Leon Golub:
The Dynamics of Power

Leon Golub, Mercenaries IV (detail), 1980

Courtesy Hall Art Foundation ©The Estate of Leon Golub
Leon Golub, Mercenaries IV (detail), 1980
A career-spanning exhibition of 70 works from 1947 to 2003 on view at The Hall Foundation

A career-spanning exhibition of 70 works from 1947 to 2003 on view at The Hall Foundation in Reading Vermont from May 21, 2022, to November 27, 2022

Courtesy Hall Art Foundation ©The Estate of Leon Golub

Leon Golub, Fidel Castro V, 1977.

“I’ve always been awkward. So, my paintings always have an awkward presence, and that awkward presence I try to exaggerate, to be disjunctive.”

Leon Golub

The visceral paintings of American figurative artist Leon Golub (1922-2004) confront us. The viewer serves as a witness. We are compelled to look. There is an initial shock value. Then comes the long, slow, seeping guilt that coincides with consciousness, a recognition that we are complicit, either directly or indirectly, in these atrocities. Golub’s paintings exude an undeniable psychological presence that transcends the moment in time when they were made.

Leon Golub was born on January 23rd, 1922, in Chicago, Illinois where he attended the University of Chicago. He served in WWII and saw the barbarity of the Nazi concentration camps. When he returned from the war, he met his future wife, artist Nancy Spero (1926-2009), when they were both students at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he graduated in 1950 with an MFA. Spero became his collaborator in art and life and was a respected artist, feminist, and political activist building her own impressive career while bearing and raising their three sons.

Drawing solely from the works in their own collections, The Hall Art Foundation – founded in 2007 by collectors and philanthropists Andrew and Christine Hall, along with the Ulrich Meyer and Harriet Horwitz Meyer Collection – was able to mount this career-spanning exhibition with works from the 1940s until the artist’s death in 2004. Their extensive investment in Golub’s work speaks to the acknowledgment of the universal impact and long-term relevance that these images will continue to have for generations to come.

Arranged throughout three buildings in chronological order, the exhibition begins with the earliest works, a series of totemic male figures and gigantic heads from the late 1940s to 1960s, covering a transitional period teetering between figuration and abstraction. The distressed oil and lacquered surfaces are reminiscent of the impasto of French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985). Yet these monstrous heads, painted as though decomposing or in a state of decay, were not well received by New York critics when they were included in the New Images of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1959. But with the support of grants and his New York dealer Allan Frumkin, Golub was able to continue his pursuit of figuration, defying art market trends.

When Golub first studied the classics, Greek and Roman sculpture from around the 2nd century B.C., his compositions of naked male figures were engaged in hand-to-hand combat. More than nude, his combatants were skinless, exposing raw sinew. The canvases in the exhibition are hung from the wall with grommets. They are wounded, scraped with a cleaver, rather than a palette knife, so that the painted bodies appear flayed. Gigantomachy II (1966), which is roughly 10 by 24 feet, is one of five paintings from a series, which was inspired by the Great Altar of Zeus at Pergamon.

Golub was very interested in relief sculptures and friezes from this period, and he sought to translate this effect to paintings where the figures are forced forward from the flat picture plane into the viewers space. The gift of Gigantomachy II to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2016 by The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts predicated the Met’s 2018 exhibition, Leon Golub: Raw Nerve. Gigantomachy III, a similar painting from the series, is included in the exhibit at The Hall Foundation.

Leon Golub, White Squad X, 1986.
Courtesy Hall Art Foundation © The Estate of Leon Golub

Leon Golub, White Squad X, 1986.

Leon Golub, The Arrest, 1990.
Courtesy Hall Art Foundation © The Estate of Leon Golub

Leon Golub, The Arrest, 1990.

Leon Golub, Kissinger III, 1978.
Courtesy Hall Art Foundation © The Estate of Leon Golub

Leon Golub, Kissinger III, 1978.

Leon Golub, Head (XXXVII), 1959.
Courtesy Hall Art Foundation © The Estate of Leon Golub

Leon Golub, Head (XXXVII), 1959.

