Surpassing Science Fiction: Leon Golub’s Late Paintings



Leon Golub and Nancy Spero, New York, 1989

Leon Golub (1922-2004) is one of the most unconventional artists of his time. While most artists made abstract and conceptual art, the figurative painter’s world of imagery was focused on confronting violence and oppression. Born in Chicago, Golub received his B.A. in Art History from the University of Chicago in 1942 and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1947 to 1949. Then he had participated in a figurative group known as “Monster Roster” in 1955. It was not until 1964 that Golub and his wife Nancy Spero moved back to the United States from France, where he witnessed the first coordinated student protests against the American government’s escalation of the Vietnam War. Later in the 70s and 80s, he continued to create over-sized figurative paintings with specific warfare references.

For his early engagement in anti-Vietnam war protest in the 60s,  Golub has long been known for his early paintings with a political narration including soldiers, mercenaries and interrogators. Here, however, by filling the gap of his late work, I intend to argue that the late works in the 90s and 00s are worthy of attention if a new theory is able to be developed for those.


Leon Golub working on one of his Mercenaries paintings

Donald Kuspit is perhaps the most influential scholar on Leon Golub of his time. Both as Golub’s friend and as an American art critic, Kuspit focuses on Golub’s “history painting” starting in 1972, as for him, “painting as a narrative”. During that period, the imagery of the artist depicts scenes of violence, torture and power control from warfare events in Vietnam to South Africa to Iraq and Afghanistan. The iconic paintings include Mercenaries and Interrogations series produced in the 1980s. For those works, Kuspit describes him as a leading exponent of postmodern “history painting” as for years Golub used his signature take on primitive figuration to capture an inclusive view of the time which warfare is part of it (Kuspit 1985: 74). Kuspit’s work, Leon Golub: Existential/Activist Painter, published in 1985, becomes extremely influential: it sheds a light on the difficult problem of classifying and examining Golub’s distinct historical style and subject matter that emerges in the late 20th century.

Like Kuspit, another critic Thomas McEvilley asserts that Golub addressed events head-on by “confronting” chilling acts of brutality, in a weathered, scratchy style synthesized from sources as various as Etruscan and Roman art, French history painting, pornography and sports photographs. Golub accentuates the stiffness of his characters, appearing awkward and caught off balance; the odd put-togetherness of their bodies, which results from his method of collaging bits of different people into one, deny them integrity of selfhood. (McEvilley 1995, p192) He goes even further by stating that this is exactly the state of everyday life, indifferent to violent, “Foreign” events it imagines are far from its nature–until they physically intrude upon it, even erupt within it as if generated by it.

Many art scholars who have followed Kuspit and McEvilley, comment mostly on Golub’s “history painting,” however the descriptive language they use seems universal. Richard Huntington says Golub “Uses his art to confront real-life monsters” (Huntington 2001). Even though Yvonne Scott recognizes that “realism is Golub’s overriding reality”, she interprets the realities in the paintings generally as “an intentional everyday familiarity” (Scott 2000). Furthermore,  David Levi Strauss asserts that “his painting is always a fragment from the Real, which makes them true to the current world” he also believes that “the audience has to move reflects that we still live in society of the spectacle.”

Kuspit’s theory also includes Golub’s imagery revealing serious political concerns.  It has, for example, in the Mercenaries IV (1980), been asserted that the mercenaries whom is shown “seared, worn, battered in their world-historical role” are also allegories about the artist’s own “heroic survival.” It is said even though the spectators share some responsibility for the mercenaries employed by our society, to making eye contacts with the artist’s mercenaries is to trivialize the real issues.

