Progression of Art
Golub began to paint images of men, specifically heroes, in classic moments of extreme glory and demise. Stemming from his acknowledgment and disdain for the fact that men ruled the world, whilst simultaneously looking at classical statues and popular athletic poses, writing frieze-like scenes of masculine struggle emerged. In this particular work, ten nude male figures engage in a frantic battle. Their fleshy, intertwined, thickly traced limbs suggest violence, mutilation, and slaughter. The lack of references, such as a recognizable background, or a defined character, refers to an eternal and meaningless state of violence; there is no information in regards to the cause of the battle, or a signifier indicating what may divide the group of characters: they are just fighting.
Golub used a series of Hellenistic references to develop his paintings. The horizontal arrangement of the figures in Gigantomachy II is reminiscent of those of ancient Doric friezes. Furthermore, the title directly references a Greek mythological battle between the gods and the giants. Art critic and historian Thomas McEvilley described this painting as "an allegorical picture of history", " a meaningless and endless battle." The at once fleshy quality of the figures resulting from the superimposition of thick paint, combined with the skeletal aspect determined by the use of the color white, together make these figures anonymous, unfinished, and representative of both anyone and everyone. Through this universal scene, Golub formulated a critique, albeit still relatively indirect and abstract, of the violence of his time, a period marked by the Vietnam crisis.
Acrylic on linen - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Marking a shift from previous work, Vietnam II is an exceptional example of Golub's dramatic large-scale figurative style that explicitly addresses contemporary issues, here the Vietnam War. Over three metres high and twelve metres long, the composition is divided into two parts: on the left hand side American soldiers direct their weapons towards frightened Vietnamese civilians at the opposite side of the already torn canvas. The gestural dialogue between these two groups is striking; the weapons of the aggressors prepare to fire on the screaming victims; the violence of the soldiers provides contrast to the fear of the civilians, and most notably to the look of terror expressed by the boy at the forefront of the picture. In suitable symbolic guise, the aggressors wear black and point their protruding guns, whilst the innocents are clothed in white and curve their arms in attempt to shield one another.
In these, the largest and most physical paintings of his career, Golub adopted an active stance against the Vietnam War, engaged with the progression of the conflict throughout the Vietnam series. These works become less obviously concerned with ancient art and more with real and present atrocities that were even being televised at the time. The canvases dealing with the inexhaustible fall of man narrative are literally themselves physically broken. Departing here from any art historical source material, Golub would draw the figures directly onto un-stretched canvas looking at horrific and shocking images from contemporary newspapers and magazines. Art historian and Golub-expert Jonathan Bird observed that while "the scale and arrested action invoke cinema [...], the compositional structure, accuracy in dress and weaponry, close-up detailing of expression and gesture, all reference a spectacularized culture saturated with mass-media imagery."
Acrylic paint on canvas - Tate Modern London
Portrait of Francisco Franco
Between 1976 and 1979 Leon Golub worked on a series called The Political Portraits. The result is over a hundred heads of dictators, state, military, and religious leaders. These portraits, as most of Golub's figurative work, can be read as active critiques of organized political violence. They are further subversive in the way that they forefront frailty in usually considered invincible figures. Golub entirely shatters the idealization of powerful men, interestingly focusing on the inevitable mortality of all. Francisco Franco for instance is depicted as an old man. As well as a cruel Spanish dictator, who once appeared to have everlasting power, Franco becomes simply a man who will soon die and physically disappear.
Golub said of this work and others from the same series, "I think of the political portraits as skins or masks". He wants to reveal that to take hold of power is little more than an illusion. The recurrent visceral quality of this portrait of Franco, the skin tones and rendering of facial lines, result in a likely and realistic presentation of the dictator. The portrait was not painted from life, but from a culmination of magazine photographs and television images. As such, Golub made optimum use of public material as a means to engage with political reality. Through this process, the artist inverted the set of social relations that portraiture commonly entails; the sitter did not choose to be portrayed and the final image was not meant to be flattering in any way. With chilling reassurance, the series comments that even the most aggressively 'powerful' are not able to resist the progress of degeneration.
