On an end-of-summer Sunday, I met Brenda Goodman, along with our respective significant others, at her local haunt in upstate New York, the Phoenecia Diner. “It’s the hot spot,” she has warned me in advance, but I’m still surprised by the crowds waiting outside for brunch. When the hostess realizes we are with Goodman and her partner Linda, we are whisked directly to a perfect windowed booth. They are on a first name basis with the waitstaff, who are in turn familiar with their usual orders and special requests. Once seated, Goodman gets down to business. “What I want to know,” she says, looking at me pointedly, “is why you hadn’t interviewed me sooner.”
There are no art world games or fake niceties with Goodman. She is not going to pull any punches — interpersonally, or in her work. Perhaps it’s this very rawness and truth telling which has earned her a large, devoted following. She doesn’t trade in theory or art speak. She talks about her tools, how she makes the work, and the impulses and emotions behind it: ambition, fear, death, shame. And whether in her self-portraits, or across the table at brunch, she looks back at us, as if to demand why that’s not all we care about, too.
Goodman’s work has moved between abstraction and figuration for several decades. She is known for self-portraits, shown overweight and naked, alone in the studio, holding brushes, or jamming globs of impasto paint into her mouth. Her more recent work still evokes the body: limbs reaching out, bodies curled up into balls. She paints on hollow core doors, first cutting into them with linoleum cutters and ice picks and attachments to her Dremel drill, to incise the surface with “automatic writing” that guides the development of forms.
It feels appropriate that Goodman paints on these hard, coarse surfaces. Hers are not paintings meant to gently ingratiate themselves. Instead, they demand that we face discomfort, longing, and our subconscious, as well as beauty. The space between the suggestion of recognizable forms and unnameable abstraction guides us to dig deep, alongside her.
Brenda Goodman was born in 1943, in Detroit, Michigan, and lives and works in Pine Hill, New York. She received her BFA from the College for Creative Studies, from which she also received an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts in 2017. After moving to New York City in 1976, her work was included in the 1979 Whitney Biennial and she has had 40 solo exhibitions. In 2015, a 50-year retrospective was presented at the College for Creative Studies, Detroit. Recent solo exhibitions were held at David & Schweitzer Contemporary, New York, and Jeff Bailey Gallery, Hudson, NY. She will be the subject of a solo exhibition at The Landing Gallery, Los Angeles, in January 2020. Her work is represented by Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, which first presented her work in a solo exhibition in January – February 2019.
Jennifer Samet: Did you have any formative experiences as a child in Detroit that led you to artmaking?
Brenda Goodman: I did do small paintings and drawings as a kid, but I wasn’t one of those kids who knew at three years old that I was going to be an artist. I had a family that did nothing and went nowhere. My father was a workaholic. No one took me to the museum — ever. We didn’t go on vacations; I don’t remember books in the house; there was no music in our family. I had a teacher in third grade who had all the students sing in front of the whole class. But when I got up and started, he said, “No, not you, Brenda.”
I couldn’t even sing “Happy Birthday” like everyone else at a celebration in a restaurant. I didn’t know what it meant to match a note. My partner, Linda, and I would go for walks up the road and she would get me to practice singing. For months we did this, and when I had my 60th birthday at a restaurant, I was able to sing like everybody else. I’m so proud of myself. I started taking singing lessons with an opera singer. I have never worked so hard in my entire life. There’s a series of works I made called “Songs.” I would have a lesson and then go home and paint the experience of the lesson.
JS: Despite this background you ended up at the school in Detroit which was then called The Society of Arts and Crafts. How did that happen, and what was your experience there?
BG: I had a friend in high school and we started doing things together like crumpling paper and putting ink on it. I found out that there was this private art school in Detroit. I took an evening class in high school. And I made a little portfolio and was accepted with a full scholarship. My school taught fundamentals: how to stretch a canvas and use rabbit skin glue. I learned about composition and they had us draw a skull for six months.
My teacher, Sarkis Sarkisian, wouldn’t let us use paint for the first six months. We were just doing little thumbnail still life compositions. After that, he let us use earth colors. And then, he let us use red and blue and the rest. Sarkisian said, “Every square inch should breathe.” I remember that like it was yesterday.
Once, I was working very carefully on a 5 by 7-inch painting with different shades of lavender and perfect little shapes. My teacher, Sam Pucci, saw it and said, “Hey Brenda, you’re painting like an old lady!” That was a turning point for me. Everything changed after that.
I wouldn’t trade my background for anything. Students aren’t taught this way anymore. When I saw the Whitney Biennial, I thought that a lot of the paintings looked like they were done in art school. I think a lot of young artists don’t want to take the time to really learn a craft. I used to tell students, “If you really want to learn how to use oil paint, you need to take five or six or seven years out of your life and learn, experiment with as many tools and techniques as you possibly can. Learn all these things before you get out in the world and people are putting pressure on you to start showing.”
