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Thursday, January 3, 2013

Golub and Spero

Leon Golub and wife, Nancy Spero
A couple weeks ago (12-20-12) I wrote about the working marriage partnership of Susan Rothenberg and Bruce Nauman. As I pointed out then, it's not as uncommon as we might expect for artists to marry each other. It happens in every other field, why not art? It is a little more unusual for them both to be equally well-known. Usually the male of the species has tended to overshadow the female in such cases, though there are exceptions.  Georgia O'Keefe, for instance, was much more well-known than her husband, artist-photographer, Alfred Stieglitz. And time has a way of evening things out too. By now, Frieda Kahlo is probably as well known as her husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. But that certainly has never been the case insofar as Lee Krasner is concerned, though outshining Jackson Pollock would be a difficult feat for any artists. And, though Elaine de Kooning was good, Willem was better. Howver, another couple from that same generation did work on a pretty much even footing insofar as fame and fortune was concerned in the art world--Nancy Spero and Leon Golub.

They Will Torture You, My Friend, 1971, Leon Golub and Nancy Spero (joint work)
They got married in 1951, and in the early years, these two fifties, radical, beatniks lived and worked together out of a garage in an alley in Chicago. They were alike in many ways. They tended to dress simply, in dark colors, one might even say they dressed alike in an asexual sort of way. They thought and talked a lot alike, ever deferential to one another as to their thoughts and opinions. But there the similarities ended. Nancy's work is delicate, narrative, not unlike Egyptian hieroglyphics. It's elegant, sensitive, and as thoroughly feminine as it is feminist. (She all but banned male figures from her art.) Her husband's paintings, on the other hand, could most kindly be called "brutish"--dealing with anger, violence, rape, torture, and war. His works are large, overpowering, well-passed masculine to the point of macho extreme. Both started from the same source, Abstract Expressionism, and both fled the movement toward figurative painting in an instant once the art world began to appreciate such work.

Interrogation III, 1981, Leon Golub
But the road wasn't easy. In the 1960s they departed the New York art scene after Golub's show at the Museum of Modern Art was severely denounced by critics unready to sound the death knell of Abstract Expressionism. They spent a decade in Europe, where both picked up an appreciation for the art of ancient cultures, which today is one of the few things that link their work, though Golub leaned toward Roman and Etruscan art while Nancy's work has a much more Phoenician and Egyptian context. Both found inspiration in Greek sculpture. She worked with collage, ink, and relief prints on paper while Golub painted using acrylics or did large-scale drawings on paper. Though they shared a Greenwich Village studio for years, their success came separately. Only during the early years of the 21st century did they begin showing together internationally in exhibits held in Hiroshima and Paris (Leon Golub died in 2004 at the age of 82, his wife in 2009). As one can see in his brutal, 1981 Interrogation III (above) and her cartoonish, 1990 Myth (below), their work is vastly different, opposites in fact. Yet in many ways, they were opposite sides of the same coin.
Myth, 1990, Nancy Spero

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