The main point is clear, Golub’s representation of the reality is  most powerful both physically and psychologically in his history painting series even though most of the critics barely mention Golub’s earlier work. Kuspit asserts that the political portraits Golub did “right before” the history painting series are the “transitional” works from the earlier “abstract” works to the warfare art. Based on his theory, the political portraits made in the 70s are the starting point of his political concerns, and only in those portraits Golub does present his “first true strong one with societies they represent, they are power incarnate” (Kuspit 1985, p74) that is fully developed in the “history painting”. McEvilley asserts that “the portraits completed a massive transition from the universal to the particular” without further explanation (McEvilley 1995, p190). He believes that it was on the basis of these studies of individual physiognomies that Golub began to portray his larger-than-life, phallic-aggressive figures as explicitly characterized individuals. The two critics shape the scholarly critique of Golub’s late career especially on his social concerns.

The recent scholar Jon Bird argues that the scholarly interest in the history paintings ignore the social critique of much of his earlier work. Focusing on Golub’s political portraits, he asserts that Golub’s early stage documents the culture’s nightmares, not simply in order to shock–although many of these portraits combine deeply traumatic material–but rather in the belief in art’s’ capacity to alter our experience both about ourselves and our relation to the world. This is what is depicted in his series of Francisco Franco (1976), mask-like faces that are arrogant, empty, with an emphasis on facial structures.

Bird argues that Kuspit ignores the fact that the life size political portraits were produced at the same time period of the history paintings, which contrasts the idea that the portraits are a transitional stage of the later. Portraits of public figures were in fact, made between 1976 and 1978, as the monumental Vietnam series was produced between 1972 and 1974. During Bird’s research, he has been able to list 85 paintings and drawings of 35 individuals from the military, political and corporate worlds. It has been proven that Golub drew special attention to his portrait series when he made history paintings, but the masking quality of the portraits is rarely shown in those history paintings. The large number of portraits of individuals has gone through the same process as larger works—application and scraping of paint. As Golub stated  “I think of the political portrait as skins or rubber mask— realistic but expressionless. They are empty, non-existent — lacking bone or sinew. With a Renaissance portrait we see an individual who is a political reality possessing agency. My portraits depict people who, if they act at all.” (Golub, Echoes of the Real: page number) This is to say that the portrait stands as a distinctive category which foreshadows the artist’s multiple ways of depicting the theme of power.

Few critics and scholars have written positively of Golub’s work from the 1990s and 2000s. When critics discuss Golub as the war artist of the 70s and 80s, they do not fully discuss Golub’s later work. This ignorance is particularly evident in the 2010 exhibition “Live & Die Like a Lion?” at the Drawing Center in New York. It exhibits 43 works on paper Golub made between the years 1999 and his death in 2004: candid examples of an aesthetic of immediacy and newfound freedom in the artist’s late career.

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It shared a different side to Golub’s art and reflected a wider range of his interests–satyrs, nudes, animals, classical art, death, and graffiti that some appear in his earliest work. Many critics have ignored the exhibition. Few critics comment on the exhibition, while most of them argue that Golub’s “last tryout” [the 43 drawings] is “powerless” and as a result, less influential than the “history painting”  (Rosenberg 2010). It is said that the late work is the “ugliness and awkwardness—as if all things untoward are best presented in an untoward fashion—keep most of these works from rising above assault into art”(Esplund 2010). Additionally, to explain the artistic choice on small scaled canvas with little narration shown, many pull out an arbitrary assumption that it “became increasingly difficult for Golub to paint on such a large scale [in his 80’s], [so that] he began to make many small scale drawings covering more personal subject matters.”

Here, I argue Golub’s political concerns are important, but it also fails to harm Golub’s later career. Very few attempt to interpret the late work: the spacious composition, the lack of resentful gazes distance the spectator who is unable to recognize the narrative, from building relevancy through phenomena.  Starting from the 90s, Golub alters our experience both about ourselves and our relation to a more complex world ever before.  I acknowledge Bird’s theory when I exemplify Golub’s late “symbolic paintings” in the 90s and 2000s period with a focus on the Be Aware of Dog (1992). Bird’s argument about Golub’s  political portraits as a fantasy to which are all subject, whether through choice, circumstance or ideology, implies that both the preceding and later works are not simply weaker in expression but also powerful like the history paintings.By filling the gap in his late work, I intend to argue that the late works in the 90s and 2000s are in fact complex, powerful and worthy of attention if a new theory is developed for those works after transition.

