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Leon Golub

Birthplace: Chicago, Illinois, United States
Death: Died in New York, New York, United States
Immediate Family:

Husband of Nancy Golub
Father of <private> Golub; <private> Golub and <private> Golub

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Immediate Family

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About Leon Golub

American painter Leon Golub was born on January 23, 1922 in Chicago, Illinois, where he also studied, receiving his BA at the University of Chicago in 1942, his BFA and MFA at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1949 and 1950, respectively.

He was married to and collaborated with the artist Nancy Spero (1926 - October 18, 2009). Their son, Stephen Golub, is an economics professor at Swarthmore College.

Golub, who always painted in a unique figural style, drew upon diverse representations of the body from ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, to photographs of athletic competitions, to gay pornography; often pulled directly from a huge database he assembled of journalistic images from the mass media. He likened his painting process to sculptural technique and employed a method of layering and scraping away paint, sometimes using a meat cleaver, leaving varying amounts of canvas untouched.

From 1959 through 1964 Golub and his wife Nancy Spero opted to live in Europe, a move occasioned in part by the belief that Europe would be more receptive to their work dealing overtly with issues of power, sexual and political. During this period Golub's work increased in size because of larger available studio space and the inspiration of the French tradition of large-scale history painting. He also switched from using lacquer to acrylics, left more of the surface unpainted, and began to grind the paint directly into the canvas. While in Italy, both Golub and Spero were profoundly influenced by the figurative works of Etruscan and Roman art, whose narratives addressed ancient themes of power and violence.

When Golub returned to New York, the Vietnam War was escalating, and he responded with his two series: Napalm and Vietnam.

In the mid-seventies Golub was beset with self-doubt. He destroyed or cut up many works he produced up to this period and nearly abandoned painting. In the late seventies, however, he produced more than a hundred portraits of public figures, among them political leaders, dictators, and religious figures. Leon Golub: Paintings, 1950-2000 includes several portraits of Nelson Rockefeller and Ho Chi Minh, along with images of Fidel Castro, Francisco Franco, Richard Nixon, and Henry Kissinger.

In the 1980s Golub turned his attention to terrorism in a variety of forms, from the subversive operations of governments to urban street violence. Killing fields, torture chambers, bars, and brothels became inspiration and subject for work that dealt with such themes as violent aggression, racial inequality, gender ambiguity, oppression, and exclusion. Among the work produced in this period are the series Mercenaries, Interrogation, Riot, and Horsing Around.

From the nineties to his death, Golub's work shifted toward the illusionistic, with forms semi-visible, and appropriated graphic styles from ancient carvings, medieval manuscripts, and contemporary graffiti. As an older man he began to consider his own mortality, and moved toward themes of separation, loss, and death. Text appeared in many of the paintings combined with a series of symbolic references, including dogs, lions, skulls, and skeletons.

Golub's work was seen in solo exhibitions throughout the world, among them World Wide (1991), a Grand Lobby project at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. For World Wide the artist created a process, repeated in exhibitions at several other museums, by which he enlarged images and details from his paintings and screened them on transparent sheets of vinyl, hung so that they surround the viewer. He was represented in many group exhibitions and was one of the few white artists included in Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1994.

In 1996 Golub was given a commission to design a set of stained glass windows for Temple Sholom in Chicago, the four windows depict the life of Joseph. These would be the only stained glass windows Leon Golub ever did. They were fabricated in New York by Victor Rothman and Gene Mallard.

While Leon Golub's later works from the 1990s offer more fragmented (in his words "left-over") reincarnations of his early messages, it is his larger, carved works, vividly depicting power relations that have re-gained attention with the U.S.'s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. These powerful images have remained staid and timeless in their relevance and commentary on current geo-political affairs.

In 2003, Golub revisited his 1959 painting, Reclining Youth, part of a series of paintings inspired by friezes at the Great Altar of Zeus in Pergamon. Working with Magnolia Editions, the artist translated the painting into a large-scale [14-foot-wide (4.3 m)] Jacquard tapestry, his first and only textile work.


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Leon Golub's Timeline

January 21, 1922
Chicago, Illinois, United States
August 8, 2004
Age 82
New York, New York, United States