Chicago-born artist Leon Golub (1922–2004) never abandoned representational painting, even at the height of the abstract art movement in the United States. Instead Golub produced a body of politically-engaged work that confronted the injustices he saw born out of the Cold War: from destructive dictatorships and civil rights violations to the advent of global terrorism.
In the first half of the ’60s, Golub and his artist wife, Nancy Spero, escaped the stagnation of contemporary American society to live in Europe. His training in classical painting acquired during this time would be ever-present in his later work. Upon returning to New York as the Vietnam War was escalating, Golub joined the anti-war group Artists and Writers Protest. His anger at the landslide election of war-mongering presidential candidate Richard Nixon in 1972 inspired Golub to depict the conflict in a series of 3 paintings entitled Vietnam. The second in the series, now held in London’s Tate, is Golub’s largest work at over 3 metres high and 12 metres long. This huge canvas is a modern-day history painting in the vein of Goya, Manet and, above all, Picasso, whose famous depiction of Guernica was credited by Golub as his primary source of inspiration.
Vietnam II is divided between two groups of figures, with 3 armed American soldiers on the left side pointing their machine guns towards a group of Vietnamese men, women and children, huddled on the right of the painting in front of a charred village. A young boy stares out towards the viewer, appealing for help. The bare canvas that separated the figures, with areas hacked away by the artist, heightens the tension and communicates a palpable threat of violence. The figures themselves were based on contemporary media images of the war.
In the 1970s, Golub focused on producing portraits of political figures on either side of the Cold War, from Ho Chi Minh, Chairman Mao and Fidel Castro to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. He returned in the ’80s to work once more in the style of his earlier paintings, chronicling acts of terrorism, covert government operations and the build-up to war in the Middle East. Although Golub’s scenes of cruelty and atrocities can be hard to stomach, he is a rare example of an artist who remained committed throughout his career to using his art to question contemporary political events.
Images: Top – Leon Golub. Photograph by Sebastian Piras from Artists Exposed Series; Bottom – Leon Golub, Vietnam II, 1973. Acrylic paint on canvas, 2940 x 11515 mm. Courtesy Tate. © DACS, London and VAGA, New York 2004