Tom McGlynn
on Leon Golub

Leon Golub, Gigantomachy II, 1966. Acrylic on linen, 9 ft. 11 1/2 in. x 24 ft. 10 1/2 in. © The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

I first met Leon Golub when the samizdat literary magazine I was co-editing, Ferro-Botanica (1980 – 1986) solicited an interview. Both he and his wife, the artist Nancy Spero, were quite generous with access to their studios, accommodating myself and my friends who at the time were just beginning to inscribe our mark in the New York art world. As it turned out it was also a pivotal point in Golub’s career. Concurrently, exhibitions such as The Anxious Figure Show of 19811, emphasized the figure as form and subject, an approach also reenergized by artists including Eric Fischl, David Salle, and Cindy Sherman. Consequently Golub’s long prior preoccupation with figuration was seen in a new light. In a signal show held at Susan Caldwell Gallery of monumental canvases entitled Mercenaries and Interrogations (January 1982), Golub’s work became more broadly appreciated in the contemporary art scene.2 I was fortunate to see examples of these works in process during many eye-opening visits to his and Spero’s studios on LaGuardia Place in lower Manhattan, where my colleagues and I would also discuss Golub’s conceptual and working methods with him. The most well-known method included applying, then scraping, multiple layers of paint with a meat cleaver. His processes were necessarily quite physical as his canvases were very large, but witnessing first-hand the brio of pictorial “sculpting” he engaged in, was remarkable. What put Leon in a category all his own was the fact that he painted as if he was a relief sculptor. Also instructive was noting his process of compiling clippings from Soldier of Fortune and various news and pornographic references which he kept in file folders. These reminded me of how Rodin kept a fragmentary inventory of small gestural castings on hand that he would recombine in different ways to thematically connect, via an index of his own making, different developmental extensions of his overall aesthetic. Because this show is only a small selection of works based on the gift to the Met of Gigantomachy II (1966), the exhibition itself has a fitting fragmentary-yet-unified feel that mirrors Golub’s very process.


  1. Curated by Barry Blinderman, then director of Semaphore Gallery in Soho, the show included Robert Longo, John Ahern, and Keith Haring, among others.
  2. These paintings were created concurrently with the United States intervention into El Salvador and were strongly influenced by contemporary headlines of the death squads and attendant institutionalized torture.


Tom McGlynn

TOM McGLYNN is an artist and frequent contributor to Artseen.