Leon Golub and Cy Twombly’s Vietnam: Towards an Aesthetics of Violence

drawing of a soldier carrying a rifle on his shoulder i Leon Golub ‘Vietnam III’, 1974 (detail). Photo: Jon Bird

In this talk Jon Bird reflects upon the figuring of a historical event – the Vietnam War – in the work of two artists, Leon Golub and Cy Twombly, one figurative, the other abstract. However, as Bird will argue, these designations break down upon examination of the broader question of what it means to represent the historical past, not as description but as an act of remembrance. Both Golub and Twombly made large-scale History paintings whose ostensible subject was the  war in S.E Asia. Golub’s three monumental Vietnam paintings were made between 1972-1974, during the latter stages of the conflict; Twombly’s ten-part series ‘Fifty Days at Iliam’ was begun in 1978 in Italy and completed the following year, six years after the war ended. Although Bird’s primary focus is Golub, it is the reading of Twombly by Mary Jacobus that initiated these thoughts on an ‘aesthetics of violence’ as both artists ‘engage with war as a crucial aspect of modernity’. Bird will also add that both artists address issues of masculinity as a time of crisis in gender roles in American society.

Jon Bird is Emeritus Professor of Art and Critical Theory at the University of Middlesex. His latest book publications include Leon Golub ‘Powerplay’: The Political Portraits (Reaktion, 2016) and with Phil Cleaver, Delete and Insert R (Impress, 2016). He has recently published articles on Jenny Holzer’s war paintings and Cy Twombly. In 2016 he curated Leon Golub: Poweplay – The Political Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London.


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19 Mar 2018

The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London