Leon Golub, Francisco Franco (1940), 1976.
Courtesy Hall Art Foundation © The Estate of Leon Golub

Leon Golub, Francisco Franco (1940), 1976.

Leon Golub, Francisco Franco (In Casket 1975), 1976.
Courtesy Hall Art Foundation © The Estate of Leon Golub

Leon Golub, Francisco Franco (In Casket 1975), 1976.

Golub resisted the pressures of abstraction in the 1950s and 60s, when Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism were ascendent. Along with his study of classical figuration, he added clippings from contemporary media to his resources. Golub collected photos from magazines such as Soldier of Fortune and Sports Illustrated, capturing images of male aggression.

Beginning in 1972, Golub began clothing his larger-than-life figures. Detailed drawn elements of guns, clothing, teeth, and eyes are etched into the canvas. They became identifiable markers, contemporary stand-ins, that represent power struggles between the oppressors and the oppressed. Sanctioned and unsanctioned threats of violence, torture and abuses of power happening today on the streets, in villages, towns, and cities worldwide are not dissimilar from the event depicted in Golub’s 1990 painting The Arrest. It takes our eyes a while to focus, as a leering white figure emerges from the murky grey background of this scene. Once in view, the white figure frisks and arrests a Black man at gun point. Another Black face, cut off at the lower left edge, seems to be a helpless onlooker. The original source of this painting was a photo of the arrest of John Hume, a Northern Irish politician. Here, Golub shifts the focus from Irish politics to reflect the broader racial conflict that reverberates today with the killings of George Floyd and countless others in the not-so-distant past.

Kartemquin Films had documented Leon Golub’s work from 1985 until his death in 2004. In clips, we can feel Golub’s intensity as he attacks the canvas. He narrates while scraping paint off an unstretched canvas that flaps loosely against the wall; “My technique is very rough and brutalized.” In another scene, he is lying on the floor, literally on top of the painting. As he rubs off the surface of viscus, gray paint sludge, revealing a tortured looking face beneath, he says, “The uglier you make it, you squeeze out a kind of beauty.” The physicality of his process is mirrored in the work. Psychological tension is married with external reportage. “I once described myself as a machine producing monsters. They’re ugly and their actions are ugly.”

Courtesy Hall Art Foundation © The Estate of Leon Golub

Leon Golub, Francisco Franco V (1974), 1976.

In 1975 after the Vietnam War, Golub considered giving up painting. But between 1976 and 1978, he completed over 100 political portraits with a sly ugliness that brought him back to art. More realistic than previous work, portraits of Henry Kissinger share the spotlight of blame equally with other internationally recognized figures like Fidel Castro, and the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who was the subject of nine portraits that trace his rise and fall from power.

In the 1980s and 90s Golub continued to explore man’s undeniable capacity for violence in the Mercenaries, Interrogation, White Squad and Riot series. The larger-than-life figures positioned against bloodied, red oxide backgrounds in Mercenaries IV (1980), and White Squad IV (El Salvador) (1983), force themselves on us. Golub requires, “Spectator embodiment.” While most of Golub’s compositions are composites from numerous sources, White Squad IV, like The Arrest, is based on a single image. In this case, a newspaper photo of a Salvadorean “death squad.” Golub introduces sexual overtones by repositioning the body of the victim and implicating the phallic symbolism of the drawn weapon by the perpetrator.

Women seldom appear in Golub’s work. He seems inured to the feminist impulse. Although the seated Black female in Horsing Around IV (1983) retains some sense of pride and power, the relationship between the male and female figures is ambiguous, unsettling. It is the most colorful painting in the Hall exhibition, suggesting a recreational respite sandwiched between moments of violence.

America has been at war continually since its founding. Wars external as well as internal on drugs, against women, against BIPOC people, against Muslims. Leon Golub, more than any other artist, has been able to portray the resulting violence of those wars without glorifying it. We have much to learn about who we are as a culture by studying the timeless work of this fearless artist.

About the Author

Cynthia Close

Cynthia Close holds a MFA from Boston University, was an instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and former executive director/president of Documentary Educational Resources, a film company. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review. She now writes about art and culture for several publications.

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