Leon Golub - Biography and Legacy
New York, New York
Biography of Leon Golub
Childhood/ Early Adulthood
Leon Albert Golub, known as Leon Golub (1922-2004) was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. Son of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine and Lithuania, Golub started making art from a young age. He initially intended to become an art historian and attended the University of Chicago where he received a BA in Art History in 1942. In particular, his studies in ancient Greek and Latin greatly influenced his work and would later become visible in his paintings. He drew inspiration from Greek tragedy and mythological scenes, as well as from Roman sculpture. While a student, in 1939, he saw Pablo Picasso's Guernica at the Chicago Arts Club; this image made a great impact on the young artist and powered his passion towards a highly political, and socially engaged creative vision. As he explained: "Guernica was like that. It was an art object that dealt with our world, OK? I was interested in seeing what that world looked like and was to a certain extent politically aware."
After serving in the military during World War II as an army cartographer, Golub attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and received his BFA in 1949, followed by an MFA from the same institution in 1950. It was at SAIC that Golub met his future wife and lifelong artistic companion, the artist Nancy Spero, whom he married in 1950. Four years his junior, Spero's quiet and introverted character provided seeming contrast to Golub's voluble demeanour. They shared, however, a relatable unapologetic figuration and curiosity towards art from all times and places. In some ways incomparable, but in others expediently connected, their art grew through their constant exchanges and conversations: "We lived and worked together", Spero said, "and it was pretty wonderful - a perpetual dialogue. The influence was mutual." Like artist scavengers, the couple would often frequent the Field Museum in Chicago and plunder any medium, newspapers, porn-magazines, and photographs, in their quest for inspirational images. They did not distinguish between 'high' and 'low' art in any way, any material, once expertly selected and then collated together was useful in the dissemination of meaning.
Golub became involved with other painters in Chicago forming a group known as the Monster Roster, a name given by art critic Franz Schulze in the late 1950s. Many of the members frequented the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and they were united by an affinity for expressive figuration, in particular by the fleshy and sometimes ghastly quality of their figures. They shared the belief that art had a strong role to play in society; it had to highlight and make reference to the real harm and gruesomeness present in the world, in the hope that this negativity could be at least a little diminished. Golub rejected the passiveness of his Abstract Expressionist peers (known as the New York School) finding their work too detached from reality. "I was never interested in abstract art", he stated, "There were things missing." This was a stand taken that would inform Golub's work for the rest of his career.
Encouraged by the belief that his figurative style would be better received in Europe, Golub and Spero moved to Italy in 1958 before then moving to Paris in 1959. During that time the couple had three sons: Steven, Philip, and Paul. Golub worked in what he called a "universalizing mode". Austere, beastly, and existentially fatalistic, his early work reflects on human violence, male domination, and despair without referring to any specific context or time. Such paintings combine pictorial elements of late classical sculpture as well as mythical themes, and in their colossal size are reminiscent of the French-history paintings that Golub studied and admired. Golub applied generous amounts of paint, which he spread with a butcher's cleaver throughout the surface. His technique resulted in fleshy and sculptural figures emphasizing the brutality of the scenes depicted, well exemplified in his Gigantomachies series.
Golub returned to New York with his family in 1964. "We lived in an old industrial loft for a while", remembers his son Philip, "very bohemian, and then we moved to an apartment because my parents thought that raising three kids in that particular loft wasn't absolutely perfect".
New York was flooded by protests against the Vietnam War, which Spero and Golub ardently joined. Seeking to engage and actively criticize the inhumanness of the conflict, Golub's studio became an anti-war activist centre while -art wise- he slightly changed his subject matter to add real-world references to specific time and place. He sought to add contemporary relevance to his paintings: "I was then very uncomfortable with the gap between my work and the current political circumstances" he explained. This shift became visible in Golub's Vietnam series (1972-1974). In these large-scale un-stretched canvases, uniformed American soldiers and screaming Vietnamese civilians are recognisable by their clothing thus marking a rupture with his previously naked, timeless, and anonymous figures.
These epically holocaustic depictions were followed by a crisis of self-doubt between 1974 and 1976. Dissatisfied with his situation as an artist, poor success, shadowed by the influence of Minimalism and Conceptual Art in the New York art scene, Golub scaled down his work to make political portraits, usually even smaller than life-size. These portraits featured political leaders, dictators, and religious figures typically drawn in profile or turned away from the viewer. They were not typical heroic portraits, and as such Golub, questioned the legitimacy and so-called power of the figures shown.
In the 1980s Golub turned his attention to terrorism while expanding his repertoire of forms. Departing from material such as photographs of the body in motion or images from art history, Golub depicted scenes of torture chambers, aggressive interrogation, oppression, and racial inequity to name but a few. These works are the documents of unjust crimes of repression; indeed the expressive faces of the victims and the detached gnarly stares of the torturers subjugate the viewers into the harshest of embodied violent reality. Among the most well known work produced during this period are the Interrogation and Mercenaries series. This dramatic and assured figuration brought Golub long awaited public and critical recognition. He had his first solo exhibition in New York in 1982 and by the end of the 1980s, Charles Saatchi had begun to collect his work. No longer alone on his quest, this was the moment when many other artists also began to reject Minimalism and focus attention on the figurative once more. Jean DuBuffet and Jean-Michel Basquiat were among these. DuBuffet, like Golub had been making such figurative work for many decades and is famous for founding the art movement, Art Brut, also influential for Golub.
The 1990s saw another remarkable, and final, shift in Leon Golub's work: chaos, death, dogs, and skulls scattered in symbolist formation to create mysterious, more internal, and often dystopian scenarios. In this sense, working in a more fragmented way, piecing together elements in a collage-like manner, in 1996 Golub was suitably invited to design four stained glass windows depicting the life of Joseph for the Temple Sholom in Chicago.
Relentlessly engaged in politics, art, and his own identity, Golub died aged 82, in New York on August 8, 2002.
The Legacy of Leon Golub
Golub's uniquely expressive figuration and representation of universal human cruelty has a resonance across all time and culture. Although much of Golub's most troubling and memorable work was made in relation to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, the scenes are now interchangeable with those since witnessed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Thus the work has inspired an entire generation of artists in the United States and abroad, with regard to the representation of war. The influence of his paintings, with regard to the male body fighting and more generally the dark side of humanity, can be seen in particular in the work of contemporary LA based artist, Cleon Peterson, and in the paintings of the London based, Marcelle Hanselaar.
It was long before it was fashionable for artists to attack current USA conflict endeavors that Golub was making his voice heard with regard to the Vietnam War. His overtly harsh visual commentary on wartime struggle, and particularly in opposition to Vietnam, has been embraced by a number of artists. Peter Saul blended expressionism and figuration, albeit using a much more 'pop' aesthetic, to respond to controversial themes leading to unsettling conclusions. Similarly, and more recently, film director and artist, Steve McQueen has also engaged in opinionated anti-conflict visual narratives in his work. Furthermore, the textural quality of Golub's style endows his figures with a three-dimensional 'life' beyond the flat canvas, and as such his technique bears reference to the paintings of Anselm Kiefer.
Golub's work is testament to the fact that regardless of styles and movements that tend to come and go, there is a thematic aspect of art - interest in the eternal pains of humanity - that forever remains unchanged. Although well known and respected since the 1980s, it was not until 2015 that the Serpentine Gallery in London held a large career retrospective of Golub's work. Hauser and Wirth in New York, followed suit, and had a similarly serious show in the same year.