Golub, Leon Albert

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Golub, Leon Albert

(b. 23 January 1922 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 8 August 2004 in New York City), one of the few American artists, and perhaps the most forceful, who dealt overtly with the atrocities prompted by political power in the second half of the twentieth century.

Golub was born to Samuel Golub, a physician, and Sara (Sussman) Golub. From 1930 to 1934 he attended children’s art classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He took Works Progress Administration art classes in 1934–1935. From 1935 to 1938 he attended John Marshall High School, and from 1938 to 1940 he attended Wright Junior College. His father died when he was twelve. Seeing Guernica, a painting by Pablo Picasso that portrayed the infamous bombing of a Spanish town during the Spanish Civil War, in the Chicago Arts Club in 1939 was a momentous experience for him. In 1942 Golub received a BA in art history from the University of Chicago. That year he enlisted in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and worked as a cartographer in England, Belgium, and Germany. Back at the University of Chicago, he began work on a master’s degree, which he abandoned for the study of art. Early work of 1947 showed torture chambers of the Holocaust. That year he began Freudian analysis and met the art student Nancy Spero, whom he married on 15 December 1951. They had two children (some sources say three children). In 1948 Golub wrote the petition for the first Exhibition Momentum at the Art Institute of Chicago, which provided the opposition to the institution’s annual juried exhibitions. He earned a BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1949 and an MFA the following year. About 1950 he was shown the artist Jean Dubuffet’s first book and later recalled that he “was interested in the primitivistic art brut bias, but it was not as encompassing or revolutionary as Guernica or Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon”—the latter also a famed painting by Picasso.

Golub’s focus became the human figure under strain—agitated, brutalized—the tortured and their torturers. “I’m closer than most artists,” he pointed out, “to actually replicating in my work how power is really used.” The surfaces of his figures were rough, mottled, and scarred. He is known to have used a meat cleaver on his dense surfaces of paint. He worked on an enormous scale, with some paintings measuring from twenty feet across, to his Vietnam II (1973), which measures twenty by forty feet. His figures were often put in the foreground plane against a ground of Pompeian oxide-red to have the viewer directly and forcefully confront the subject of political power gone amok. His knowledge of art history served him. His Vietnam II, with its frightened Vietnamese peasants fleeing armed soldiers, was influenced by The Third of May, 1808: The Execution of the Defenders of Madrid (1814) by Francisco de Goya, with its Spanish peasants facing a firing squad. The sites of Golub’s painted atrocities seem to be, mainly from the lightweight type of clothing and (as we learn) from some of the titles, outside the United States, probably in Central or South America or in Africa. Golub explained, not altogether clearly, “I think it [the work] has an American look and the figures cross the canvas in a typical American stance. Not specific battles.... violence is prevalent, not merely in the United States but almost universally.”

In Mercenaries IV (1980), six heavily armed thugs, racially black and white, move menacingly toward the viewer, ready for a confrontation. In Interrogation I (1981), a naked prisoner hanging upside down is confronted by two soldiers, one of whom, holding a sword, knees him in the chest. In White Squad IV, El Salvador (1983), a swaggering, booted assassin, his back to the viewer, looks about while his victim’s corpse lies dumped in a coffin. Golub also painted portraits of some of the chief political figures of his time: Ho Chi Minh (1968); Francisco Franco, in and out of his coffin (1975 and 1976); Nelson Rockefeller (1976); Zhou Enlai (1976); and Mao Zedong (1977).

From 1959 to 1964 Golub lived in Paris, France. Back in the United States, he settled in New York City. He supplemented his income by teaching at the Tyler School of Art of Temple University in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, from 1965 to 1966; at the School of Visual Arts in New York City from 1966 to 1969; and at Rutgers University in New Jersey from 1970 to 1991. Though respected and admired, Golub did not occupy a place of power in the American art community. His art, concerned with social injustice in the tradition of Ben Shahn, Honoré Daumier, and Goya, stood counter to the prevailing taste for cool and cerebral art. However, his paintings, while inferring an anti-American militaristic bias, were really overtly general in their condemnation of brutality. He had no solo exhibitions in such museums as the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, or the Whitney Museum, but he was accorded notable solo exhibitions throughout the world—in 1987–1988 at the Kunstmuseum in Lucerne, Switzerland; in 1992–1993 at the Contemporary Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii; and in 2000–2001 at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, Ireland. Golub died of complications from surgery.

From the 1960s through the 1980s, while such disengaged approaches as pop art, minimal art, photo-realism, and post-painterly abstraction held center stage, Golub focused on man’s unceasing brutality to his fellow man.

Leon Golub, Do Paintings Bite? (1997), is the major source for Golub’s statements on art and includes an extensive bibliography. Leon Golub and Nancy Spero, War and Memory (1994), details political views of Golub and Spero and includes beautiful full-page illustrations. Lynn Gumpert and Ned Rifkin, Golub (1984), catalogues a traveling exhibition to the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and four other venues and includes an essay dealing with Golub’s interest in the art of the past. Jon Bird, Leon Golub: Echoes of the Real (2000), is the most extensive text about the artist, containing many illustrations as well as photographs of the artist at work.

Abraham A. Davidson