ART : The Politics of ‘Agit / Pop’

Like the scenes of wanton violence that recur in his wall-size paintings, political commentary is a persistent theme in Leon Golub’s works.

Golub makes unframed, ragged-edged canvases that shout about power and its abuse. His subjects are often mercenaries, gangs, death squads and torturers. Three of his pieces, including “Interrogation III” where two men brutalize a nude woman, her wrists tied, her eyes and mouth taped shut, can be seen here in “Agit/Pop,” a group exhibit of socially and politically concerned art at Otis/Parsons Art Gallery.

“Politics and violence . . . are going on all the time,” said the New York-based artist in a recent phone interview. “Why shouldn’t art comment on this?”

“Agit/Pop” curator Robbie Conal, whose politically charged art recently made the pages of Newsweek, says the genre is enjoying a resurgence. After Golub’s first disturbing images of the ‘50s, he fell out of fashion during the heydays of Pop and Minimalism, yet regained notoriety with the ‘80s rise of expressive figuration. But do his messages have any persuasive effect?


“Artists don’t change history, that’s pretty definite,” Golub, 66, said. “But they can keep a certain level of awareness in front of us. If I paint cubes, I’m saying one thing about the world. If I paint “Threnody” (where Latin American women grieve loved ones’ death-squad killings), I’m saying something else.

“And, it may well be that people in Washington, D.C., people in the State Department for instance, may attend museums. And if a lot of (political art) is going on, they may wonder why it’s going on.”

Some of Golub’s works are so violent, however, that they’re hard to look at, at least for long. In one piece (not in the local show), a thug smirks and stuffs a body into the trunk of a car. In another, four men terrorize a nude, hooded man who is strapped to a chair. Couldn’t this potentially offensive effect diminish the artist’s audience, and hence his impact?

“That could easily happen,” Golub said. “Some people would be turned off. The paradox is that people turn off from things even while they permit them to happen. So in some of the work at least, I want to be confrontational. I don’t mind if people get upset or if they have strong reactions.”


Despite his confrontal, blatant approach, however, Golub, who has had major retrospectives in Paris, London and New York, said he strives to portray multidimensional human beings.

“I don’t want just black and white simple notions of good and evil. I’d like to be able to portray the actors in the paintings--the victims or the aggressors--in a way that shows complexity of character in their expressions or demeanor. . . . A villain is not a villain through and through. Under certain circumstances, it wouldn’t take much for you or I to be playing their role, for example.”

The other artists represented in “Agit/Pop” (a take-off on agitprop), are Conal, Barbara Carrasco, Sue Coe, Jerry Kearns and Erika Rothenberg. The show continues though Oct. 22.

On Saturday, all but Coe will take part in panel discussions from 1 to 3:30 p.m. at the Park Plaza Hotel, 607 Parkview St., adjacent to Otis/Parsons.



Jonathan Batkin, formerly of the Taylor Museum, Colorado Springs, Colo., has been named curator of anthropology at the Southwest Museum.

Batkin, whose specialty is Native American and Hispanic arts of the Southwest, in January was appointed director of museum programs at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, which administers the Taylor Museum and which he had served as a curator since 1980.

Changing the Tax Law


United States Senate bill no. 2662, which would exclude artists from the “capitalization rules” of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, is scheduled for a vote in the full U.S. Senate in October and proponents of the bill are urging a letter-writing campaign in its support. Under the “capitalization rules,” artists cannot take expenses on such direct costs as paints and toe shoes, and cannot deduct indirect costs such as studio rent, until a work of art is sold.

Los Angeles-based artist June Wayne said letters may be sent to Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and to California state Sens. Alan Cranston and Pete Wilson at the U.S. Senate, Washington D.C., 20510.

Wayne added that support from senators throughout the country is critical, and California artists and others should ask their out-of-state friends to urge their own senators to voice support of the bill.