can give you some opinions, but he has to kind of live with it too, you know, in a certain sense, you know. Finally, it's your production.
Uh, Robbie's work is his production. And different people may have different expectations from him and uh, he can listen to them. And he can pay attention, but that doesn't mean he has to pay sufficient attention to change where he wants to go. And if he wants to shift ground, he's gonna shift ground. And he's not gonna let these people get in his way. Otherwise he's totally trapped in these demands made upon him by others who don't really care that much anyway, who demands are rather casual and in a sense, could change overnight. So the only person who can make these demands are his, and if for example he moves away from certain specificities, you know, and moves towards other things, whatever they might be and changes in certain ways, uh, that's a necessity and that's crucial to the development of his ideas and his work and his art.
His work, which is in a sense, a particular kind of artwork, which appears at a particular moment in time, it's gonna change, cause it's gonna change inevitably, he's gonna change, circumstances are going to change, people are gonna change and so on. To what extent he's gonna move it around faster or slower, and if he shifts in considerable degree, his public is just gonna have to take it, you see, take it or leave it. And if they can't follow it, that's tough.
(explains his own work, seated in front of his original canvas)
GOLUB I use many photographs. So there's not one photograph that I could show you that would have these images. This figure for example, this guy with his hands in his pockets is an amalgam of maybe seven or eight or fifteen different photographs. His head is maybe and amalgam of half a dozen heads. So I move between them and try to draw between them. and make some kind of a figure who is doing something.
GOLUB. I started with looking through a biker magazine both Nancy and I have used images from biker magazines as part of our arsenal of images by which we try to connect to whatever is going on. Uh, in any case, there were photographs in several publications of this particular shirt, ("try burning this, asshole") So it's a well know shirt worn by bikers and others as in response to of course, the flag controversies, the burning of the flag. And the Supreme Court decisions and all this struggle that went on, including the struggles in Congress and elsewhere. So, uh, I have known some of the defendants in these cases and have also known some of the lawyer, but more than that, I'm interested in the idea of use of the flag, in a symbolic way.
Uh, seeing uh, alright, seeing this so-called patriotic shirt, I thought, "wow, that's really something. I'm gonna use that in a painting." So that began the idea of the painting. Uh, I therefore worked out a figure of this guy and had the idea, I worked them out together. And I thought that I would really show this guy as some kind of jerk, you see, smart alecky, hostile, nasty but kind of a jerk. So his pal, has this kind of sympathetic kind of a smile, but like saying, "what a fool he is anyway." There's a kind of interplay between these two guys. That's what I wanted to get.
Now, what I'm trying to get in this, is a certain notion of how some men conduct themselves and how certain masculine points of view are put into effect. And now Nancy will tell you all about the feminine. Ha, ha, ha.
SPERO. So uh, these are uh, what I do now. See all of these, would you mind Alaine, see all of those plates there, would you just bring one over for the camera...
Can they see, do you want to bring it over. This is Marlene Dietrich, now photographs, this way I can point out stuff. So, Marlene Dietrich enters the Pantheon or the cast of characters. I have um, over two hundred images now, uh, that I've either drawn. I've taken from art history or the media or copied and uh, this is a photograph taken of Marlene Dietrich taken in the early (Vimar) days before she came to the United States. It's a wonderful photograph of her. She's got a terrific half-smile on her face and she's heavier wearing a man's suit. So in a way, she's a contemporary goddess and she's human, as well.
So, I inked this, and then I press it. I have a, I have rubber mats over there. I have a huge place where I lay across the work.
Do you want to um. I'm jumping around a lot. This is the long work. These are pieces that I put up adjacent to one another. These are small works and fragments of pieces that I, this is collaged onto the work. Um, the process is a, printing process. Alaine Raven just showed you the Marlene image and that's a metal plate in which I ink with um, uh, oil based inks and I printed them on paper and this is printed directly on paper.
Now, I have glued four pieces of paper together to make this, a panel and I have, in this pile, I have a triptych and a diptych. There are two pieces that go together, that's a diptych. Each panel of four pieces each, are nine feet long, twenty inches high. When I put them together to, it's eighteen feet long. With three, it's twenty seven. Leon! Um, they're filming, so just keep it lower.
So, it's twenty seven inches sometimes I have horizontal works and I separate those by an inch and a half a piece. Lately, I've had my works framed and even so they are put up, they are butted one against the other.
Now, these are smaller works. And the one on the far left is an image, taken, if you can zero in on the image maybe. Because it's devastating. It looks like porn or even soft porn when you first look at it. But its the real thing. It's of a Gestapo victim and was found in the pocket of the person of a Gestapo officer and she's about to be hanged. I don't know whether you can see the rope. She's gagged and in this print, yes here's the line of the rope. And she's all tied up and she's dishevelled. Uh, so, that's pretty devastating, the reality of this. And it says oops, oh god, that's wet, this says underneath (in German) So, this was found on a Gestapo officer.
This is from a plate, in the Munich museum it's a very famous plate uh Greek plate of a mayonette, she's just speared a leopard there. And I've combined things, this is collaged onto paper, the print.
Uh, this is an Egyptian, you see, I use, I have made a sky goddess, imaginary of my own making, but this is from the Egyptian, the sky goddess, Newt, and underneath I have her kind of protecting this is a victim of torture from Central America. You see that her hand has been cut off and she's all scarred and cut up.
And this is from the Egyptian too, it's the raven. I mean it's vulture goddess and I have recently, I have not made a piece of her on paper lately but I've just used her in an installation in Philadelphia. At the I.C.A., in which I have the vulture goddess and other images soaring along the beings forty feet high above you know, the ground.
This is, this just to show you the diversity of the images. This is from the first Russian revolution, there's been a second, uh in 1917 from Papolva, a very famous Russian artist and designer and she designed, I think this ultimate fashion design. This is a cape. This is a whole outfit. And she's opening it up and it's red, you know, that's a red square in side and this is a Japanese dancer, you know probably like a folk dancer of sorts and so she's both very aggressive and yet she's an object of course.
So, I mean I could go on and on, I have two hundred. But when I print on the walls, now there is a print on the wall, you can see it in the mirror, it's on the wall there.
We use polymer plates, they're like rubber stamps, they're soft and we're now using, we've used these water, these oil based inks which I have in my hand also use acrylics now is the other. You know, these are all very fine art mediums and uh, so the last two installations that I've done in Philadelphia and Chicago are with the water based paint. So here it is on the wall.
And also, there's an Australian, aboriginal figure up on the ceiling. Can you get it on the ceiling? Ha, ha, ha ... I guess its too dark.
So here, see we did a experiment. We is, Leon and I have artists assistants, so when I go in these installations, I take two of them with me and they are the ones who do the actual printing and I do so, it becomes more of a you know, cooperative and uh. It becomes more externalized. I actually have interns and assistants printing these prints and Leon has these people working on these paintings too, scraping them but we start our work and we finish it despite all the intermediary.
So it's in the mirror too.
So my works kind of been in response to working in the feminist community. Our community in New York City. Also, it's kind of like a dialogue in response to somebody on the the other side of this studio wall. His gigantic monsters and uh, these. And mostly men. You know, and, so it kind of fits, in a way, this dialogue that goes on.....
WALKER. Maybe two halves of a whole.
SPERO. Well, let's hope so. ha, ha, ha, and we get along very well, surprisingly enough. With this dichotomy going on.
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