Some Motifs in Maurice Golubov’s Life and Work

This Essay is a part of the Maurice Golubov – Catalog from a multi-museum traveling exhibition organized by the Mint Museum’

“If the painter cannot celebrate many current values, it may be that these values are not worth celebrating. In the absence of ideal values stimulating to his imagination, the artist must cultivate his own garden as the only secure field in the violence and uncertainties of our time. By maintaining his loyalty to the value of art – to responsible creative work, the search for perfection, the sensitiveness to quality – the artist is one of the most moral and idealistic of beings, although his influence on practical affairs may seem very small.”
– Meyer Schapiro,
“Recent Abstract Art”
Modern Art; 19th and 20th Centuries

When an artist works in isolation, preferring to go his own way rather than the art world’s, as Maurice Golubov has resolutely chosen to do, he must pay a price. In Golubov’s case, it is the lack of recognition. He is, after all, seventy-five years old, and this is his first retrospective. The art world is a chameleon, and its clamorous changes are often those of fashion. Maurice Golubov, who has been painting for more than fifty years, has never paid any attention to these fashions. Although this is not to say that he has not been influenced, it is to say that Golubov believes, like Cezanne, Kandinsky and Mondrian believed before him, that painting itself is an all-engaging quest, a search for something elusive and even unattainable. For all of them, art is a spiritual undertaking, not a market place enterprise.

Maurice Golubov was born in Vetka, near Kiev, Russia, in 1905 to an orthodox Hassidic family. In 1917, after a series of what he calls “horrible adventures,” escaping from the Kerensky revolt and its aftermath, he and his mother joined his father in New York. Two years later, while only fourteen years old, he dropped out of high school because he had a “strong desire to paint.” He soon found employment in a commercial art studio, and later worked as a fashion illustrator for merchandising catalogues such as Montgomery Ward and Sears-Roebuck, until he retired in 1967.

The role of Golubov’s Hassidic background in his theories about painting should be mentioned, as it indicates, I think, a direction in his approach to art. At six Golubov began studying the Talmud, and was introduced by his parents to Jewish mysticism, particularly in the form of the Cabala. In other words, he was, at an early age, initiated into the belief that there was something beyond the world of surface appearances, and that something was discoverable. For the Cabala is, put simply, a series of strict methodologies for divination and metaphysical speculation.

Eventually, while living in New York in the mid-1920’s, Golubov returned to the medieval Jewish Cabalistic texts he had first learned of as a child. He slo began reading Plato, Spinoza, Bergson and the American Transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau. Open to the possibilities of a hidden though discoverable order, Golubov also began clarifying the philosophical basis of his paintings. He would attempt to give visual expression, as he put it later, to the “fourth dimension: the realm beyond the physical.”

In the paintings of this period, many of them in watercolor, tempera and casein, and often much smaller than an envelope, it is clear that Golubov was “cultivating his own garden.” How else does one explain an untitled caseinon paper from 1930 (Fig. 1)? The shapes employed are particularly his own, and any connection to what was going on around him seems tenuous at best. One can see from the paintings of this early period in Golubov’s career that abstraction presented no barrier to him, as it did for so many other American painters. He did not have to grapple with it by imitating its masters, as Gorky, say, had to grapple with Picasso in painting after painting.

In the early 20’s Golubov saw his first Cezanne at the Metropolitan. Later, he sees Picasso, Gris, Klee and Kandinsky. His fellow Russian, Kandinsky, makes the young artist aware for the first time that he is not alone in his quest. About this realization he remarks: “I was self-taught in my painting, which might be described as realistic, expressionistic, abstract, non-objective and surrealistic (all labels which I could later identify in my work). I was trying to reconcile all these tendencies into one dish, as if to merge all streams into one river. The results were, and still are, metaphysical figurative (how I hate all these terms! But how else to be describe it?).” Underlying this statement is the fact that Golubov was already embracing abstraction fervently. Perhaps even in the late ’20’s and early ’30’s, as still only a young man. Golubov knew instinctively the grandness of his ambition and the scale of his undertaking. Perhaps, even then, he realized it would take years “to merge all streams into one river.”

One should not assume that Golubov’s reclusiveness prevented him from being aware of the developments around him, particularly those in Europe – the news of which was still only filtering into America. It is during the 1930’s and early ’40’s that Golubov attempted to synthesize various outside developments in his own paintings. The reasons why he was attracted to cubism seem obvious, because cubism, in its so-called “analytics” period, attempts to reveal various structures beneath an apparent reality. However, the objective or “material world,” so essential a starting point for cubist painting, is dropped by Golubov in his search for
“a realm beyond the physical.” Golubov unlike most American painters of the ’30’s and ’40’s, did not have to learn, but began with an abstract base. Thus, cubism never became a constraining influence, never something to shatter, or else be overcome by.

