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Old Friends

Fifteen years ago, Leon Golub was the subject of a memorable Kartemquin documentary. Now, in the twilight of his career, the same filmmakers add a poignant postscript.

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Much of Golub, the prize-winning 1988 documentary by Kartemquin Films, focused on how the former Chicago artist, who'd settled in New York in 1964, created a painting called White Squad X. It's from his disturbing "Mercenaries" series, in which third world paramilitary figures are shown torturing and murdering people. Scenes of Leon Golub working in his SoHo studio--selecting photographic sources, scraping the painted canvas with a meat cleaver--were interwoven with archival and news footage of conflicts in Vietnam, Central America, and Africa along with interviews with museumgoers during a mid-80s traveling retrospective. "These paintings make me feel ugly," says one.

"We were interested in not only where his work came from, but also where it went to and how it was experienced," says Gordon Quinn, who made the film with Jerry Blumenthal. Quinn and Blumenthal are the driving forces behind the Chicago company that has produced such works as Hoop Dreams and last year's Refrigerator Mothers.

But the 56-minute Golub, which debuted at the New York Film Festival in 1988 and later aired on the PBS series P.O.V., ends abruptly. That's partly because the original conclusion was, Blumenthal says, "compromised." In the film's final minutes, Golub talks about a portrait he did of three South African blacks squatting in front of a wall--"physically forceful, thwarted but not passive," he says. Initially Kartemquin had intercut footage from South Africa of crowds of angry protesters. But Golub and his wife, artist Nancy Spero, objected.

"The impression [the editing gave] was that people rose up because of Golub's work," says Blumenthal. "No question about it, we went too far in [suggesting] that his paintings helped spark the antiapartheid movement."

"We had a very political view of him, while he was more concerned about being taken seriously as an artist," says Quinn. "Golub was our story, and he always acknowledged that. He'd say, 'But you have to know how I feel.' He was quite forceful about it." The footage--dubbed the "marching sequence"--was removed.

The disagreement over the film's ending is recalled in Late Works Are the Catastrophes, Kartemquin's new 15-minute video postscript to the 16-millimeter documentary. In the video, while interviewing the artist in June 2001 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Blumenthal ventures that Golub's paintings of the last decade or so don't have the kind of imagery that would compel people to take action. But the artist reminds Blumenthal that his work has never been about that. "We fought over that for a long time," Golub tells him. "Maybe you feel something ought to be done; maybe somebody else doesn't."

In Late Works Are the Catastrophes, the filmmakers have also finally managed to find a home for the marching sequence. Golub, who's seen a preview, says he likes the inclusion. "They're critiquing themselves, in a sense--it says something about their openness."

Late Works Are the Catastrophes will premiere Thursday, January 30, at the Chicago Cultural Center. After a 6 PM showing (with Golub) in the Claudia Cassidy Theater (the program repeats February 24 at 7 PM), Golub, Quinn, and Blumenthal may tackle such questions as whether art can really provoke social change. The screenings accent "Leon Golub: Works Since 1947," an exhibit largely drawn from local collections showing at the Cultural Center through March 30. (Additional Golub works are currently on view at Rhona Hoffman Gallery and Printworks Gallery.)

Leon Golub and Kartemquin Films first crossed paths at crucial points in their development. Golub--who earned an MFA from the School of the Art Institute in 1950 and over the next decade achieved critical and commercial success with exhibits in Chicago, New York, and Europe--helped set the tone for a type of figurative painting characterized by distorted, often violent imagery that emerged in Chicago in the postwar years. His early work was influenced by his army experiences, mythology, Greco-Roman sculpture, existentialism, psychoanalysis, and primitive art. But with the rise of pop and minimal art in the 1960s, Golub's large paintings of massive, battling, classically influenced figures became unfashionable. He was admired by his peers for his politics--during the 70s Golub created the "Vietnam" series, pictures of soldiers brutalizing Asian peasants, and "Portraits of Power," in which he depicted leaders such as Nelson Rockefeller, Francisco Franco, and Ho Chi Minh--but was largely ignored by tastemakers. When figurative and expressionist painting became a hot commodity in the 80s, curators, critics, and dealers took a renewed interest in Golub's work. The result was his first major traveling retrospective, "Golub," which opened at New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art in 1984 and the following year toured several North American museums, including Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art.

Meanwhile Kartemquin--founded in 1966 by Quinn and two other University of Chicago graduates (Blumenthal joined a year later, while still a graduate film student at Northwestern)--was gaining notoriety for provocative documentaries that focused on social institutions (Chicago Maternity Center Story), progressive politics (Where's I.W. Abel?), and the changing urban scene (Now We Live on Clifton). But by the early 80s, the organization was in a bit of a funk.

