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Politically engaged American artist
whose work explored power, violence,
war and human suffering
By Jon Bird
Published in: The Guardian, London, Friday 13 August 2004
Leon Golub, one of the major American artists of the postwar period, has died in New York, aged 82. His wife, the artist Nancy Spero, and their sons say that he left the world as he had always inhabited it - looking clearly and resolutely at the reality of things.
Following the generation of New York-based artists identified by their abstract and expressionist paintings, Golub, who was born in Chicago and studied at the School of the Art Institute under the GI Bill in 1947, was very much part of an alternative style of figuration based upon the expressive possibilities of the human body.
Aware of European modernism from his earlier art historical studies and works in Chicago's Museum of Modern Art, in his early paintings he combined references to late classical sculpture with hybrid and mythical themes, particularly the image of the sphinx. They culminated in the mid-1960s in a series of wall-sized and heavily textured depictions of battling figures, the "Gigantomachies".
The theme of embodiment was central to these works and remained a major preoccupation throughout his life: that is to say, how a pictorial art could picture the body as a sign of both social and psychological states of being, and of the disruptive and corrosive effects of power upon our individual and collective lives.
The family had two periods of living and working abroad - nine months in Italy in the mid-1950s, made possible by the generosity of his first serious collector, and then five years in Paris from 1959. As figurative artists, both Golub and Spero, whom he had met at the Art Institute and married in 1951, felt marginalised by the critical and curatorial investment in the varieties of American abstraction, and Paris offered both the proximity of European art and a tradition of history painting in the works of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Jacques-Louis David and Gustave Courbet.
The couple rented a maison particulière in the 16th arrondissement with an amenable Russian landlord who allowed Golub to install a ventilation pipe to extract some of the noxious fumes from the lacquer paints and solvents that were his basic working materials. Perhaps fortunately for the health of the whole family, the company manufacturing the product discontinued the line, and he began experimenting with acrylics, embedding the colour in the weft and warp of the canvas through a laborious process involving dissolving and scraping back the image with a meat cleaver to create the distressed look characteristic of his painted surfaces until the early 1990s.
On their return to New York in 1964, the family encountered the first protests against the escalation of the Vietnam war. Passionately political, Golub had been active throughout his student period, and both artists joined the Artists and Writers Protest Group. While their studio became a centre for the organisation of anti-war activities, the immediacy of the conflict provided material evidence of the disintegrative effect of actual power upon real bodies, leading Golub to reflect upon his pictorial concerns. He moved away from the generalised conflictual arenas of the "Gigantomachies" to the depiction of charred and mutilated torsos, the Napalm series, followed by the three great Vietnam paintings of the 1970s, the largest of which, Vietnam II, has recently been donated to Tate Modern.
Golub's paintings of the 1960s and 70s are also studies in the crisis of a masculine identity that a morally unjustifiable war had provoked. He now experienced a personal crisis in subject matter, destroying almost everything produced between 1974 and 1976 until a chance resemblance between a GI in Vietnam III and a news photograph of the young Gerald Ford suggested a fresh theme.
Rethinking the genre of portraiture, he completed more than 100 portraits during the late 1970s, each image derived from a media representation of a public figure, from corporate and religious leaders to military dictators.
These scraped and bare surfaces strip their subject of affectivity and depth as they appear to perform their role for the camera's eye, an uncertainty that, for the critic Donald Kuspit, was partly a response to feminism. Certainly, as Spero's own work reflected her involvement in the women's movement, Golub incorporated the ambiguities of gender roles into his paintings. He often joked about their respective practices: "Nancy has the women and I go after the guys."
Working on the portraits and the details in facial expression provided him with elements that became central to his best known works - the huge depictions of torture, interrogation and social violence painted during the 1980s. This marked a turning point in his career, and a public and critical recognition that had been absent since his early prominence in the 1950s.
In 1982 he had his first solo exhibition in New York for 20 years, and he also exhibited the Mercenaries and Interrogations at London's Institute for Contemporary Arts. Charles Saatchi began collecting his work, and he was seen as an elder authority in the turn to figuration being taken by young artists across Europe and America.
But Golub was only doing what he had always done - speaking back to power and documenting its politics and repressions. In this, he discovered a means to adapt the tradition of history painting to incorporate the technologies and techniques of the news media and cinema.
