This Essay is a part of the ‘Maurice Golubov – Catalog from a multi-museum traveling exhibition organized by the Mint Museum’
The art of Maurice Golubov is an eloquent contradiction of some of our widely held assumptions about American art of the 1930’s and early 1940’s. Many of us became acquainted with his work through the artist’s participation in the American Abstract Artists annual exhibitions from 1944 until just recently. Identifying Golubov with the A.A.A. was a convenient way of placing him within his own generation, but his restless emotional art has little to do with the calmer classicism of much early A.A.A. work. During his long life as a painter, Golubov has not been traveling clearly charted paths.
In an era which associated geometric form with cleanly painted edges and smooth surfaces. Golubov coupled geometry with a willful painterly gesture. While others sought to establish and support the identity of the picture plane, Golubov fractured it, loaded it with pigment until it offered both interior depths and the richness of its own physical surface. His vivid expressive mark threatens to destroy the very form it creates (Fig. 1).
Golubov’s is a strange equation, this association of a highly structured geometry with a warm, multi-hued densely painted surface. It seems to indicate that Golubov does not see the purposes of painting in stylistic terms and is not particularly concerned with the “correctness” of his form in a deterministic evolution towards ever-greater reductivism.
He is in the most precise terms an abstract artist, one who restructures both observed and invented forms in accordance with his own interpretive vision. This does not occur in a vacuum or merely in terms of an intellectual grasp of the principles of structure. We see the living remnants of figures in a landscape, the geometric equivalents of roadways and entire cities while Golubov’s painterly surface appears to screen the view, to filter it through his own sensibility. In his work many things happen at once, it is multi-layered, one might almost say orchestrated.
One of the most welcome and refreshing aspects of Golubov’s art is its unabashed complexity, its density which runs counter to the reductive emphasis in painting over the past several decades. His forms are stacked and interwoven, piled upon each other. Plane overlaps plane until all sense of location and scale is erased, the painting becomes a complex world unto itself.
This aspect of Golubov’s art can be seen most clearly in his remarkable miniatures where the painter yields no ground to the physical reality of his situation (Fig. 2). It might almost seem that his intensity increases when working within a small format. These paintings expand internally, a few square inches of paper becomes a field of interwoven color and space. We might regard these paintings as studies were it not for the fact that few if any of them were used as such. They represent a large proportion of his oeuvre and are as highly finished as the larger canvases, just as complex and just as successful as works of art. That an artist who is by nature drawn to intricate and highly elaborated structures would choose to devote himself to small-scale compositions is an anomaly in contemporary art but finds a parallel in the microcosmic abstractions developed by manuscript illuminations who conceived of their work in both plastic and in spiritual terms.
This is also true of Golubov’s basic conception of his role as an artist. In the late 1920’s Golubov envisioned what he would later call his “four-dimensional figure.” (Fig. 3) It was born of his desire “to describe an illogical world that would be logical only as a picture, a world where endless moments are arrested into one whole instant moment.” This does, of course, sound a good deal like the early twentieth-century enthusiasm for the idea of simultaneity. However, this type of vision has a much older origin in mystical traditions and Golubov’s study of Hebrew mysticism as a boy in Russia has grown into a lifelong investigation. Golubov remembered, “Mysticism was grounded into me and God was my personal friend… later I started to imagine and to draw things of that world of the mind. Abstraction became my personal realism.”
Golubov’s abstraction is intensely spatial and grounded in his belief that space and form have the power to embody the transcendent vision he has pursued during his lifetime. In Golubov’s fourth-dimensional cosmogony, the two-dimensional picture plane is only the beginning, it must be enriched by points of location projected upon the two-dimensional grid then activated by circular and spiral elements which in his terms “can touch and explore every possible nook in this three-dimensional space.” Finally, these layers of planes and spiral movements meet to create six planes which are visible simultaneously. Of course, Golubov’s geometry does not literally produce the space he envisions but suggests it and invokes its richness and dynamism.
What is finally most interesting about Golubov’s space is not its density nor its complication, but its psychological impact upon the viewer. During the past few decades we have sought awareness through the tangible and the immediate, by reducing the number of variables and sensing our own physical presence. Golubov’s art belongs to a much older conception, where projection and symbolic form are possible vehicles for expanded experience. His is not a halting step-by-step progress but a leap into a state of complexity which is terrifying by contemporary norms.
However, Golubov would maintain that it is in this state of completeness that quietude can be found and, “endless moments are arrested into one whole instant moment.” His vision is remarkably like that of Jorge Luis Borges in his short story, “The Aleph,” where a place which contains all other places is described:
“… an Aleph is one of the points in space containing all points… the place where without any possible confusion, all the places in the world are found, seen from every angle… If all places on earth are in the Aleph, the Aleph must also contain all the lights, all the sources of light.”
In Borges’ short story the infinite variety of the world is contained within the Aleph but as he explains, “The Aleph’s diameter must have been about two or three centimeters, but Cosmic Space was in it, without diminution of size.”
During a time of limited means and expectations, when art is so often identified with the persona of the artist, one welcomes an opportunity to survey the life’s work of an artist who has defined himself by other means and objectives. Golubov’s is not a “mainstream” vision, it is not easy to place him within the context of contemporary issues. But is this not the time-honored privilege of art, to take another path, and the latitude due an artist of sincerity, grace and conviction?
Susan C. Larsen is assistant professor of art history at UCLA. Her doctoral dissertation at Northwestern, was on the American Abstract Artists, and she currently writes regularly for Art News, Arts, and the Journal of the LA Institute of Contemporary Art. The author of monographs on several artists – most recently Paul Kelpe and Vija Celmins – she is presently finishing a book on the collection of Herb and Dorothy Vogel.