Friday, 8:59am
27 March 2015

Cut canvas

Leon Golub: Bite Your Tongue

Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2 3XA, UK

War, the human condition and ‘a machine that turns out monsters’. Leon Golub at the Serpentine

Serpentine gallery in Hyde Park presents ‘Bite Your Tongue’, a survey of American artist Leon Golub, curated by Emma Enderby, for the first exhibition of his work in London since 2000, writes Sean Eckhardt.

Golub (1922-2004) began his career at the Chicago Institute of Art, studying as a beneficiary of a GI bill scholarship after the Second World War. During this time, he developed an appreciation for the importance of the human form, in line with a style that dominated the 1950s art in Chicago. Golub’s work straddles the line between abstraction and figuration.

Colossal Torso II, 1959.
Top: Bite Your Tongue, 2001.

1 Colossal Torso II

Installation image, Serpentine Gallery, 2015.

6 Installation View

His process was laborious and physical – acrylic paint and lacquer were allowed to dry and subsequently scraped off, a process that was repeated, resulting in heavy texture and rough geometric patterns. This aggressive technique extended to the canvas: Golub cut directly into the fabric for further textural effect. This is especially apparent in Vietnam I, which graphically portrays the violence of the Vietnam War, where the cloth itself is butchered into a gun-like shape.

Vietnam I, 1972.

2 Vietnam I

As a cartographer for the American military during the Second World War, Golub developed anti-war views and actively protested the Vietnam War throughout the 1960s. He gained inspiration from the media coverage of the war and from photographs in mercenary trade magazines. From these sources, he combined fragments from various images to use as source material for his stark, vivid scenes. Whereas many of Golub’s abstract expressionist contemporaries were creating anti-war images that were difficult to interpret, his paintings were brutally direct. In his lifetime, Golub often described himself as, ‘A machine that turns out monsters.’

Interrogation III, 1981.

4 Interrogation III

The collection shows the progression of an artist who celebrated a sense of deliberate randomness. ‘He chose to make things somewhat random; by that it becomes very designed’, said Enderby. ‘It’s almost like orchestrated randomness, a design within itself, something that is very carefully considered.’

His work took on a different aesthetic in the 1990s focusing much less on the human form and more on graphic elements such as patterns, slogans and text for a much more fragmented, collage-like style that highlights a somewhat dystopian view of urban life, especially in Beware of Dog and Bite Your Tongue the painting after which the exhibition is named.

Leon Golub: Bite Your Tongue’ continues until 17 May 2015 at the Serpentine Gallery in London.

Mercenaries IV, 1980. All images © Reads 2015.

3 Mercenaries IV

Sean Eckhardt, media intern, Eye

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.