FUCK DEATH, says the first piece you see in “Live and Die Like a Lion?,” a drawing of a purple skull bracketed above and below by the title, handwritten in capital letters. The piece’s brashness and acknowledgment of mortality echo in the bawdy, bitter works that follow.
Leon Golub (1922–2004) created these 42 8"?x?10" drawings during the last five years of his life, when it became too difficult for the artist to wrangle his customary ten-foot-tall paintings. There is one untitled large-scale painting on view, however, which Golub began in 2001: Two lions, mere sketches in chalk and Conté crayon, lope together on the unfinished canvas. According to the wall text, the elegant animals represent Golub and his wife, artist Nancy Spero (1926–2009).
Golub and Spero left Chicago in 1959 and spent most of their lives in New York, but the Chicago art world has always been eager to claim them. Both attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Golub, a Chicago native, did so on the G.I. Bill, after taking printmaking classes at the South Side Community Art Center. The couple belonged to Chicago’s Monster Roster, a group of artists who, like the later Imagists, kept innovating in figuration despite the dominance of abstraction at the time.
When they moved back to the U.S. in 1964 after a stint in Paris, Golub and Spero began protesting the Vietnam War. Their work remained political throughout their careers. In 1971, the couple collaborated on a print for the portfolio Conspiracy: The Artist as Witness, which their friend Pearl Hirshfield, an Evanston artist, organized to raise funds for the Chicago Eight’s legal defense.
That piece is on view in “Leon Golub from the Collection,” a wonderful display of a dozen Golub prints, correspondence and ephemera that the Block Museum assembled to complement “Live and Die Like a Lion?,” which was curated by Brett Littman, director of New York’s Drawing Center. The stark diptych pairs a black-and-white photo of a machinelike Golub sculpture with Spero’s illustration of a human figure in a spiky red circle, alongside the Antonin Artaud quote “They will torture you, my friend.” Golub made the powerful print Merc (1984), also at the Block, for Artists Call Against U.S. Intervention in Central America. A mercenary in red flashes a chilling grin above his black gun.
Though the drawings in “Live and Die Like a Lion?” aren’t direct responses to human-rights violations, they’re almost as confrontational as Golub’s earlier work. Old age and death are the atrocities he rails against, as an overwhelming focus on sex suggests one last hurrah. The two themes combine in He Was a Worthy Man (2003), a drawing of a contemplative nude resting one hand on a skull.
Golub grabs viewers’ attention by placing striking figures—leering satyrs, voluptuous women, skeletons, or lions and dogs—against swaths of intense color and bold text. His ability to execute detailed scenes in a single hue is particularly impressive: Using an oil stick, the artist laid down thick layers of color, which he then scraped away. The reductive process resembles the way he made his paintings, which he famously altered with a meat cleaver.
While two vitrines hold Golub’s art supplies and photographic source materials, they don’t add much to the exhibition. The wall text and catalog offer more valuable context, explaining that the artist’s ubiquitous dogs signify companionship but also wildness and a post-apocalyptic world without humans. Lions tend to be stand-ins for people, as in the title drawing (pictured). Golub found an answer to its question, ending his career with power and dignity.