Acrylic on linen - Ulrich & Harriet Meyer Collection
Interrogation II belongs to a series of works denouncing American neo-colonialist interventions in Latin America. In this large painting, four mercenaries surround their naked, bound, hooded, and tortured victim. The provocative perverse glance of two of the mercenaries on the right hand side, combined with the warning background color of red, dare the viewer to maintain eye contact with this frightful, unaccountable, and unnatural scene. Both in palette and in the grotesque depiction of the aggressors, the canvas recalls some of Golub's artistic inspirations. The German New Objectivity artists (including George Grosz and Otto Dix), as well as the Belgian Expressionist painter, James Ensor, portrayed the demise of human behaviour in times of conflict, the easy onset of chaos, and absolute abuse of power.
Whereas the same fleshy quality from earlier paintings such as Gigantomachy II (1966) can still be seen, in this series, Golub has endowed his characters with individual traits, each character is given a specific personality, and their clothes and weapons ground them firmly in the present time. Perhaps this is Golub's own attempt to make these individuals somehow accountable for the crimes for which they will likely never pay, maybe one day someone will recognise them and 'justice' will be served posthumously. Interrogation II was painted without a stretcher: the canvas was instead hung directly on the wall. The painted surfaces acquired thus an uneven quality and a raw texture that reinforces the expressionistic and dramatic quality of the scene. Golub defined the role of the artist as an active agent for change, and Interrogation II is indicative of the artist's willingness to engage with the atrocities of his present. His figuration was thus intended to reveal, denounce, and criticize. And as he stated himself: "I am bringing into your space the real world pressures".
Acrylic on canvas - The Art Institute of Chicago, IL
Two Black Women and a White Man
When Golub turned his attention to the issue of Apartheid in South Africa, he made sure to explore the systems of social hierarchy and power relations from an everyday perspective. In Two Black Women and a White Man, three characters stand in two separate groups without making eye contact. The white male figure stands tall on the right and turns his gaze away from the two black women who sit on the left in a separation evocative of literal hierarchy and passive, almost nonchalant aggression that well defined the deeply engrained South African apartheid racism.
The viewer confronts another actual and current social injustice as opposed to the mythological universe that began Golub's career. The scraped quality of the figures, recurrent in Golub's work, enhances the overarching sentiment of misery and fragility. It also makes reference to the transience and non-containable quality of life, like pictures painted as frescos or murals in graffiti, there is a sense to this painting that it is not to be separated as 'art' in a gallery, but rather that it is somehow more and intended to be part of everyday existence. The network of glances, the left-hand lady's look directed to the viewer, and the central female figure's eyes fixed on the male character, is both dynamic and challenging. It is the women who seek to make connections and start dialogue, whilst the man actively rejects this. Golub asks, is the spectator a passive viewer or an accomplice? "One claims to support humanist values, liberal points of view", explained the artist, "But maybe at some level you're identifying with those guys, deriving a vicarious imaginative kind of pleasure in viewing these kind of macho figures."
Acrylic on canvas - Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York
All Bets are Off
During the 1990s, Golub's work continued to address themes of mortality and conflict but his palette became more vibrant and his scenes less narrative. His painting shifted toward the illusionistic, with forms semi-visible, placed together in collage-type formation making reference to ancient carvings, medieval manuscripts, and contemporary graffiti. Text appeared in many of these paintings which typically combine a series of symbolic references, including dogs, lions, skulls, and skeletons.
All Bets are Off features a dog, a crystal skull, and a tattoo motif composed of a dagger pierced heart, a white rose, and a snake slithering behind the word 'despoiled'. These elements do not cohere into any specific narrative; they are instead disjunctively positioned on a neutral background and in this respect recall the works of Symbolist paintings, including those of James Ensor and Odilon Redon. Interested in the bestial and degeneration as in earlier works, but here Golub looks through a lens of universal spirituality and appears to leave a more worldly gaze out of it. More like the work of Nancy Spero, we are confronted not with a whole and believable scenario, but instead with fragments united within the imagination.
In his reading of All Bets are Off, Jon Bird observed that "These iconographically rich paintings combine 'high' and 'mass' cultural references that push narrative content to the edge; complex metaphors of life and death, desire and the body, they construct a dialect of the beautiful and the sublime which touches upon our mortality and the struggle for identity."
Acrylic on linen - Private Collection