They don’t even teach glazing in schools now. I think it’s one of the most important tools I ever learned. One of my biggest gripes is when students are preparing their MFA shows and the faculty tells them, “Make sure your work is consistent.” No! They shouldn’t be consistent. There should be one of every kind of painting they can imagine in their show. They should experiment. For me, every time I find a new tool, my work opens up to a whole new place.
JS: Who were your artist friends in Detroit?
BG: There was a group called the Cass Corridor, and in the early 1970s, I was friends with a lot of the people in that group. We had a cooperative gallery called The Willis Gallery, where we had shows. In 1980, there was a museum show of all of our work: Kick Out the Jams. The exhibition traveled from Detroit to Chicago.
My work was different from the other Cass Corridor artists. They were mostly guys who used materials like barbed wire and surfaces with bullet holes. Detroit was a rough place and they were representing the city. My work had a surreal feeling, and it was very personal. It was based on what was going on in my life at the time. But we were still a group and it was really nice.
When my first solo show was on view at the Willis Gallery, Jack Tworkov was in town and he saw the show with the art dealer Gertrude Kasle. Tworkov said, “You should show her.” So she gave me a show in 1974. I was the only local person in her stable. In one group show, my painting was alongside a Guston and a Tworkov. It was incredible. Gertrude was the real deal.
Philip Guston came to my studio once when I was in Detroit. So many aspects of his work resonate with me. For example, I used to have a lot of anxiety around the telephone — wondering if people were going to call me; when they were going to call me. Then, one day, I was looking at a book on still lives and there was a painting by Guston of a single black phone on a table! Years after Guston died, I went to his house in Woodstock. He had a cabinet full of cadmium red paint, and his daughter gave me a couple of tubes.
JS: Your early work had a diaristic aspect. Can you talk about that?
BG: Yes, it was like that for a really long time. The work was like a daily diary. I would paint what was going on in my life using symbols to represent different people. In Detroit I made a painting titled after a Faye Kicknosway poem, “The Cat Approaches.” It included an abstracted heart shape that I created for myself because I wanted to feel more connected to my feelings. I had a very tough exterior in Detroit and I wanted more softness to come through.
Back in those days, I would go home to the studio and paint everything that happened in my life. When my mother died, I made a series of paintings about her. Later, when I weighed 200 pounds, I made self-portraits. I was dealing with food issues, and looking at myself, and allowing the painting be a mirror for what I needed to change about myself. It worked. I lost a lot of weight. Then I put it on again and lost it again. But that’s beside the point.
In the 1980s I did a series of room paintings. They were mostly empty rooms with just a few things in them that suggested a story. Then I painted one room that had nothing in it, which was a big risk. It just had light coming through the doorway. It turned out that a friend of mine had bone cancer and she bought the painting for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Before she gave it to them, she lived with it, and she said it felt like a peaceful place to deal with dying. At that point, I said to myself, “Okay, you can throw all your brushes away now, Brenda. You can quit painting.” Because as far as I was concerned, that was the ultimate.
JS: Your work shifted significantly in 1985. Can you talk about that transition?
BG: Yes, I was doing very tight surrealist paintings in the mid-1980s. It got to the point where everything had to be so exact and perfect. I found I had no place to go. I remember Susan Rothenberg saying, “There should be a surprise every time you turn the corner.”
That was around 1984-85. I decided to quit smoking and said, “I’m going to go on a journey.” I was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. I made a series of paintings called “Voyage” which shows some of the shapes I had been working with on a boat in the water. I left my studio for a year, because I knew I couldn’t paint without a cigarette. The connection between being in the studio and smoking was so strong.
I used to go to FOOD, the artist restaurant in Soho. I had an “office” at the first table by the window. One day I brought some 6 x 8-inch index cards with me and just started doing scribbles – automatic writing. I saw shapes in them, and I started pulling them out as forms to work with. It was so free, compared to the tight surrealist painting I was doing. It took me into a whole new place. I did several small paintings, and then 36 x 50-inch paper pieces in oil, and then bigger paintings. It was very exciting to me.
JS: How did you move from the figurative work of the 2000s into abstraction?
BG: In 2010, my dog Pookie died. She was an Australian shepherd and we had her 15 years. She was a perfect dog: happy, smart; she was like my soul dog. It was the first time in my life that I couldn’t paint. It was too painful, so I stayed out of my studio for nine months. Then something started to shift and, finally, I made a painting called “Quandary” (2011), which showed how paralyzed I felt. It is a self-portrait in the studio, looking out at the viewer. On the studio walls are images of actual paintings of mine and an imaginary painting of Pookie’s dead body on a blanket on the floor. But I didn’t do any other self-portraits after that.
