The abstract painter Michael Goldberg never felt the need to kill his artistic fathers, and he gladly acknowledged the roots of his originality.
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In the years just after the Second World War, the art world of downtown Manhattan entered into a self-consciously heroic phase. A place on this scene had to be earned, a bit like a merit badge, by racking up the requisite points. An artist acquired a handful from inclusion in the Ninth Street Show, in 1951, the sprawling exhibition with which the New York School proclaimed its existence to a Manhattan art world that had, until then, largely ignored it. More points were earned by frequenting the Club on West Eighth Street and taking part in—or at least listening to—the weekly round of tendentious arguments about aesthetic seriousness, authenticity, and how to make a modern painting. And of course it helped if one joined in the continuation of those arguments at the Cedar Tavern, on University Place. As for one’s art, it had to show at least a touch of desperation. Existentialist angst was the one Parisian import welcomed in the downtown art world. Contemporary French art was dismissed as mere cuisine—too carefully finished and irredeemably decorative.
Measured against this checklist, Michael Goldberg scored as high as any of his contemporaries, who included Alfred Leslie, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Norman Bluhm. Like them he faced a choice of father figures: Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning? Frankenthaler, for one, invented variations on Pollock. Goldberg and the others chose de Kooning. The canvas he sent to the Ninth Street Show offered variations on the older painter’s stabbing, slashing gesture. His first solo show, at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, followed in 1953. Having acquired distinctiveness by then, his was less Cubist than de Kooning, meaning less haunted by traditional drawing, and more insistent on the physical surface. At nearly every stage of his long career—he died in 2008 at the age of 83—Goldberg’s brushwork drew the eye to the palpable textures of pigment on canvas.
During the 1950s, Goldberg’s brushwork grew denser and more assured. Signs of angst acquired an elegance bordering on the debonair. Always hot, his palette drifted toward smoldering ochers and reds. Suddenly, in the early ’60s, he cleared the field. Covering the canvas with a dense layer of rusty red, he would accent it—or, perhaps, interrupt it—with a wide, bristly streak of white. This simplicity vanished for a moment, in mid-decade, as Goldberg returned to his brushy manner and mixed it, this time around, with abbreviated allusions to the devices of figure drawing. Simplicity reasserted itself in canvases divided into large sectors bordered by sweeping curves. Colors were subdued now, almost fully absorbed by a range of subtle brownish grays.
The 1970s brought a surprise—Goldberg the geometrician, a builder of elegantly incomplete grids. Deploying tape and bronze powder on architectural graph paper, he showed the practitioners of Minimalism that their seemingly impersonal forms, with their undeviating right angles and anonymous finishes, could be just an effective a vehicle of an individual sensibility as the most flagrantly painterly painting. In these works, Goldberg gestures not to make marks but to place the elements of his grids—and to inflect them with nicely calculated imperfections. When he turned to canvas during these years, he produced near-monochromes that gave way, in the mid-’70s, to starkly simplified patterns of color. These evolved quickly into black-on-white icons: a rough half-oval, for example, on an uninflected field. Goldberg had traveled far from the crowded, hyperactive style that put him on the New York School map. And when he returned to it, toward the end of the 1980s, he was wielding not only a brush but also an array of oil sticks.
With the latter he could lay down a wide block of color quivering with nuances of facture. Arranged in tilted patterns, like weightless building blocks, they gave his paintings a newly architectural feel. In these paintings, monumentality looms and is countered as the artist modulates his touch, inducing these floating elements to turn transparent and generate a delicately pictorial light. Setting aside his oil sticks, Goldberg would fill the surface of a canvas with tangled intensity that his earlier brushwork never attained. He did not have a late style. He had several, all of them ambitious, yet they do not try to persuade us that they succeed by surpassing his beginnings. Goldberg circled back on himself, constantly, and this caused him difficulties in certain precincts of the New York art world.
Styles of painting have of course been evolving since ancient times. With a glance, an expert can categorize the image on an Athenian vase as early, middle, or late. Yet it was only with the advent of modern times that stylistic innovation became both a deliberate policy and a transcendent value. Even as he acknowledged Cubist precedents, Piet Mondrian argued that his paintings were superior to anything Georges Braque or Pablo Picasso had done, for his spare geometries took the medium further into the future. Painters no longer make that sort of argument. Ever since the 1980s, when the ironies of recycling infiltrated the work of Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and so many other young painters, belief in the possibility—and the value—of the absolutely original breakthrough has lapsed.
