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Prometheus II

Leon Golub
Prometheus II, 1998
Acrylic on linen
302.3 × 246.4 cm
Purchased 2000
Leon Golub, Prometheus II, 1998 © VAGA (New York)/SODART (Montreal) 2003

Leon Golub's career has spanned more than fifty years. After studying art history at the University of Chicago and completing an MFA at the Art Institute of Chicago, he lived for a time in Italy and Paris, returning to the United States in 1964. The earliest artistic influences on his work included cultural artifacts from Africa, Oceania, and the American northwest coast that he saw at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and late Roman and Etruscan sculptures that he saw in Italy. His work until the late 1960s focused on the nude male figure, rendered in a manner that borrowed from both primitivism and late-Classical vocabularies, at first presented singly and later in pairs or warring groups. His treatment of these figures was fully expressionist, incorporating heavily textured surfaces, distortion, and fragmentation. When the art world turned to neo-expressionism in the 1980s, his work became more fashionable. Golub is distinguishable, however, from his younger contemporaries by his broadly humanist vision and his insistence on addressing the "big" questions about the nature of man and the meaning of moral responsibility.

When Golub returned to the United States, his work underwent a shift toward a more objective, reportorial content and a simpler, flatter painterly treatment. Powerfully affected by the Vietnam War, he turned to such sources as newspaper and magazine photos, and for the first time he depicted men, and sometimes women, in contemporary dress and situations, with recognizable allusions to contemporary events. In the work for which he became known in the '70s and '80s, he concentrated his attention on the mercenaries and paramilitary forces who carried out the dirty work of war and oppression in Central America, South Africa, and elsewhere. The violence of these pictures is deeply troubling, the more so because their larger-than-life size and frontal composition cause the spectator to feel directly implicated in the situation they depict.

In late works, such as Prometheus II, Golub has chosen a subject that is both more personal and more symbolic. Prometheus, the Titan who was condemned by Zeus to the eternal torment of having his liver torn from his body by an eagle for the crime of stealing fire, is represented as a pathetic ruffian bemoaning his fate in very contemporary language. A sign reading "Public notice: Raptor sanction," and a broadsheet glued to the wall in front of him announcing "Guilty titan condemned" evoke the familiar world of media sensationalism and political correctness. When he first came to New York Golub was looking for subjects with an epic dimension, in reaction to the art world's coolly distanced stance at the time, and remarked to Irving Sandler in 1968 that he was particularly impressed with the magnitude of Orozco's Pomona College mural, The Triumph of Prometheus. Prometheus is more than the archetypal anti-hero. Having been employed by Zeus to make men out of mud and water, he stole fire from heaven for them, out of sympathy for their plight. Rival of Zeus in his creative power, and a kind of agent provocateur, he is emblematic of the artist himself. The pathos of Golub's representation of Prometheus could be an ironic expression of self-pity, resulting from the torment of his own diminished powers.