At that point, there was another shift in my work, into abstractions. This was the time when I had a couple of shows at Michael David’s gallery in Bushwick. I began using a linoleum cutter. I was more interested in colors and shapes and forms, and I was trusting that what was inside me was going to come out. I was concerned about letting go of the work with which I was identified: tough, emotional, difficult, dark, paintings. But people still felt the same humanness and heart that they had always felt in my work. That pleases me to no end.
JS: Perhaps because you’ve done a lot of work that involves images of the body, people have said the cuts in the wood surface evoke scarring on the skin. Do you think of it like that?
BG: That’s something people bring to it. I don’t think it has anything to do with scarring. I’m using the linoleum cutter to do automatic writing. I used to do it with black oil marks all across the surface. Now I’m just doing it with the linoleum cutter: pulling out and using the shapes and forms which are generated, and letting that lead to the next shape. I mean, I like the feeling of using the tool; it’s a way of getting energy out into the big surfaces. In the new work, I’m also bringing back a lot of my old techniques and I keep pushing them in new ways. I have also started using a Dremel Drill. It has different attachments and bits, so I can make deeper marks.
JS: Do you think of the abstract paintings as being diaristic in any way, or recording a place, space, or mood?
BG: No. Some abstract painters say that kind of thing about their work: “I was thinking about an emotional experience, or a special place.” I would not trust that. You can glue a story to them, but they are abstract paintings.
I am the last person who could answer if you asked, “What do these all mean?” I have no idea what they mean. And why is that even important? It could be the worst news day, and it’s not going to be in the work. I just take a surface and start working into it. I’m not thinking. I’m trusting in the process.
There are a few exceptions. When I was making the painting, “Impending,” (2018), I was listening to the news, and it got in my head that a large black shape in the painting represented Trump. Towards the end of working on the painting, I added a gray ball shape. There was also a curving form that some people considered figural. Once I added the gray ball, I saw the curved form as embracing and protecting the ball. So, it had a particular meaning. However, generally, there is not a narrative in the work any longer, or hardly any.
JS: You have said that a goal of yours is to eliminate any wall between the viewer and the work. What do you mean by that and how does it manifest itself?
BG: I was really speaking about the self-portraits when I said that. However, I realize that even in the abstractions, whoever I am, and all my experiences, come out in the work. When I look at other painting, the work which sustains me is work where I believe the artist; I trust what they are doing and saying. I can feel that right away.
JS: Who are some examples for you?
BG: Someone who comes to mind is Gandy Brodie. I have no doubt that work is heartfelt and trustworthy. Morandi is one of my favorite artists. He is totally trustworthy, beautifully felt.
I would have been interested in talking to Robert Ryman, to understand our differences and compare notes. We are like day and night. I enjoy looking at Ryman’s work although I don’t understand painting white paintings for your whole lifetime. That would not sustain me, unless I was doing white paint experiments. I think his are more than that; they are poetic. I trust Ryman’s work.
You should be able to feel. Something has to come through even if it’s a completely abstract painting. But the thing that’s fascinating me now more than anything, is when a painting is right. What makes a painting right? I might have to change it 100 times, but when it finally feels right to me, then it’s right. It fascinates me to no end, what that means. It’s a completely visual experience. And what feels “right” is different for every artist.
JS: Can you talk about the painting “Breakthrough” (1985), which we were looking at in the house? Why was it a breakthrough painting for you?
BG: I think that the act of surrender is the most important thing that an artist learns, if they want to learn it. I could tell you story after story of how my will and my ego got in the way. I did a painting around 1975 where I was working on this one little shape. I was painting and it wasn’t working and I kept scraping it off because I wanted to see an instant result. Finally, the canvas was so thin that I could have made a hole from scraping it. I thought to myself, “If you just go out for dinner, you could probably let this dry, and it will work really well tomorrow.” But no, I didn’t want to do that.
The painting “Breakthrough” had one area on the right side that wasn’t working. The rest of the painting looked done to me and I loved the way it looked. I didn’t want to touch it, but I knew I had to get rid of what was there. I had enough experience by then to know that if you let go, you’re going to have results and resolution.
It used to take me weeks to get rid of an area that prevented the painting from being finished. Now, when I see that happening, I can change it right away. Ah, sweet surrender. After previously taking weeks or months to be able to let go of something precious, shortening that process to practically nothing is one of the greatest experiences of evolution as an artist.
In each one of these new paintings, there is something that I’ve never done before. Every painting is a new risk. There is a certain area, a certain color, or a certain shape that I’ve never done before. I allow myself that in practically every painting that I’m doing now. I am still excited to find new places to move and change the work, and trusting it. I haven’t settled. I don’t think I ever will.