In this period of synthesis, Golubov’s geometric abstractions remain full of quirky and personal shapes, partly developed, I believe, during the time he was painting in isolation. Mondrian never influences him, as he did so many other American geometric abstractionists, such as Burgoyne Diller and Ad Reinhardt. Mondrian, who might be considered the next logical development of cubism, narrowed his choices in the 1930’s, whereas Golubov was trying to widen his own. A number of paintings from this period are very close in spirit and technique to the abstract expressionism of ten years later. Yet the abstract expressionists, along with Mondrian from the opposite end, wished to renunciate all spatial illusionism – something Golubov would never forego in his most abstract paintings. What characterized many of these paintings is their spatial illusionism, one that suggests both analytical and synthetic cubism, but which has been developed into something uniquely his own. For Golubov, the various influences, such as cubism and constructivism, become an assimilated scaffolding upon which he builds his own intricately complex structure. They are metaphysically speculative, elusive space; their lines, arcs and circles ravel and unravel, almost simultaneously. The more we meditate on Golubov’s best paintings, the more we see their constantly changing interaction as an inextricable part of their pleasure.

Throughout his career, Golubov’s paintings have a rich and eclectic variousness to them that is nearly impossible to describe. There is no visible thematic progress to his work. He explores a theme, drops it, and then may return to it from a different angle, as if he overlooked some possibility. The more I have looked at Golubov’s paintings and the range of what he has tried, the more I have come to think of him as having a single-minded openness.

Golubov’s abstract paintings often remind of that simple yet profound pleasure I have when I drop pebbles into a summer’s still, reflective pond, and watch the ripples pulsing toward shore. In paintings like Metropolis (Fig. 2), the arcs and circles echo each other in a similar way; and like the ripples they suggest something beyond the barrier imposed by the physical. Metropolis is a painting, like so many others from the 1960’s and ’70’s, in which none of the elements dominate, nor does it resolve itself into on overall image. Rather, it remains suggestive in its seemingly growing complexity, its layered space. It is a painting whose spatial complexity has more to do with Al Held’s recent paintings, or some of the abstract “pattern” painters, rather than with the confluence of art historical styles it was influenced by.

The more I look at Golubov’s paintings, the more I keep coming across examples of work unlike anything else he has done. The abstract figurative is alongside the metaphysical abstraction. He attempts to merge a variety of styles, dislodge them from their historical context. Recently, when I read an article by Suzi Gablik, I was reminded of how I felt about Golubov’s paintings:

“… works of art – precisely because they exist in a world full of delegitimations, manipulations and confusions – tend to insist on their own reality. We should try to understand them, as William Gass has observed, as we try to understand anyone – in order to know them better, not in order to know anything else. Whether or not we experience a particular work of art as worthwhile depends on our willingness to trust the object, in the way that we trust certain people. We invest them with value (or score or outrage); they mean something to us – not in the way statements do, but the way people do.”

Gablik’s subtle distinction made me realize again how much I trust Maurice Golubov’s paintings, how much more I wanted to know them.

In the late ’60’s Maurice Golubov paints two paintings, A-186 (Fig. 3) and A-253, that are large scale versions of two tiny gouaches he did forty years earlier, when he couldn’t afford to buy canvas. Delacroix once said something to the effect that if you had a really good idea you would remember it, and didn’t need to write it down. Golubov might have written it down, but it took him more than forty years to carry it out. Surely this sets, as John Ashbery has pointed out, “some kind of record for artistic gestation.” It also says something about the tensile strength of his faith in this age of instant gratification.

Maurice Golubov has survived nearly all of his contemporaries, and has continued to build, in his own way, upon his initial visual explorations. In his quest for “the fourth dimension” Golubov has painted a number of rich and rewarding “city scapes of the mind,” as one critic called them. The influences that were discernible in his earlier paintings have, over the years, increasingly borne his own unique signature. Fourth of July (Frontis-piece), for example, in its dizzying, yet controlled use of colors and shapes suggest Golubov’s beginnings rather than anything in art history.

When I was reading about Kiev in an effort to find out more about Golubov’s background – I have neither met the man, nor talked to him – and get some sense of what he might have seen as a child, I learned that his richly historical city is the site of St. Sophia, the oldest cathedral in Russia. During the reign of Vladimir I (956? – 1015), Russia’s first Christian ruler, the people of Kiev adopted the Greek Orthodox faith, and it became the earliest center of that faith in Russia. Kiev, I thought, with its churches and ancient fortifications – all this seemed connected, in some way, to Golubov’s paintings and drawings, the spires and towers that appear as abstracted figurative shapes year after year. I was reminded of Kandinsky, his memory of certain colors from childhood, but not the objects they belonged to. Or Cezanne’s return to the environs of his childhood, and Mount Ste. Victoirie. Perhaps, in some way, all of them returned to their childhood in order to begin their lifelong quest. With Golubov, the connection between his past and his paintings became as real and as tenuous as a rainbow.

JOHN YAU is a poet and art critic who lives in New York City. Two of his books have been published in the last year, Sometimes (Sheep Meadow Press) and The Sleepless Night of Eugene Delacroix (Release Press). His reviews have appeared in Art in America, Arts, and Portfolio, and he is currently teaching English at Bard College.

Some Motifs in Maurice Golubov’s Life and Work

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