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A Lion in Autumn

   In the immediate post WWII era, hundreds of returning soldiers enrolled in art school under the federal G.I. Bill. While New York artists engaged in Abstract Expressionism, Chicago’s art scene generated unique figurative works that dealt with war. In particular, a group of Chicago artists that included war veteran Leon Golub, his wife Nancy Spero, June Leaf, Theodore Halkin, and war veteran H.C. Westermann, produced intense works that responded to existential dread. In 1959, art critic Franz Schulze named the group “The Monster Roster.”
   From his early work in Chicago, where he was born raised and educated, and throughout his career, artist Leon Golub (1922-2004) dealt with themes of power and stress. Known for large-scale paintings protesting injustice and inhumanity, and a figurative style inspired by classical sculpture and images from mass media, Golub maintained that Realism was not outmoded, but rather for him, had become a powerful laser into the world.
    In 1959 Golub and his family moved to Paris for several years and the artist’s work was inspired by large French history paintings. Upon Golub’s return to the U.S., and establishing his studio in New York, the Vietnam War had intensified. In response, Golub’s work had turned to address specific social and political concerns. During the 1980s Golub painted horror in many forms, including governmental, racial, sexual, urban, and torture. In his words to a graduating class Golub stated: “Without the visual arts, without Vorticism, Suprematism, Dada, Abstract Expressionism, Neo-Expressionism, etc. etc. etc., the modern world would be immeasurably impoverished. The visual arts give us our look, the look of the modern world, and they are 
crucial in helping to analyze and define whatever it is we are experiencing! Artists manage extraordinary balancing acts, not merely of survival or brinkmanship, but of analysis and raw nerve.” (MFA degree catalogue, Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, 1986). By the 1990s, Golub’s paintings had focused on loss and death. He added text and depicted symbols such as dogs, lions, skulls, and skeletons. And his late works, from 1999 until his death, marked a turn from large paintings to small drawings.
    The Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, is currently showing “Leon Golub: Live & Die Like a Lion?” until December 12. Curated by Brett Littman of New York’s Drawing Center, the exhibition includes forty-two drawings of women, couples, mythical creatures in sexualized poses, majestic lions, savage dogs, defiant and defeated men, skulls, and skeletons on colorful, smeared backgrounds. The 8 x 10 inch, oil-stick and ink works mark a stylistic shift for the artist toward a more improvisational form and fluid line, and show him incorporating personal themes, such as sexual desire as well as his own mortality. Curator Brett Littman comments on the diminutive scale of the late drawings: “...this shift in scale forced Golub to compress the often bristling kinetic energy of his figures. He had to really focus on the backgrounds and foregrounds of the drawings, and on the refinement and non-refinement of the figures, to strike a balance between their raw emotionality and his own technical prowess.” (From exhibition catalog).
    Golub’s late drawings incorporate figures that propel poetic sensibilities. The lion image is a symbol of the animal power within man. The dogs are linked to political violence and signify friendship, loyalty, as well as aggression and premonition. In 2002, employing oil stick on bristol, Golub captured a running lion, fierce and proud, and under the figure he drew his text, the final stroke, “LIVE & DIE LIKE A LION?” In a 2004 interview, Golub noted: “The titles clue the viewer and clue me into what I’m doing in a way, even if they come later. They are like the final stroke to make the thing go where I want it to go.” (Interview with Robert Enright, Senior Contributing Editor of Border Crossings, published in exhibition catalog). The drawing “LIVE & DIE LIKE A LION?” asks a question that is both personal and political. With red stripes and a blue lion, the drawing hints at the U.S. flag. The U.S., our world’s superpower, is a strong ruler like the lion among animals. Golub’s work has questioned American power as well as his own, an American artist.

Published: October 10, 2010
Issue: November 2010 Arts and Politics Issue