Kartemquin Films completes its chronicle of the work and times of the American artist, Leon Golub. Begun in 1985, the film ends with Golub's death in 2004, taking us from searing images of interrogations and torture to the ironies and dark humor of old-age.
Jonathan Rosenbaum described an earlier, shorter version of the film as "virtually perfect, conveying the exhilarating sense that art is inseparable from the world that engenders it and the world that receives it." Over-sized canvasses with screaming mercenaries and rioters urninating on a corpse; photographic fragments used as information and inspiration; the making of one of Golub's death-squad series from start to finish and to its exhibition in Derry, Northern Ireland; news footage from around the world; museum-goers' responses; disturbing music: out of these disparate elements the film creates a dialogue between image and audience that reflects what Golub calls the "disjunctiveness" of modern life. We are horrified, detached, and at the same time strangely complicit. In the aftermath of September 11, and now with the photos from Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Golub's ferocious, monumental work of the 70's and 80's (used to this day by human rights groups such as Amnesty International) remain prophetic and essential, even as they give way to the snarling dogs, erotica, and wise-cracking meditations on mortality which began to appear in his paintings in the 1990's.
When we revisit Golub in 2001, the aging artist tells us "my work these days is sort of political, sort of metaphysical, and sort of smart-ass. I'm playful and hostile. Let's see if you can keep up with my slipping around." So we make our way through half empty canvasses dotted with birds of prey, smoking skulls, neon chorus girls, pierced hearts, and snickering text: "Bite your tongue. Save your ass."
The film captures an historic artistic journey, shared with his wife and studio partner of 50 years, the prominent anti-war and feminist artist, Nancy Spero. In some wonderfully comic and touching scenes we see them as each other's most valued critic and most ardent supporter. Golub continued in his later paintings to "report" on what's going on in the world, but he does it with the kind of dissonances and discontinuities that led Theodor Adorno in his essay on Beethoven to proclaim, "In the history of art, late works are the catastrophes."