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Bombarded by the chaos and conflicted ideas that have no physical existence, Golub changed his view of the “real” in the early 90s. He abandoned the use of representing specific event as the world becomes more paradoxic and runs ahead of any individuals and even itself. Right before the smartphone era, he sensed that realism involves confusion. Compared to the artists in the 70s including Golub who often proclaimed that they held the “real,” that their art “demonstrated a summation” (Golub 1994, p10), the 90s Golub questioned the certainty of holding the reality. As Golub put it in 1994: “We are losing conceptual control over what is central and what is peripheral. What happens if one can’t define location or intention?” The artist’s consciousness of losing his own power for control reality is reflected by his inability to depict the specific. The historical events he depicted in the 80s are rooted in that era of realness and authenticity, the subject matter acts as a confirmation and so provokes a very strong sense of the reality. In the 1990s, he gave up this feeling of affirmation, with the rapid development of science and technology.

For the final years of the artist’s life, there are his insecurities and instabilities about the booming information, artificial intelligence. In a way, the internet and the access to it has made all kinds of histories and mythologies available to people who would normally be outsiders in a “sci-fi” world. In an interview in 1994, he described today’s world as “an extraordinary diffused, entropic kind” where the artist, decentered, wanders across the surfaces of it.

Most of his late works are filled with symbols. Such mixture of various symbols strikes the spectator through a metaphorical way: bestiary of lions (majestic force) and dogs (savagery). (Schjeldahl, 2016). The absurdity of this flattery reached its peak in Golub’s career in the 90s: there were no longer soldiers holding guns or any newspaper narration in any scene. The late work starts with an abstract background, undefined, sometimes blank. Small symbolic subjects are added later on the image. The subject-matters were simple and highly repetitive: dogs, skulls, lions, or combinations of the three. Sometimes there are methodological subjects, sphinxes. The presence of those figures may be marginal in the sense the spectator feels less empathy than viewing the striking news paintings. For example, within the highly symbolic All Bets Off (1995), there are only images of a dog, a skull and a European icon. The painter made the painting so passive while the spectator is only aware that the dog is active, moving, staring at the viewers. As we see the dog, we suppose the dog can see us as well.

Dogs are among the most common figures in Golub’s late work. Works including Be Aware of Dog (1992) represent a shift both in technique and in the use of language and imagery. The information (subject) is bold without the complex technical layering Golub had typically utilized previously. The white dog outline floats on the dark paper, skinny and brutal. For the artist,  the dog is both a servant of man and a radical force of aggression. Through this subject-matter, Leon Golub exemplified an ordinary violence of everyday modern life versus the exceptional violence of war. The red text, “Be aware of Dog,” a fiery sarcasm behaves as a mask for a deeper truth expressing the tragic underbelly of commercialized American culture. Golub explained this work was to emphasize both the street nature of the signs and equally, throw in a kind of representative but crazy message, which somehow in atypical fashion intersects at another level of rhetoric the drama of the types portrayed.

In Napalm I (1969), the fallen figure is taken from photos of a shot gangster and a contemporary athlete,  while within 3 Dog View (1994) the subject is more close to the ordinary life. The dog, again, occupies a small portion on paper, while the straightforward gaze still mimics a male dominant image like the soldiers do to us.  Golub notes, “ I virtually sense myself as made up of photos and imagistic fragments jittering in my head and onto the canvas. Because nowadays, realism involves distraction.” Golub had been collecting various photos for the icons as he prepared to paint the soldiers. No doubt such symbolic paintings are a logical extension of Golub’s achievement that he continued over fifty years of the practice of art, of finding proper visual expression for the operation of power across Classical  Greek and Western cultures.