What is particular about his compositions is the interaction between the figures and across pictorial space, the exchange of looks and gestures between victim and aggressor, or interrogator and mercenary, or the discomfort that we, the viewers, experience as they gaze out at us, inviting our complicity as war goes underground.
The 1990s saw another remarkable shift in his work. At the age of 70, the biblical three score years and ten, Golub began a series of dystopian paintings suffused with darkness, an apocryphal world of scavenging dogs, strutting skeletons, roaring lions and proclamatory texts. Reminiscent of Vanitas paintings, where disorder and death shadow material wealth and earthly pleasures, these late paintings reflect Theodor Adorno's description of Beethoven: "In the history of art, late works are the catastrophe."
Leon drew my attention to this essay by Adorno many years ago, and I am convinced that this series partly records his own struggle with an ending, as his dogs and lions howl and roar against the dying of the light, against separation, loss and the end of all things. However, there was never anything melancholic in any of this.
If an ending had to be made, it would come with an ironic humour at the service of an inquiring consciousness gazing fearlessly at the world. So, in one painting an upended skeleton in danger of losing its military trousers drops towards a pack of dogs with the inscription "Another joker out of business", while in another a figure crouching beneath an obviously hungry lion clutches a placard reading "Why me?".
Here, perhaps, something of the substance of the man infuses the bare facts of a profoundly creative life: his vitality and strength in adversity, his humour and generosity, his fierce intelligence and political acuity. Leon loved to communicate, and he was a great orator, whether with a few friends in the studio apartment he shared with Nancy, in his capacity as a teacher for many years in the art department of Rutgers University, or at one of the numerous talks, lectures and panel discussions he led or attended over the years. His aphorisms were legendary and many of his longer texts were recently gathered together and published with the appropriate title Do Paintings Bite?.
Indeed, like a dog with a bone, he chewed and gnawed at his subjects, refusing to let go until he had worried out some truth from an uncertain and troubled world which could find expression in one of his compositions. But, however much disenchantment ruled his imaginary scenarios, something is always given back, and we are the better for it.
He is survived by his wife and their three sons, Stephen, Philip and Paul.
Adrian Searle writes: Gnomic, bald, funny and wise, Leon Golub was an indefatigable presence in the New York art world. In interviews, he and his wife were a wonderful double act, a reminder of an America with a conscience. His was a fierce and wry vision of the world. It was also - in the best sense - a terrible vision. His paintings told as much. There was something primordial about Golub's art. It has Etruscan painting in it, Lucas Cranach, Francisco de Goya, newspaper and TV newsreel images, details drawn from pornography and gun magazines. There was also tenderness in his paintings. An early sphinx, painted in Italy in the 1950s, still has fallen leaves from a Roman winter stuck in the enamel paint. He went on to paint images from a world which was both nearer and further from home: peasants and soldiers in Vietnam, mercenaries in El Salvador and Nicaragua, Americans in grubby suits stuffing a body into the trunk of a car. He painted street corners from whence no one might return.
He painted both the torturers and the tortured. Golub once told me he saw little difference between the oppressors and the oppressed: they were all, equally, victims. He painted how coercion worked. Certain images might now remind us of the trophy photographs which have come out of Abu Ghraib jail. Golub knew that some things never change, that suffering is perpetual. But for those who ordered "the wet work", the generals and dictators, the politicians and their financiers, he reserved a special place, in a lengthy series of coruscating portraits. His paintings seemed to skin these guys alive, but had a tactile quality of awful, sinewy delicacy.
In the late 1980s, Golub once sold a group of his death squad paintings to Charles Saatchi. When I interviewed the artist at the ICA, he said he hoped the paintings might get under the collector's skin, or at least "fuck him up". Saatchi went on to dispose of these paintings, which are among Golub's finest. The group of works he showed at Documenta in Germany, in 2002, were wild paintings of old age, and came as a shock to younger generations of artists unfamiliar with his work.
At home, he and Nancy spent the days after 9/11 besieged by phone calls from around the world. Leon was greatly loved, even as he railed at the world's injustice, his bad back and feet, the bastards who run the country. Whenever I visited, the food came on paper plates from the deli downstairs (it saved time); tours of the studios were obligatory, as was scurrilous gossip, libellous conversation, a modicum of shouting. The best part of him never grew old. Leon was an unforgettable man, a great mentor, a big-hearted painter of unforgiving images, whose worth has yet to be fully acknowledged.
Leon Golub, artist, born January 21 1922; died August 8, 2004
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