Head V (1958)
Oil on canves
34.0 x 24.0 x 2.0
University Club of Chicago
A large retrospective exhibit was curated by Jon Bird, Leon Golub: Paintings 1950-2000, with the catalogue, Leon Golub: Echoes of the Real, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin and Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, 2001.
Head V (1958) is an example of Golub’s single male figures from the 1950s. Completed before he moved to Paris, this work is from the early part of Golub’s career, just as the Monster Roster was concluding.
The single, forward-facing figure foregrounds an abstract, ambiguous space. The totem figure fills almost all of the represented space and is comprised of two block-like shapes and no limbs. Distinct from other paintings of the time, the figure’s features are well defined. But the overall expression is vacant and detached from any clear emotion or state of being.
In this lack of facial expression, the scrapes and smears of paint on the canvas lead the figure’s corporeal surface to express its weathered history. The skin of the figure appears worn, scarred, and weathered, which communicates the totem figure’s history of trauma and violence.
To create this effect, Golub would build his figures with paint, and after a clean smooth surface was created, he would attack the surface with lacquer, digging into the paint and eroding the figure. Through this technique, the textured surface of the canvas also becomes a ravaged representation of the flesh of his figures.
The duality of referencing a totem and portrait painting, which are both historical representations of power, authority, and longevity, coupled with the aggressive treatment of the surface, creates a figure that is simultaneously strong and weak, monumental and fleeting, hero and victim.
Head V captures the complex relationship of violence, power, and pain in Leon Golub’s career-long exploration of the human figure.