1883 Magazine

It’s poignant that an artist so consumed by grim death in his life’s work, allowed some humour in when confronted with his own mortality. Leon Golub is known for his haunted paintings, raw in their rabid look at violent death, war and torture. His work sits mostly in this category, yet the small wall of works from his final years take on an entirely different tone.

It would be going a little far to describe them as lighthearted. They all feature his classic macabre, ripped up bodies and thick, flesh-like oil stick; but, a new use of wording comes into play.Titles such as Man! Ive Got to Get Myself Together and scrawled, tongue-in-cheek one liners take this uncharacteristically personal look at death into the realms of parody. It’s safe to assume that Golub wasn’t attempting to undermine his former solemnity, but rather that in the face of his life’s subject matter - the Vietnam war, napalm attacks and mercenary violence - his own death appeared almost whimsical, despite its’ depressingly looming certainty. The inclusion of these works serve the brilliant function of separating singular, natural death from the death so present in his works; manmade, mass destruction.


Despite the spilled blood and flesh reminding the viewer of their human mortality, the causes of this bloodshed are always far from natural. They represent a biblical horror show of death that is entirely of our own making; both repulsive and unnecessary. Serpentine have curated this show by series, with a strong focus on his Gigantomachy, Napalm, Mercenaries and Interrogation groupings of work.

The earlier work references the sphinx - both benevolent and cruel, animal and man - and the gargantuan battles of the Gigantomachy from Greek Mythology. The transition from these works to the start of his war works make interesting comparisons between the god’s view seized by leaders of war, mercilessly pushing their troops into battle, and the ego of man in trying to reach a superhuman level of strength and power through the destruction of others. Are we taking our cue from the gods, or have we created the gods to fit our ideals and excuse our violent tendencies?


Golub strongly questions our accountability in his work. In one Napalm image, the nude figures lined up before three gunmen are not depicted as submissive victims. Instead, they’re chewing violently on each other’s arms. Both victims and perpetrators are consistently dead eyed, alien and heartless, merging into one singular look for all. The suggestion in many of his works is that even the perpetrators fall victim to the hellish circumstances they find themselves in. It’s a world of inherent cruelty, where everyone is lost. 

This invisible force of evil in all of Golubs work is the implied leadership, those who are calling the shots, profiting and gaining from this violence. The mercenaries appear almost as robots, carrying out killings for a higher power, used as political pawns to change leadership, conquer land and boost power. Whilst this death is presented as something wrong and in many ways unnatural, our universal ability to fall prey to this evil is suggested, with visual comparisons to wild dogs and lions. Perhaps this cruelty is in fact held in our nature, ready to be unlocked with the right persuasion. Interestingly, many of the figures’ movements and poses in the earlier work were taken from photographs of men playing sports. The fact that these movements can so easily be turned into something sinister suggest an underlying, animal violence, even in our apparently innocent pursuits.


Whilst Golub’s masterful and unflinching handling of political subject matter has earned him the status as one of the best post war artists to come out of America, his unusual aesthetic has also played a huge part in his cultural relevancy. He graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in the 50s and was heavily influenced by the Chicago Imagists - a rough, ‘unschooled’ style - yet, he divided his experimentation with the abstract painting that was developing in NYC at the time. Whilst this created a jarring effect and made it harder for him to align himself and gain immediate recognition, he created an entirely original aesthetic that’s held up over the years. Lacquer and acrylic is spread onto canvasses in a butter-thick style, and flakes from the surface like blood-crusted flesh and flayed skin.

Figures are mutated in a manner akin to abstract painting, yet at the same time they’re horrendously real. The skin on all the figures is muddied and scarred with blocks of red, brown and black paint, and both naked torture victims and clothed gunmen look burned and tarnished to a point of near death. This visceral, graphic aesthetic draws comparisons with Goya and The Chapman Brothers, but it somehow exceeds the violence of both. It’s less godly and intended than Goya’s work and far more real than the clownish violence of The Chapman Brothers. It really is difficult to think of any artist more committed to their violence and to showing it for what it really is. In today’s political landscape, this seems more relevant than ever.

Leon Golub: Bite Your Tongue will be running until 17th May at Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2 3XA


Words by Emily Steer 

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