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Leon Golub

Painter of figurative work attacking the brutality of war

When the Whitney Museum of American Art's exhibition "War! Protest in America 1965-2004" opens in New York tomorrow, it will be eloquent proof of Leon Golub's belief that if you stick to your guns for long enough, people end up agreeing with you.

Leon Golub, artist: born Chicago 21 January 1922; married 1951 Nancy Spero (three sons); died New York 8 August 2004.

When the Whitney Museum of American Art's exhibition "War! Protest in America 1965-2004" opens in New York tomorrow, it will be eloquent proof of Leon Golub's belief that if you stick to your guns for long enough, people end up agreeing with you.

Long before it was fashionable for painters to attack current US adventurism in Iraq, Golub was making his voice heard. A founder member of the artists' section of Refuse and Resist!, an American anti-war group, he was one of the first signatories to a June 2002 petition, "Not In Our Name", condemning the Bush administration's policy of invasion.

And long before that, in the mid-1960s, when artists like Jasper Johns and Philip Guston were painting anti-war pictures so intellectually allusive as to go over the heads of most Americans, Golub was working on paintings with names like Vietnam and Napalm and Assassins. These were every bit as graphic as their titles suggest: "I am," Golub said, "a machine that turns out monsters." Many of these same monsters will be in the Whitney's protest-art show this autumn.

Political idealism wasn't the only field in which Golub showed tenacity. Perhaps more dangerous for a US artist of his generation, he was also an unapologetic figure-painter. Born in 1922 and educated in Chicago, Golub, while Jackson Pollock and Johns were slugging it out over Abstract Expressionism and Pop in the late 1950s, was painting hieratic figures that owed less to the New York School than to the School of Paris. Accordingly, he and his wife - the painter Nancy Spero, whom he married in 1951 - moved there in 1959. Installed in the Louvre, Golub attached himself to a left-wing figurative tradition that began with Roman Republican sculpture and ended with the Revolutionary paintings of Jacques-Louis David.

It was his return to the United States in 1964 that fired him with contemporary political zeal, however. "I went to a meeting at a church for the Artists' and Writers' Protest Against the War in Vietnam," he recalled later, "and I got involved."

This was due, in part, to historical coincidence. Even before his departure for Paris, Golub had been working with pitted surfaces - often made by scraping away the first layer of paint from his canvas with a meat cleaver - that looked like burned flesh. (Another of his techniques was to wear away acrylic with rubbing alcohol.) This, combined with his interest in Classical figuration, found a modern equivalence in television images of victims of American bombing in Vietnam. In 1969, Golub began his Napalm series of life-size nude figures scarred with napalm burns. By the early 1970s, this generalised attack on the brutality of war had become specifically anti-American. His Vietnam series included specific references to actual uniforms and guns, removing any doubts as to the political stance of his art.

While this earned Golub a moderate following on the American left, his insistent figuration won him fewer friends in the New York art world. Where his pre-Paris success had been blighted by Abstraction and Pop, his career in the mid-1970s was caught between the twin orthodoxies of Minimalism and Conceptualism. This led to a period of shattering self-doubt. After destroying much of his existing work between 1974 and 1976, Golub spent the next few years painting portraits of political leaders like General Augusto Pinochet and Richard M. Nixon at one-and-a-half times life-size.

It was an unexpected swerve in American art history - the sudden emergence of a Neo-Expressionist school of painting in New York in the early 1980s - that cast Golub, blinking, into the limelight. The decade that followed marked the high point of his career. He had a series of major monograph exhibitions, including one at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1982. His death squad painting Mercenaries IV was bought from the ICA show by Charles Saatchi, who went on to buy five others and then to sell them all again. ("Young flesh is more attractive than old flesh in the flesh markets of the world," a stung Golub retorted.) Young painters, to whom he was tirelessly generous with encouragement and money, beat a path to his studio door.

This success, perhaps, went to his head. The 1990s saw the Baconian muteness of Golub's earlier work replaced by a more strident take on Middle America. His T-shirt paintings, based on images taken from biker magazines and the like, included pictures with titles such as Try Burning This One, Asshole and Fuck off Japan. Where Golub's Vietnam paintings had explored a brutality that apparently overcame Americans when on military service overseas, his later work explored the strain of domestic US violence: obscene gestures, snarling pitbulls, trailer trash.

Once again, this work proved oddly prescient. Tony Korner, publisher of Artforum, points out that "the dogs, the sado-masochism, the ritual humiliation in his later paintings, they pre-empted all those photographs of Abu Ghraib jail. Golub foresaw all of that." As so often, he had stayed more or less where he was and allowed history to come to him. If all this suggests a darkness of the soul, then it wasn't apparent in his personal life. Funny, gentle, a loving husband, Golub saw his work as documentary rather than as critique. "I've tried to be a reporter," he said. "I'm one of those artists who sees the black side of things, but when you're reporting something, there's also a certain amount of optimism."

Charles Darwent