"We had just done a lot of films about labor and political struggles, plant closings--The Last Pullman Car, the two Taylor Chain films--that were difficult to do, and sometimes depressing because they don't necessarily end in the kind of victory you want," says Quinn. "If you keep plowing the same field over and over again, you exhaust it. So we were looking to do something in a completely different area."

A mutual friend, photographer Jack Jaffe, took Quinn and Blumenthal to see "Golub" at the MCA in early 1985. "We were blown away by the show," says Quinn. The painter was amenable to a film project, and Jaffe's foundation, the Focus/Infinity Fund, provided the seed money.

Over the next three years Kartemquin filmed in Chicago and New York as well as in Montreal and Washington, D.C., the last two stops on the "Golub" tour. The most fascinating sequences in Golub come toward the end, when the artist and his assistants are shown on the floor laboriously scraping dried paint off White Squad X with meat cleavers to leave an uneven, rough texture. "Another ugly item goes into the world," says Golub when he's satisfied the work is done.

"We set up a good working relationship," Golub recalls of the filmmaking. "Jerry's always been responsive to my work, and he has a strange sense of humor, like me. We became friendly, which gave the film a certain authenticity. There was a certain amount of tension, but it was resolved pretty well. It's better that there's some tension."

The movie "spread my name around to people who don't go into galleries," he adds. It also raised Kartemquin's profile. "It was an important moment in the history of the company and in our careers as filmmakers," says Blumenthal. Golub was screened at 11 film festivals around the world, earning the Silver Hugo Award in Chicago in 1988 and the Golden Gate Award in San Francisco a year later.

Creating Golub affected the filmmakers philosophically as well: Quinn and Blumenthal talk about how they went looking for Golub but found themselves. "Making a film about an artist and the process of how he makes his art really engaged us at a time when we were trying to rethink our own roles and our own voices," says Quinn.

"It pushed us to tell more human kinds of stories," adds Blumenthal. "Our work from the early 70s up until the Golub film was much more polemical. The starting point of those films was some kind of political, social issue--although we'd find a human story through which to address the issue." He points out that in later Kartemquin features like Hoop Dreams and Vietnam: Long Time Coming, social issues emerge through the telling of personal stories.

"We'd always had an ambivalence about ourselves," says Quinn. "We were very serious about not being artists, but we didn't think of ourselves as journalists, either....Now we have no problem identifying ourselves as artists. Still, we're not journalists. We are storytellers, something quite different."

In 1996 Quinn and Blumenthal proposed making a film called "Old Friends," a follow-up on earlier Kartemquin topics. The project never got funded. But they'd kept in touch with Golub over the years, and a few years ago, says Blumenthal, "I started getting these books about his later works, his works from the 90s. I said, 'Hey, Gordon, this stuff is incredible! We need to revisit Leon and tie up a lot of loose ends.' Not that there were a lot of loose ends in the first film. But this guy has done so much in the last 13 years. He's still alive and he's still working."

Golub's late works show the artist reflecting on his own mortality as well as on the legacy of his 55-year career. The paintings bristle with apocalyptic imagery--skulls, snarling dogs, aging lions, dessicated bodies, predatory eagles, and fireballs announcing the end of the world--yet are leavened with the artist's mordant, ironic wit. In 2001's Bite Your Tongue II, appearing alongside graffitilike sketches of a few old paintings is a 1937 quote from German philosopher Theodor Adorno: "In the history of art late works are the catastrophes."

"My work these days is sort of political, sort of metaphysical, and sort of smart-ass," says Golub in the new video. "And a little bit silly....Who gives a shit the world is falling apart? Let's have some fun. You're at the end of your rope anyway. It might be a long rope, but you're still at the end. You're not on the middle of the rope at this point.

"I feel very free at the moment," he continues. "I don't have to really think that I am hitting at American power and all this jazz....It's a kind of almost joyous letting go."

In the mid-80s, says Blumenthal, Golub "was literally at the height of his powers. He says in this postscript how the diminution of his physical powers--his ability to scrape these paintings, get up on a ladder and do these 12-by-8-foot things, which he works on for months intensely--his inability to do that because of his advanced age coincides with his desire to do a more fragmentary, more philosophical, more personal kind of work."

Quinn, Blumenthal, and Golub began filming Late Works Are the Catastrophes in New York two summers ago. When Kartemquin started Golub in 1985, the artist had been 63. It wasn't lost on the filmmakers that they were now roughly the same age.

"This is an artist who's dealing with the issues that you deal with at the end of your career, and that really resonated with me," says Quinn. "Kartemquin is a certain kind of institution that has been going on here for 35 years. One of the things we're thinking about now is reshaping this institution so that it can live on beyond us....The idea of looking at this guy struggling with issues--it's what we're doing too."

Adds Blumenthal, "We're closer to the end of the rope than we are to the beginning."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michelle Litvin, Nancy Lee Katz.

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