Golub, Leon

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GOLUB, LEON (1922–2004), U.S. painter and printmaker. Chicago-born Golub received a B.A. in art history from the University of Chicago (1942) and a bfa (1949) and mfa (1950) from the Art Institute of Chicago. Although he did not experience combat, his experience in the army during World War ii as a cartographer of reconnaissance maps influenced his art during the postwar years, which frequently focused on the abuse of power and victimization. Based on newspaper photographs of Holocaust victims, the expressionistic lithograph Charnel House (1946) shows a mass of anguished figures twisting helplessly in ambiguous space. Similarly, Damaged Man (1955, private collection) from the Burnt Man series (1954–55; 1960–61) references the Holocaust; the painting presents a single flayed human figure isolated at the center of the canvas. Finding the United States inhospitable to his figurative, socially conscious work, Golub and his artist-wife Nancy *Spero moved to Paris in 1959, where they remained until 1964 when they took up permanent residence in New York City.

War and man's inhumanity to man remained a constant theme for his entire career. His style and subject work together; since 1951, Golub frequently scraped down and reworked his heavily applied paint, often brutalizing the surface of his large canvases as deeply as the oppressed figures he painted. Golub based his figures on classical art, such as the Hellenistic Altar of Pergamon, and from around 1956–57 he added contemporary news photographs to his source material. He often employed several photographs for single figures, amalgamating data to create the most effective composite of gestures, postures, and expressions to convey a theme. In 1970 Golub ceased placing his canvases on stretchers, instead nailing the unstretched canvas on a wall of his studio. At this time he also began cutting out portions of the canvas to draw attention to aspects of the composition.

He typically produced cycles of paintings on a theme, including the Combat (1962–65), Vietnam (1972–73), and Interrogation (1980–81) series, all of which explored the condition of victims and tyrants through the successive wars and struggles of his era. From 1976 to 1979, Golub made several hundred portraits of powerful figures such as Henry Kissinger and Fidel Castro, often in several versions.


D. Kuspit, Leon Golub: Existential/Activist Painter (1985); G. Marzorati, A Painter of Darkness: Leon Golub and Our Times (1990); S. Horodner, Leon Golub: While the Crime is Blazing, Paintings and Drawings, 1994–1999 (1999); J. Bird, Leon Golub: Echoes of the Real (2000).

[Samantha Baskind (2nd ed.)]