Great art is magnetic. It should make you stop in your tracks, allowing you to see something differently or provoke some sort of reaction and/or dialogue. It should make you feel something, for the worst thing that art can do is be mediocre to the full extent of the word.
Fortunately enough, in a world full of mediocre art to sift through, “Head II”, painted by Leon Golub, is anything but mediocre. Displayed in a top floor exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, “Head II” is not the largest, brightest colored, or owner of the most interesting title. And yet, it manages to attract the eye.
As one would gather from the title, the composition consists of a human head. Attention is drawn to the left eye and the mouth since these are the most concentrated shapes. Cleverly enough, this is consistent with our visual focus when engaging in face-to-face conversation; we tend to look at one eye at a time and fill in auditory gaps with cues from the lips. The head itself is also rather androgynous, allowing the viewer a greater option to connect the sentiment of the painting to themselves or anyone else they see fit. This reveals the entire foundation of the piece to be highly universal and intimately personal.
The palate is exceptionally muted, consisting mostly of neutral colors: off-whites, grey-browns, and beiges. To provide a stronger sense of line though, Golub highlights aspects of the face with umber, black, and ultramarine blue. The effect is both clean and stunning.
Texturally, the best way to describe “Head II” is raw. The painting is patchy and exposed with layers of paint peeled back and scraped away, only to make room for additional layers destined to endure the same process. Combined with his use of eroded lacquer-based paint (a solvent-based paint that leaves a shiny, hard, durable finish), the result is an incredibly weathered feel.
The best part about this painting is the numerous possibilities for rich interpretation. Maybe it’s about growing old. Maybe it’s about ancestry. Maybe it’s about impermanence. You could stand there for hours coming up with new ways to look at it without relying on some long-winded conceptual explanation to provide meaning or that simply gets in the way.