There are earlier rejections of the modernist faith in progress to be found, if one knows where to look. Francis Picabia’s pin-up paintings are not the work of an artist primarily interested in making it new. Joseph Cornell’s art turned him, nostalgically, away from the future and back to the past. And even among abstract painters, historically the most obsessed with the precedent-shattering innovation, there were those who rejected the avant-garde ideal of permanent revolution—as Alfred F. Barr, Jr., noted, with disapproval, when he visited the artists’ Club in 1958.
The Museum of Modern Art’s guiding spirit and first director, Barr represented the New York art-world establishment. Wreathed in authority, he brought the denizens of the Club—especially ones of Goldberg’s generation—an unwelcome message. Too many of them were failing to live up to their avant-garde responsibilities. Rather than rejecting their elders, they were embracing them. Consequently, their art offered variations on early developments but no radical departures. No breakthroughs.
Barr aimed his scolding primarily at those younger painters who were happy to be seen as disciples of Willem de Kooning—Grace Hartigan, among them. Incensed by Barr’s remarks, she could only shout her disagreement. Goldberg was calmer, though just as thoroughly convinced that Barr was wrong. Years later he said that the emissary from the Modern struck him as “an eloquent guy who had no idea about the mechanics of painting, no interest in uncertainty. He was a programmatic man with this preconceived idea of painting’s progress—the Freudian idea that you have to kill your father. What he could not understand is that, downtown, one never considered the Oedipal pattern. That’s the product of hostile feeling about authority, which we weren’t especially interested in feeling.”
It wasn’t that Goldberg and Hartigan and the other painters who came to be known as Second-generation Abstract Expressionists wanted to be good sons and daughters. They wanted to be interesting sons and daughters. The ambition was not to kill but to honor their fathers by contributing to a tradition they understood as liberating precisely because it felt familial.
Nonetheless, certain questions hung in the air: didn’t everything valuable in modern culture emerge from generational conflict? What would have become of painting if Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet, and the Impressionists hadn’t resisted the imperatives of the academy? Doesn’t each new generation of artists have a responsibility to understand precedents as chains and struggle to throw them off? What, then, was to be made of the post-de Kooning generation’s willingness to accept precedent and even, at times seem to celebrate it? A year after Barr’s visit to the Club, Artnews asked its contributors if, in spite of the avant-garde’s persistent impatience with the past, a new academy has cropped up and established itself.
A writer as well as a Second-generation Abstract Expressionist, Willem de Kooning’s wife Elaine said that of course there was a new academy. “In the ‘old’ academies,” she went on, “originality was not a value: they knew it could not be borrowed. In the New Academy, originality is the only value. And the only question is, Who’s who—to which our New Academicians have be answering, ‘It’s me who’s him.’” By Barr’s standards, she was contradicting herself. If “me” and “him” are so easily confused, then much art had become academic in the old sense. And yet, with a subtlety that looks forward to the present’s disbelief in the possibility of the avant-garde, Elaine de Kooning was suggesting that, in practical fact, even those artists who proclaim their devotion to the new often share more with each other and their predecessors than they are willing to admit.
She and the other “New Academicians” saw the imperative to break with the past as an empty bit of Sturm und Drang, melodrama at the scale of art history. For them, originality did not require a denial of the past. Rather, it required the artist to achieve an individuality with roots deep in the past that gives the very idea of serious art its intelligibility. In a 2001 interview with the critic and curator Saul Ostrow, Goldberg said, “I consider myself an old-fashioned modernist.” Like Elaine de Kooning’s comments on the academy, this declaration relieves crucial terms of their ordinary meanings. For Goldberg did not, of course, mean that he was a modernist of the kind that strives tirelessly to discover new aesthetic territory. He was a modernist, he explained, “in that I think painting could change the world. And [my] desperation is about the fact that I know it can’t.” This fiction of art’s utopian force—a fiction he questioned even as he strove to sustain it—was woven into the art world where he lived and worked for so many decades. Thus it was no less a collaborative work of the imagination than the style of painting Goldberg shared with others of his generation—and which, even as he shared it, he made so thoroughly his own.
By Carter Ratcliff