Leon Golub


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Painter. His figurative paintings explore the existential condition of the modern self and expose vile cruelties human beings inflict on each other. Few late-twentieth-century artists possessed the sophisticated technical skills and humanistic insights he applied in meshing metaphysical, political, and psychological concerns. A Chicago native, Leon Albert Golub received a BA in art history from the University of Chicago in 1942. After service from 1943 to 1946 in the U.S. Army, he earned a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1949 and an MFA the following year. Along with other local artists who sought alternatives to prevailing postwar abstraction, he helped to originate Chicago imagism. In early paintings indebted to Picasso's Guernica and the work of Jean Dubuffet, as well as to primitive and outsider arts, figural distortions convey human frailty and vulnerability. Particularly after a residence in Italy in 1956–57, he brutalized classical prototypes by scraping and reworking paint surfaces to suggest the distance separating contemporary man from the heroic ideal. As he developed this approach, he taught for a year in Bloomington, Indiana, then left for Paris in 1959. Upon his return to the United States, he settled permanently in New York in 1964. There the early work culminated in fatalistic Gigantomachies, huge battling gods derived from the Hellenistic Altar of Zeus at Pergamon. Constituting his initial response to the Vietnam War, these archetypal images came to seem inadequate as the war dragged on and protests intensified. Wishing to address contemporary reality more directly, in 1972 he began a series picturing uniformed men and their weapons in generalized combat scenes loosely based on news photographs. To increase the works' immediacy, he often draped unstretched paintings directly on the wall and sometimes cut into the canvases as if to mutilate his own images. In the late 1970s he produced unflattering portraits of world leaders. The Mercenaries series, begun in 1975, and Interrogations, begun in 1981, drew attention to atrocities committed in the name of politics, generally in the shadows of conflict. In these psychologically chilling works, Golub focused powerfully on participants' consciousness of their roles and on social relationships revealed in body language and facial expressions. Disturbingly contemporary, some directly prefigure the sadistic 2003 Abu Ghraib photographs from the war in Iraq. Altering his approach around 1990, Golub embarked on more personally inflected mélanges of symbolic fragments, sometimes accompanied by texts, but always sustaining his fist-shaking resistance to easy answers.

His wife, painter and draftsman Nancy Spero (1926–2009), was an equally distinctive voice in late-twentieth-century art of social responsibility. As suits the era, she specialized in feminist issues. Often incorporating text along with images, her modestly scaled, idiosyncratic works unsparingly interrogate social and psychological realities. Born in Cleveland, she met Golub as a student at the Art Institute, where she, too, earned a BFA in 1949. She soon left for Paris to study for a year at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Atelier André Lhote. She and Golub married in 1951. During their years mostly abroad between 1956 and 1964, she produced a series of “black paintings,” dark canvases exploring women's erotic and maternal roles in a male-dominated society. After they moved to New York, she abandoned canvas to work almost entirely on paper. Her drawn, collaged, and hand-stamped works direct anger primarily at socially imposed restrictions on women's lives and at the Vietnam War. In the striking Codex Artaud series (1971–73) she juxtaposed typed quotations from defiant French surrealist Antonin Artaud with schematic figural imagery deployed in a scroll-like format. Her attack on the violence of war and female subjugation continued in the 1980s, as she also introduced more transcendent themes, often based on myth, history, or literature. These works employ an idiosyncratic vocabulary of recurrent motifs derived from wide-ranging sources, including Egyptian hieroglyphs, the classical tradition, and contemporary popular culture. In later years, she also worked directly on the wall to produce mural installations, as well as mosaics for public spaces.


Subjects: Art.

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