Born in Chicago, Leon Golub received his B.A. in Art History at the University of Chicago and in the late 1940s studied art at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago under the G.I. Bill. Although spending the majority of his life in New York City, Golub was associated in his early career with the Chicago Imagists, most notably during the 1950s with the Monster Roster group. A figurative expressionist, who drew upon many sources ranging from Greek and Roman art to contemporary mass media, Golub’s art was charged from the start with political and social concerns. His single preoccupation was the institutional abuse of power and its consequences of violence, war, and human suffering. In the late 1970s, for example, he created a major project of two hundred accusatory portraits of public figures, dictators, and religious figures, including Fidel Castro, Francesco Franco, Ho Chi Minh, and Mao Tse Tung.
Continuing to work in figurative expressionist styles during the years dominated by minimal art and conceptual art, Golub’s art was out-of-fashion until the 1980s, when in his sixties he gained an international reputation. Political events and the advent of Neo-Expressionism in the work of a younger generation of artists helped establish him as an important precedent for the new art and as a timely figure. In the paintings of this period—mural-size canvases that were unframed and draped on walls—Golub, in the Mercenaries series and the White Squad paintings of the early 1980s, turned to themes of global terrorism and torture and to racial inequality and the oppression of peoples.