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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people

Harry Potter actor suffered 'severe flu-like symptoms' on a flight from London to Orlando

Sport
Kim Sears is reported to have directed abuse at Berdych
tennis
News
news

Rap music mogul accused of running two men over in his truck

News
Gywneth Paltrow proposed that women seek out a special herbal steam-treatment service
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
film
Arts and Entertainment
tv

First full-length look is finally here

Voices
A mother and her child
voices
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Film director Martin Scorsese
film
News
news

The party's potential nominations read like a high school race for student body president

Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballI have never seen the point of lambasting the fourth official, writes Paul Scholes
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is a two form entry primary schoo...

Recruitment Genius: Engineering Manager - Alconbury

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for an Engineering M...

Recruitment Genius: .Net / SQL Developer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A skilled .NET developer with e...

Recruitment Genius: IT Technical Support Engineer - PC/Mac

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company are cur...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee