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A Tribute to Leon Golub (1922–2004)

Photograph of Leon Golub, taken in 1989. Photo by David Reynolds.
Photograph of Leon Golub, taken in 1989. Photo by David Reynolds.

Remembering Golub
by David Levi Strauss

August 20, 2004

Leon and I were set to record another of our conversations for publication on June 24th at his studio. The night before, he called to say that he was very sorry, but he didn’t think he was going to be able to make it to the recording session, because he was on his way into the emergency room at NYU Hospital. "Leon, what’s wrong?" I asked. "Everything," he said. "Is there anything I can do for you?" "Yeah," he said, "you can go find me another body."
It is a measure of my confidence in his strength of will that I thought then I would see him again, that he would rise and come back to work, and we’d continue our conversation. I thought this right up until August 8th, when Leon’s son Stephen called to tell me his father had died in the night.

I only got to know Leon late in his life, but when we were together, I often forgot that he was old, and in the best times, I think he forgot, too. He certainly wasn’t old in outlook. He was as curious as a kid, and had one of the most agile and inquisitive minds I’ve ever run across. He was well read, and was a great appreciator of writing. He knew what writing takes, having written well himself.

Leon was one of the most intelligent artists I’ve known, and he knew that painting is primarily physical; that it comes from and speaks to the body, first. Sitting among his colossal heads from 1959-64 at his last show at Ron Feldman’s in May, Golub said he could barely glimpse, then, the man who had the strength to paint those heads. I should have known then that he was dying.

But it was hard to tell, because he was so damned cheerful. For a social pessimist who dealt head-on with what was wrong with the world, Leon was awfully optimistic. He appreciated the benefits of liberal democracy more than anyone I’ve ever known. He’d say, "You know, in many countries in the world today, you and I would have been thrown in prison or shot a long time ago. But here, we’re more or less left alone to keep working, even celebrated once in a while." And though he was certainly not always pleased with the way his work was treated, he well recognized and reveled in the privilege to make it. "It’s something else, isn’t it?" he’d say. "We’re able to make art and write, and get by doing it—even more than get by, sometimes. What could be better than that?"

By the time I got to know him personally, Golub had gained perspective on the vagaries of the art world, and he gave me wise counsel many times. When our bid for a joint exhibition of the works of Leon and Nancy [Spero] for the U.S. Pavilion at the 2001 Venice Biennale was summarily rejected, I was crushed, but Leon was philosophical about it. "You win some, and you lose some," he said. "It was still worth a shot."

I don’t think Leon was afraid of dying, and he was too pragmatic to speculate too much on what happens after death ("looks to me like that’s the end, personally, you know? Kaput!"), but it definitely bothered him to think that he wouldn’t be around to see what was going to happen. He once told me he’d gladly sell his soul for the privilege of coming back every year or two to look in on the world—even the world that is envisioned in his late paintings.

The late work is fragmentary, explosive, and catastrophic. When I first saw the later paintings on the walls of his studio, I thought they looked like works made by a young artist, a man in his twenties. They’re smart-ass paintings, raw and free. I called them "distract expressionism," because they came out of and are responding to distraction culture. They "jitter" (one of Leon’s favorite words) across the landscape, picking up bits and pieces, flotsam and jetsam, as they go. "One has to keep moving," Leon said in an interview I did with him in 2001. "Now I’ve shifted. I’m more sardonic and trying to slip around more. I’m trying! You know?"

Golub turned physical awkwardness into a kind of grace. He was determined to make a connection, to be of his time, and to do that he had to reach back into the origins of painting, to the first marks and dabs and inscriptions, and forward to a world of cyborgs and roaming packs of dogs.

Golub disdained mere facility. He continually put himself in the position, in painting, of not knowing. There is courage in that, but also a kind of faith in faithlessness. Donald Kuspit was right to call Golub an existential/activist painter. Golub’s work enacts a real challenge to painting itself. He threw down the gauntlet right at the beginning, and waged a furious, muscular struggle with it the rest of his life. His art is agnostic and agonistic. It exists in the heat of battle, where everything is at risk. This lead, paradoxically, to constant renewal, so that Golub’s work was never done. And this is why, though he lived a long and productive life, to all of us who knew him, he died, Goddamnit, too soon.

When Giacometti died, John Berger wrote about how Giacometti’s work was utterly changed by his death. "The reason Giacometti’s death seems to have changed his work so radically is that his work had so much to do with an awareness of death. It is as though his death confirms his work: as though one could now arrange his works in a line leading to his death, which would constitute far more than the interruption or termination of that line—which would, on the contrary, constitute the starting point for reading back along that line, for appreciating his life’s work." May it be so with Golub.

Leon Golub 1922–2004
by Clayton Eshelman

September 2004

I met Leon and Nancy [Spero] in 1958 while I was a student at Indiana University; we actually got to know each other in the late 1960s when they were living at 71st and Broadway. I was separated from my first wife, living in a room condemned for human habitation on Bank Street in the Village. They invited me uptown for dinner, almost weekly, for over a year. They were the only people to do this.

It was out of such visits that our friendship developed. I met my wife Caryl when Nancy and Leon took me to a New Year’s Eve party. At the Golubs’, we would eat Nancy’s chicken in the kitchen, with the boys; then the four of us would adjourn to the only piece of furniture in the living room, a long white table with chairs and a desk light. These were heady days. All of us were involved in Vietnam War protest. Nancy was working on her Bombs & Helicopters series of gouaches, one of the most powerful imaginative responses to the American invasion. One night Leon and I drank a lot of wine and designed toilet paper panels displaying Nixon’s face.

While Leon was witty and convivial, he mainly talked to make things clear to himself or to probe me with a point of view, often ending phrases with an uptilting “okay?” or “right?” His voice, which Gerald Marzorati described as “Chicago lunch-pail rough” had an emotional tenor, a lot of twang and nuance, with no superimposed intellectual affectation. His speech, like that of Howard Zinn, evoked his solidarity with oppressed people and reinforced his viewpoints, which were permeated with fellow feeling and the impact of grinding-down power.

One of Leon’s strengths was his fortitude. The break-through Susan Caldwell show in 1982 was preceded by twenty years of no gallery exhibitions in New York. Throughout his career he committed himself relentlessly to an against-the-prevailing-grain position that would have eroded and destroyed a less cogent conscience. His drive was implacable: while his body of work demonstrates off-shoots and cul-de-sacs, the stem of it is monolithically consistent, from the early primitive-derived “grotesques” to the revelatory and unique Mercenary and Interrogation “grotesques” of the late seventies and early eighties, which focus and realize a lifetime quest (it is worth noting here that when he was painting his Interrogations, there were, according to Leon, no photos inside torture centers; such paintings anticipate the 2003 photos and videos of the horrors in Abu Ghraib).

Given his prior difficulties with the mainstream art world and considering his steely will to survive, it would be understandable for Leon to have been corrosive, embittered, and at least somewhat deranged. The fact that he was not is one of the most amazing things about him. And he was not only a great artist and human being; he was also a great guy—warm, comradely, and generous.

The poet Milton Kessler once commented—in stressing Walt Whitman’s openness and down-to-earthness—that it would be like having a neighbor who turned out to be Shakespeare. Since Leon was hardly thick-skinned or immune to professional neglect, his neighborliness was all the more amazing. In confronting official power and its offspring, cruelty, in his painting (on a level that evokes Goya), he had to have a lot of love for what humankind can be, and sometimes is. I felt this love in his demeanor as well as in his reciprocity. He was, and remains, an inspiring example of what a man can admit, assimilate, and project.

“Figure and Ground” was written at the end of 2000. I used the word “Merovingian” near the end of it to call up the ancient decline of the classical tradition and the absorption of radical and seemingly barbaric elements. The interplay between the classical and the primitive/grotesque is, for me, the war in Golub’s matrix. —August 12, 2004

Figure and Ground

Over 50 years Leon Golub has been plunging through blood marshes,
walking through the daymare of his era,
translating classic chaos,
conceiving the homuncular man of history
and removing the 20th century zero of history in museums
from the scales,
rebalancing them with art as social meaning.
Golub is man self-revealed on his ground,
grounded as in flamenco, the work pushed
down, into post-Whitman nuclear grass,
no longer a lode of white-haired mothers,
but a depository for Angola land-mines. It is the rush of man
out of the umbilicus forever bombing,
it is the fire, the spurt of lamb, at the edge of
everyone’s sight.

