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Jon Bird: Leon Golub

Leon Golub

Leon Golub retrospective at Reina Sofia Museum

6 May to 12 September 2011, Madrid

Jon Bird, Professor of Art and Critical Theory, whose book on Leon Golub was released in a second edition in March, has curated a major show of the American artist’s work in the Spanish capital.

In contrast with the predominant conceptualisation of painting as an autonomous and purely visual medium during the post-war period, Leon Golub (Chicago, 1922-2004) and his work moved against the current in the United States. This retrospective includes drawings and paintings that demonstrate the value of pictorial features as a narrative and symbolic expression of sociopolitical relationships and the effects of power on contemporary society. Golub’s painting, somewhere between the figurative and the grotesque, explores violence and oppression using the body as a sign of identity.

The exhibition, which was three years in planning, encompassed all aspects of Leon Golub’s practice of ‘history painting’, from the early 1950s to the late works – small drawings and paintings completed between 2000 and 2004. Over 100 paintings and drawings were exhibited, drawn from public and private collections in America, Britain and Europe. The selection of works and design of the exhibition (a collaboration between Bird and the architect Marcos Coralles) emphasised the major themes of Golub’s practice over a fifty year period, from early classically influenced works, through the Vietnam paintings, the works of the 1980s to the introduction of dogs, lions and text in the paintings of the 1990s, Golub’s ‘late style’. During the final four years of his life (the artist died in 2004), he was mostly occupied with small paintings (exhibited at Documenta XI) and drawings on vellum and board, works which drew upon the dominant themes of his work: sexuality, masculinity, mythology, the technological body, and mortality. A documentation room displayed selected images, catalogues and other material relevant to the exhibition and films and videos on the artist were also screened. The exhibition, accompanied by an educational programme of talks and screenings, opened May 2011 and ran for four months. A total of 113,000+ visitors to the exhibition were recorded and there was extensive press and media coverage.

There was an extensive critical response to the exhibition in Madrid. Overall, the press office of Reina Sofia recorded over eighty separate press items on the exhibition between May and September 2011. Favourable reviews appeared in major national and international daily newspapers, including El Pais; El Mundo; Il Sole 24 Ore; The Wall Street Journal Weekend. Bird was interviewed by the television channel Telemadrid, and the online news channel EuroNews and Radio National de Espana 1 both broadcast news of the event. Furthermore, the official video of Bird’s introduction to the exhibition had over 2,600 views on YouTube.

Following on from the exhibition at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid and the accompanying book, Prof Bird has continued his research on Leon Golub with outputs in preparation for 2015/2016. Most recently he contributed to the exhibition The Nakeds at The Drawing Room in London and was speaker at the symposium organized to accompany the exhibition. He is collaborating with the Serpentine Gallery on their forthcoming exhibition on Leon Golub and he is co-organizing and he is the keynote speaker for a conference on the work of the artist. The exhibition opens early March and the conference is late April 2015. Simultaneously he is co-organizer (Prof Mignon Nixon) and contributor to a symposium on Golub to be held March 2015 at the Cortauld Institute in London. Prof Bird is curator of an exhibition of Golub’s political portraits (Portraits of Power) for the National Portrait Gallery which will open in February 2016. He is also editor and co-author to a book accompanying the exhibition to be published by Reaktion Books in 2016. He is currently writing an essay on the early paintings of Golub (1950s-60s) for an exhibition of the Chicago Monster Roster Group to be held at the Smart Museum, University of Chicago, early 2016.

Job Bird introduces the exhibition for the Reina Sofia video channel:

Leon Golub Retrospective Catalogue

Leon Golub is a fully illustrated book/catalogue produced to accompany the retrospective exhibition at the Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid, published in two versions – English and Spanish. Edited by Jon Bird, it includes essays by him, Jo Anna Isaak, Serge Guilbaut and Satish Padayar. The publication was intended to introduce Golub to a new audience in Spain and to present new research on previously neglected aspects of his practice. Bird's essay, ‘Reality Bites: The Ferocious Art of Leon Golub’ traces the aesthetic and thematic developments and innovations of Golub’s artistic career from the 1950s to 2004, arguing that his practice represents a form of critical realism which engaged, through a formal and expressive visual language, with an ethics of seeing. Included in this essay is a section on paintings never before exhibited or critically reviewed, the so-called ‘abstracts’ (Gates, Shields and Pylons) of the early 1970s, arguing that these works should be considered as a counter-narrative to contemporaneous developments in American modernism.


Leon Golub: Echoes of the Real

The second edition of Professor of Art and Critical Theory Jon Bird’s book on Leon Golub has been published by Reaktion Books.

Leon Golub (1922–2004) was a leading exponent of history painting – painting as a narrative, symbolic expression of global, social and political relations and of the realities of power. In this revised and expanded second edition of Leon Golub: Echoes of the Real, Jon Bird examines the artist’s work from the classically influenced early paintings through depictions of conflict and masculine aggression to the compelling images of Golub's last two decades.

Despite the widespread critical attention Golub’s work has received, the range and extent of his practice and its complex interweaving of the iconographic traditions of both high and popular art have not been properly examined. As a history painter, Golub is acutely aware of the antecedents to his own imagery and symbolism; and part of Jon Bird’s examination of Golub’s work is to track and define the artist’s relationship to modernism. Making a case for the artist’s practice of ‘critical realism’ that also takes account of the unconscious, Bird focuses on two themes that dominate Golub’s work: how his art figures the body as a sign for social and psychic identity, and what might be termed the symbolic expression of social space.

Two new chapters and an Introduction to the Revised Edition have been added to Leon Golub: Echoes of the Real, (2000) which now covers the entire period of his artistic output (1949-2004). Here, Bird examines the artist’s use of photographic imagery as source material for his paintings and his extensive photographic archive. Tracing specific photographs and photographic fragments used as visual reference in a number of key works, the book discusses the transformation of the figure from documentary image to expressive composite within the context of Golub’s interrogation of the critical relations between photographic constructions of social reality and the pictorial medium of painting.