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 Leon Albert Golub  (1922 - 2004)

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Lived/Active: New York/Illinois      Known for: modernist morose figure-genre and portrait painting, collage

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Ad Code: 2
Leon Albert Golub
from Auction House Records.
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following is from The New York Times, July 26, 2001

Leon Golub, Brawler in a Cosmic Melee

I'm sort of political, sort of metaphysical, sort of wiseacre," Leon Golub is saying in his street-smart Chicago cadence. "When I paint a skull, I don't do it with eyebrows furrowed."

He has taken the more uncomfortable of the two chairs in his Greenwich Village studio, a battered metal affair, although his 79-year-old bones don't give him much relief. There's no more getting down on the floor to scrape a canvas, as in the old days in the 1980's, when he flayed the blood-red backgrounds behind his graphic, nearly 10- foot-high paintings of torturers, mercenaries and thugs with a meat cleaver.

Those paintings are the centerpiece of a retrospective, "Leon Golub: Paintings, 1950-2000," organized by the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin and on view at the Brooklyn Museum through Aug. 19. But as the exhibition makes explicit, they are only a way station in the artist's lifelong enterprise to make paintings that speak truth to power and record on an epic scale what he calls "this unending fatalistic aggression which is the nature of the

His cosmic ambition is to paint his dire, conflicted view of the condition of the world in which we live on the skin of the world, which is what he calls canvas.

Mostly it's a situation we'd just as soon not know about, like the guys in the truth squad horsing around while they torture a bound, hooded victim in the 1981 Interrogation II. Two of the goons face us, grinning, as if we share a dirty secret.

Mr. Golub's secret has been that he implicates us, and doesn't go that easy on himself either, in depicting official mayhem right out of the news. In the Interrogation, White Squad and Riot paintings of the 1980's, the towering figures start at floor level and intrude on our space.

This was something new in painting, not the victor's propaganda of history painting from the Romans through Jacques-Louis David; not Francisco Goya's horror over the invader. This was painting that said, "We have met the enemy and it may be us."

"The only question that protest art asked was, `Which side are you on?" says Robert Storr, senior curator, department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. "But Leon makes big heroic paintings of anti-heroic subject matter, and you can't help but be swept up by the scope. You are put on the spot. You are on the side you don't want to be on, in a position where you are mesmerized by violence and at the same time horrified by it."

Mr. Golub has long been the art world's insider outsider, cherished for his activist efforts on issues from the Vietnam War to AIDS, but as often marginalized as celebrated for the pugnacious canvases that inevitably do battle with the aesthetic of the moment.

"See, I'm crazy because I think I am touching real things in real time," he says. "People are aware of these things in film, they're aware of it in novels. We're saturated in information. But this information is not accepted in the sacrosanct temples of art because those are the highest achievements of capitalism, and what they represent is the idea that the possibilities of the human spirit are open and vast and gracious."

As a painter he's a brawler. As a man he looks the part. There's something ominous and looming about him in a disarming, cartoony sort of way. He's got the head of one of his thugs; or of the late Picasso: a bald bullet skull, protruding ears, a libertine's fleshy lips. The eyes give another message; they're always checking for reactions; they're in constant tension between the need to be loved and the zest for a good intellectual fight.

In fact, Mr. Golub is an amiable man, married for a half century this December to the artist Nancy Spero, with whom he shares a remarkable artistic dialogue and divides their loft 50-50 into separate studios. Their life is their work; such domesticity as there is takes place at a table in the kitchen corner squeezed into the back of the loft and cluttered with the eclectic collection of publications to which they subscribe, from Time magazine to Women's International Network News, which itemizes human rights abuses around the world.

They met at the Art Institute of Chicago after World War II, in which Mr. Golub served as a mapmaker for the Eighth Air Force. In the wake of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, Mr. Golub was abrading, chipping and attacking his surfaces. It was as if they were the flesh of the crudely rendered allegorical figures he wanted to depict as at once universal, heroic and desperately defenseless. Late Hellenistic sculpture, pre- Columbian masks, shamanism and outsider art all went into the brew, notes Jon Bird, the curator of the retrospective, in the catalog.

Very soon New York noticed. Peter Selz included Mr. Golub in his 1959 "New Images of Man" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, together with such figurative artists as Dubuffet and Giacometti. It was the wrong time and the wrong place, a moment of power struggle in the art world between a permissive profusion of styles and an uncompromising insistence on the inevitability of abstraction. William Rubin, who would soon become the reigning curator at the Modern, led the attack against figurative painting, savaging Mr. Golub.

And Mr. Golub rose to the bait. He sent Mr. Rubin a note calling him "a big slob," "a bully-boy" and "a sap," annotated with scatalogical drawings. He does that sometimes.

"Of course that letter killed any opportunity MOMA may have had to buy a painting," Mr. Golub says. He has had some 70 museum exhibitions, but it rankles that his paintings are sparsely represented in New York museum collections. Last year Ulrich and Harriet Meyer gave the Modern its first major Golub, his 10-foot-by-24-foot Gigantomachy I (1965). It is a painting with the ambition of a Roman frieze. It shows archetypal male figures endlessly entangled in ferocious battle.

"I describe the`Gigantomachy' paintings as the most fatalistic and irredeemable of my work," Mr. Golub says. "There's no surcease to the aggression. There's no end point."

The Vietnam war was escalating when he was working on the "Gigantomachy" series. Their existential universality began to seem like a dead end, and Mr. Golub resolved the problem in the 1970's by putting uniforms on his aggressive warriors and faces on the populace. In the last half of the 1970's, he made multiple portraits of power: Nelson Rockefeller, Francisco Franco, John Foster Dulles, Mao Zedong, followed by his "Mercenaries" paintings.

He made his figures jarringly disjointed, as physically inept as he says he feels in his own body. He set them in front of his scrim of red oxide, as in a Pompeiian mural. But they weren't murals, they were softer, more unstable linen, hung not stretched, patches sometimes chopped away, like limbs.

"His painting became most disturbing when he put his archetypes in modern dress, in a form that looks like us," says Mr. Storr. "Leon is one of those artists lots of people want to write off, but they are forced to respect him. They think about the pictures more than they want to, and that's his strength."

In the 1980's, a young generation was reviving figuration. Julian Schnabel learned from Mr. Golub's technique, Eric Fischl from his subject matter. For the second time in his life, the artistic mainstream was in step with him, at least for the moment.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Chicago, Leon Golub became a modernist painter, whose monumental canvases combined a sense of humanism and history.  He earned a graduate degree from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1950, and a year later, married artist Nancy Spero.

Golub expressed a wide range of interests from African and pre-Columbian to Greek and Roman Sculpture and the sculpture of Jacques-Louis David. His Abstract Expressionism in the 1960s introduced recognizable figurative subjects, which stirred much criticism among his peers totally dedicated to abstraction. In the 1970s and 80s, his painting expressed horror at the complicity of mankind in social and political immoral acts. His late work focused on philosophical ruminations, and his subject was Man "with a capital M---as a symbol of social and spiritual ambition, often irrational and destructive"...

In 1991, he was asked what kept him motivated. He replied, "Schizoid splits---desperation to euphoria" and a "daily working schedule".

Obituary, The New York Times, August 13, 2004

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