The late drawings on view mark a stylistic and thematic shift from a long-term preoccupation with the atrocities of the external world towards an exploration of the personal revelatory. Golub mixed this empty technical background with various subject matters, sometimes sexual, thin, brutal with fragments of photos underneath. Indeed, the typical and the exceptional, the non-western and western tradition can be explained by the artist’s complex ways of seeing the world that he always tried to capture.

Golub created collections of paintings rather than singular paintings. The emotional expression is remarkably powerful if one views the small paintings all together. In 1994, the art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist asked the artist for a future masterpiece, and Golub said “it is not a master narrative. It’s pieced together, a kind of collage, a derisive reportage but till a reportage.” Among the hundreds of his late works there are no attempts to find a singular, defined way of seeing the contemporary world, but if the spectator views all those paintings as a collage, they will be overwhelmed by the ambiguity and the multiple ways of expressing the reality.

Blurring lines between reality and fiction eventually lead Golub to a revolutionary shift in his art. As Golub wrote in 1994, “Our world is becoming, at least among those using sophisticated technologies and media, a science fiction world. No limits. Sci-fi extrapolates fantasized projected possibilities, frightening or utopian, out of reach…Paradoxically science today portends the telescoping, the surpassing of Sci-fi.”

This essay offers an alternative perspective on Golub’s late work and indicates limitations in the literature on it. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Leon Golub’s work had the foresight to see the future of a science fiction world, even though critics assume Golub’s power of art died with his dog paintings: artwork drifted away from the America’s central stage of war art. In shifting his focus, Golub responded to reality metaphorically, in a way that is most relevant to a highly developed digitized, information-rich global world with its hybridity of abstract space and ordinary life imagery. In his exploration of this complex relationship between the artist and his subjects, Leon Golub captured scenes of emotional and social ambiguity in a sci-fi world that is still yet to come.


Author’s Bio:

Mingjun Gao started her Dual Studio Practice/Arts Adminiatration Intern at Gallery Aferrro in May 2017 after she graduated from Bucknell University with double majors Theatre and Art History. She divides her time between visual arts and working for the theatre as a set and costume designer. After trained as a traditional realistic painter for ten years, Gao has taken part in numerous theatre and dance productions since 2013.

Gao frequently connects performances with geometric forms, common life objects, tools and nature. To enhance her crafting skills, she is currently assisting artist, Ken Wheathersby making abstract paintings and installments.



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2.McEvilley, Thomas. “Frontal Attack, The Work of Leon Golub,” The Exile’s Return: Toward a Redefinition of Painting for the Post-Modern Era. Cambridge England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Print. pp. 190

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7.Fodde, Elizabeth. “Go See – New York: ‘Leon Golub: Live & Die Like a Lion?’ at the Drawing Center, through July 23rd, 2010.” AO Art Observed RSS. N.p., 1 June 2010. Web. 27 Dec. 2016.

8.Rosenberg, Karen. “Leon Golub: ‘Live & Die Like a Lion?’.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 13 May 2010. Web. 27 Dec. 2016.

9.Esplund, Lance. “His Bark Is Worse Than His Bite.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 29 May 2010. Web. 27 Dec. 2016.


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14.McCarthy, David, Fantasy and Force: A Brief Consideration of Artist and War in the American Century, Art Journal, 62:4, 92-100,  (2003), Web.

15.Searle, Adrian, Leon Golub: Bite your Tongue review, The Guardian , 2015, Web

16.McEvilley, Thomas.  “Outside the Comfort Zone,”  Art in America,  v. 90 no. 4. April, 2002, pp. 102-9.

  1. Bird, Jon, Leon Golub, and National Portrait Gallery (Great Britain). Leon Golub : Powerplay : The Political Portraits. London: Reaktion Books, 2016. Web.
  1. Thompson, M J. “Leon Golub.” Border Crossings 29.3 (2010): 124-125. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson)

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