In her glowing review of Guy Goodwin’s previous exhibition at Brennan & Griffin, which appeared in the New York Times on March 8, 2012, Roberta Smith suggested that Goodwin belonged to the “tradition of raucous American abstraction,” which began with “Stuart Davis and George Sugarman.” As I see it, this strain of painting celebrates the darkly comical, embracing everything from the absurdities of domesticity to the preaching of Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith and the oversized upholstery of diner booths. Conscious of the fault lines running beneath the glossy surface of our culture, these artists recognize that appropriation and replication have become a way to betray Marcel Duchamp. Instead of proving their ancestry, many of the artists belonging to this strain have concocted a heady brew made of disparate sources so that their lineage is impossible to trace. They are proud mutts — painting’s equivalent of mixing oil and water.
Taking Smith’s review as a starting point, I want to advance that what gives this tradition its bite is the artists’ ability to contain the shrill without denying or softening it. In order to do so, they must possess the desire to bring together some unlikely combination that includes pessimism and absurdity — to be incongruous in ways that are uncanny and full of black humor. I also wouldn’t confine this tradition to abstraction. Rather, I see it as a spectrum occupied by Nicholas Krushenick, Elizabeth Murray, Joe Zucker, Thomas Nozkowski, Joanne Greenbaum, Dana Schutz, and Tom Burckhardt, with each defining a very particular territory. It also seems to me that this tradition — one of the most vital in postwar American art — has largely been ignored by institutions and institutional thinking, which prefers to promote black humor’s opposite — kitsch and cynicism, a palliative that doesn’t make the viewer uncomfortable
The formal underpinnings of Goodwin’s trajectory within this tradition can be seen in an early painting, “C-Swing” (1974), which, although relatively flat, evokes both a layered relief and a monolithic, sculptural presence. The other thing about this painting is that it was made by pressing cut-pieces of wood piled with paint against a taut surface. Clearly, Goodwin (like his friend and longtime supporter, David Reed) had trouble with the valorization of the brushstroke, among validated processes, as well as the myths regarding the painter’s touch — clichés about mastery and sensitivity. At the same time, neither he nor Reed wanted to join the ranks of the post-painterly club.
By the mid-1990s, in works such as “Chauncy Flats” (1996), Goodwin has given up all pretense towards flatness; he is patently working in relief and incorporating letters into his compositions. A decade later, in “Black Olive Oil” and “Black Broccoli” (both 2007), he has pushed his work further by seamlessly inculcating his idiosyncratic synthesis of American history, particularly the Civil Rights movement, with a quirky humor. A few years later, in 2012, Goodwin used the black-and-orange colors of the Symbionese Liberation Army’s logo in “Tania’s Day” to recall the transformation of the heiress Patty Hearst into the carbine-toting revolutionary, Tania. There was something overblown and cartoonish about this episode, a twisted psychodrama with each act played out on the nightly news. In his latest relief-paintings the artist seems to be channeling aspects of Ad Reinhardt, Edward Hopper, and Ed Ruscha, while making something that is completely his own. At the heart of his project is his unwavering belief in transformation (or slow art) rather than appropriation (or fast art).
By experimenting with the formal basis of his work, and by not being complacent with what it could produce, Goodwin was able to branch out into unexpected territory and open himself up to different influences. Instead of working within the history of art and its various modernist legacies, as defined by others, he began integrating his idiosyncratic formal understanding with his personal history. Goodwin has always been inclined to misbehave in his work, never fitting into any celebrated (or branded) stylistic tendency, and never forgetting that he was born in Alabama in 1940, where public gathering places, like diners, weren’t open to everyone.
Against this background, Goodwin’s use of black in “Black roccoli” and “Black Olive Oil — a color not usually equated with either broccoli or olive oil — takes on another meaning. While Andy Warhol claimed that he chose Coca-Cola as subject matter because everyone, including the Queen of England, drank it, he seems to have conveniently forgotten that not all stores and diners in America in the early 60s sold it to whomever walked in the door. As his camouflage self-portraits clarify, Warhol wanted to be absorbed into, as well as noticed by, the mainstream. That is to say, he wanted to be noticed, but he didn’t want to be seen. Goodwin, on the other hand, seems to have accepted early on in his career that he could never belong and didn’t try to assimilate, thereby risking not being noticed and not being seen.
In his exhibition New Paintings at Brennan & Griffin, which closes today, Goodwin has moved further into the new territory that he has defined for himself over the past twenty years. And really, these works are not like anyone else’s, which is still the dream, isn’t it? They aren’t nostalgic for Abstract Expressionism nor are they the latest spin-off of Pop Art. They neither cite nor parody a historical style or approach, such as Color Field painting or Minimalism. Part relief, part painting, and part collage (they are made out of stapled layers of cardboard), they are not easily categorized as Romantic throwbacks or antiseptic replications, which seem to be the antipodal positions within which everyone is orbiting these days, looking for air. Goodwin hasn’t spent his career looking over his shoulder. If anything, he belongs to that current of tough-minded iconoclasts who have persisted in going their own way, refusing to make work that kowtows before the various invested narratives of what should and should not be done. More than anything else, this is what he shares with the artists I previously cited.
Goodwin finds the cardboard for these works on the streets of various neighborhoods in the industrial sections of Brooklyn and Queens. The paintings are labor-intensive, but they are also joyful and high-spirited, lending credence to our belief in American ingenuity. They resemble monochromatic king-sized beds with head and footboards affixed to a large white, cardboard surface, but with an oddly shaped area carefully gouged out. While the viewer is likely look for a one-to-one correlation between the contours of the gouged out area and one of the large, jigsaw puzzle-like shapes, there is none to be found. Rather, the two areas evoke a visual rhyme of positive and negative, of addition and subtraction.
Each pillowy piece is painted a single bright color, its carefully stacked shapes successively smaller than the one beneath it. The ensemble feels like the aftermath of a party, with its rounded shapes extending up the sides of the painting’s box-like structure, lying across the surface and, in some cases, overlapping one other. We seem to be both looking at and into something — an aerial view of a multi-leveled entertainment room strewn with brightly colored, oddly shaped pillows and other fluffy furnishings, a suburbanite’s basement fantasy of how people a few steps up the financial ladder relax.
Titles such as “Blue Lagoon Room” (2014) and “Chicken Finger Palace” (2014), however, underscore the tawdriness lurking within the adamantly cheerful colors. Add to this unlikely mix the repeatedly punctured surface of the layered cardboard — the result of the staples being removed — and you are apt to feel the frustration, boredom and violence inherent in overdone merriment. If Goodwin’s cartoonish forms remind you of the breaded, cheesy piles of cholesterol-laden food served up in identically furnished chain restaurants across the country, this is the America he has witnessed up close, and despite the conflicted feelings he has about it, what comes across is a wellspring of tenderness and love.
New Paintings continues at Brennan & Griffin (55 Delancey Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through June 1.