Leon Golub was a hero to some. In the fifties, his figurative work went against the grain when abstraction was de rigueur in the art world. In the sixties, his Vietnam and Napalm series of paintings, raw and brutally existent, were condemnations of the war.
Then, in the mid-70’s, a creative crisis set in, perhaps brought on by the end of the Vietnamese conflict, and he almost stopped painting. After protesting for so long, what is one to do after the reason for rage is gone?
Later on in the decade, he began painting over a hundred portraits of public figures, politicians Right and Left, religious figures, and businessmen. Fidel and Mao, Pope Paul VI, Pinochet and Franco, were heroes to some, villains to others, yet Golub painted them all the same. He said he was painting public images rather than individuals, describing them as “rubber masks… empty, non-existent”.
As those portraits came into existence, the Neo-Expressionists and Image Appropriationists came to town, and Golub himself became a hero, having been those things all along. The Neo-Expressionists and Image Appropriationists, however, substituted an easier-to-consume irony for condemnation and rage as it became seemingly more difficult to tell fiction from reality, good from bad, art from kitsch in a mass media world that seemed increasingly empty and non-existent.
Golub painted his Mercenaries and Interrogation series during the last days of the USA and the USSR, of a Right and a Left, and before the days when the brutality of torture and the use of mercenaries would be extolled. The paintings, still raw and brutally existent, were half condemnations of abuse and brutality, half statement of fact, but never ironic.
Born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1922, Leon Golub received his B.A. in Art History from the University of Chicago in 1942. From 1943 to 1946 Golub served as a cartographer for the US Army Engineers stationed in Europe in the Second World War and from 1947 to 1949 he studied, under the G.I. Bill, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he met the artist Nancy Spero, to whom he was married for nearly fifty years. Golub died in New York City in 2004.
In an age when it was difficult to tell things apart, George W. Bush arrived on the scene and had a war of his own. Too late on the scene to have his portrait painted by Golub, he instead created his own series of rubber-masked portraits of his politician friends, empty and non-existent.
© Zev Robinson Artlyst 2016 – Zev Robinson is a Canadian-British artist and filmmaker living in Spain, working on The Art and Politics of Eating project.