Earth, does your subjectivity still have emotion? Is finding one’s spot still the key revision of foetal
A given paradise is no more.
Memory, working with psyche, can argue, can reveal.
Golub’s figures are shadowed with lost ground.
We know where man is when we look at this painter’s work.
We see a range of acrid flavors,
out of Vietnam with a hint of the awful, striped with
tribal hybridity, woman as gate, woman as
beautiful sphinx—
Golub now works in blackness
projecting Dia de muertos stigmata through
the oil slicks of American culture,
fragments of the elderly Prometheus, the merc-headed dog
caught in blue street light,
the interior rims of America, neon-strung slums where
blacks and chicanos crouch in the combustion zone of
a voodoo particle flow.
Our eyes are stained with Clinton
whose guts must look like a Boschian symphony.
Wake up, daddy bones,
nothing is not bad. Nothing is the ultimate ground.

I construct a skull for Leon, placed in the Borneo man’s house at 71st and Broadway,
a cowrie shell for each socket.
I caress his skull top with gutta percha,
making crosses and Nixon cartoons in the rubber-like
then I drape this skull in dreadlocks
and elongate it back into Merovingian time.
Surely Leon Golub deserves that depth.

A Tribute: Leon Golub
by Phong Bui

September 2004

It was at the opening of his stunning retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in May 2001 that I first met the painter Leon Golub. While we were standing before one of his epic works from the Vietnam series, painted in the early 1970s, the inevitable subject of radical politics arose. Naturally, we spoke about the war in Vietnam and the conflict between France and Algeria in the 1960s in which both Leon and his wife, the equally distinguished painter Nancy Spero, had actively and unfailingly participated in through their art as well as in the numerous protests on the streets of Chicago, Paris, and later New York. Leon was born in Chicago in 1922 and earned his graduate degree from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1950, where he met Nancy, a fellow student; they were married a year later. Between 1959 and 1964 the family lived in Paris, and from 1964 until the present, Leon and Nancy made their home in New York City.

I called him the next day to follow up on our conversation from the day before, and we spoke for an hour and a half on the telephone. Our conversation began with Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguen Giap, de Gaulle, Massu, Michael Harrington, Irving Howe, and ended up with the infamous episode between Leon and William Rubin of MoMA. “Are you half Jewish, Phong?” he gently said, to which I responded, “Are you half Vietnamese, sir?” We both laughed. Eventually the Rail’s Chris Martin conducted an extensive interview with Leon, which was published in the July/August issue three years ago.

Eighteen days later exactly about 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday the 12th of June, I brought a few issues of the Rail to Leon and Nancy at their studio in SoHo. We had a marvelous time together over tea and our common favorite Lu biscuits for the next three hours. By the time they walked me to the elevator door, since I had to catch a film at the Anthology Film Archives, both Leon and Nancy were already on the Rail’s Advisory Board.

For over the next two and a half years, with all of our struggles to continue publishing the Rail, I’ve always remembered Leon’s encouraging words: “We all have to RAIL against all the odds. It’s very important. You and your young friends are doing the right thing.” Besides being a great artist whose conscience and conviction went beyond his canvases and the relatively narrow boundaries of the New York art world, Leon’s strength and wisdom, and his skeptical humor and wit, were inspiring to all of his friends and fellow artists as well as to many social activists. His presence shall be greatly missed. The Rail salutes Leon, and we continue our fight from the front in his memory. We extend our deep gratitude and heartfelt condolences to his beloved wife Nancy, his three sons Stephen, Philip, Paul, and their families. —August 22, 2004


Phong Bui

David Levi Strauss

DAVID LEVI STRAUSS is the author of Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow (Aperture, 2014), From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual (Oxford University Press, 2010), Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics, with an introduction by John Berger (Aperture 2003, and in a new edition, 2012), and Between Dog & Wolf: Essays on Art and Politics (Autonomedia 1999, and a new edition, 2010). He is Chair of the graduate program in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and he is on the faculty of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.

Clayton Eshleman


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2004

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