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PINE HILL, New York — There were four of us sitting in Brenda Goodman’s studio, built, as she said, into the side of a hill: Brenda, Linda Dunne, Elliot Green, and me. It was a bit awkward, as we had barely got ourselves seated when Brenda asked, in her usual blunt fashion: “What do you think?” You could have heard a pine needle drop.
I am not sure how much time passed before Elliot said something that I have been mulling over ever since: Organic geometry. He said more than that, of course, but that phrase is what I remember. Elliot’s observation provided a different context to see Goodman’s forms, and seeing an artist’s work from a fresh perspective is often a good thing.
For a long time, people have focused on Goodman’s relationship to the late work of Philip Guston. She has even written an autobiographical essay on it: “The Guston Curse” (2014). Perhaps it was this curse that helped propel her away from figuration to abstraction, moving in the opposite direction from the one Guston took in the last 15 years of his life.
It seems to me that the bond between Goodman and Guston doesn’t have to do with cigarettes or hooded figures in her paintings, but with their deep preoccupation with the irreparably damaged body. This is what they share.
For the record: Goodman came to this subject at the beginning of her career, while Guston got to it in the last decade of his life. The wrapped torso with nine protruding paintbrushes as limbs in her painting, “Race” (1973), resembles nothing that one would see in a Guston from the same period. The whole feeling of her painting – its sense of helplessness and blind determination – strikes a very different emotional chord than Guston does.
As an accomplished young artist, Goodman had absorbed lessons from Surrealism, Expressionism, and Symbolism, as well as from Hieronymus Bosch, James Ensor, Alfred Kubin, and Goya. As I see it, she has always followed her own trajectory, even as she has been open to inspiration from other artists.
Elliot’s “organic geometry” brought to mind the German sound poet, architectural theorist, and science fiction writer, Paul Scheerbart (1863–1915), especially his writing on crystals and glass architecture. According to Scheerbart: “Light seeks to penetrate the whole cosmos and is alive in crystal.” For Scheerbart, the crystal was a perfect architectural form because it was organic and geometric, solid and transparent. It is also worth noting that Scheerbart drew fantastic creatures that shared something with Bosch and Kubin, and can be seen as a distant ancestor of Goodman’s monsters.
The other figure that came to mind was the German artist Franz Winter, who studied at the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany, with Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Moholy-Nagy, and Oskar Schlemmer. Between 1934 and ’36, he worked on “Licht-Bilder” (“light pictures”), abstract paintings based on the crystal.
Elliot’s remark gave me an unexpected context for reflecting on the faceted, planar forms in Goodman’s paintings – their combination of the organic and geometric. I am thinking of “Passing Through,” “Something Magical,” “Double Talk,” “Calm,” and “Early Morning” (all dated 2019). In contrast to Scheerbart’s idealization of the crystal, Goodman’s wood supports are marred with deep gouges. The scarred surface of “Early Morning” conveys wounds and psychic pain, the source of which Goodman never specifies. This imbues the painting with feelings we are unable to articulate; a sense of muteness prevails.
It seems to me that Goodman’s organic geometric form has its origins in her earlier depictions of the human body — the ones found in her paintings and constructions from the mid-1970s.
One of the biggest changes that Goodman’s work has undergone since then is her more nuanced use of color, departing from a previous palette of moody dark and light. For all of the feelings of isolation and immobility that Goodman’s scarred forms embody, they also contain areas of warm, glowing light, which deepen the feelings conveyed by the paintings.
From 1994 to 2011, Goodman painted a series of harrowing self-portraits. In many of these paintings, the surfaces were reworked and scarred. It seems to me that the continuity running throughout Goodman’s work since the beginning of her career stems from a damaged form or surface. The disfigurement might be manifested in the depiction of a body without eyes; or it could be the result of applying and scraping away thick paint; or using a blade (and, more recently, a drill) to cut into the wood support.
I am reminded of what Jasper Johns said to Roberta Bernstein when talking about two of his early works, “Target with Plaster Casts” and “Target with Four Faces” (both 1955):
Any broken representation of the human physique is touching in some way; it’s upsetting or provokes reactions that one can’t quite account for. Maybe because one’s image of one’s own body is disturbed by it.
I think this gets to the root of Goodman’s abstract paintings, which cannot be tied to an overarching narrative. From the limbless bodies to the gorging, ravenous figures to the gouged surfaces, there has always been something broken and deeply damaged about Goodman’s paintings. And yet they resist our sympathy. While this state of damage has remained constant, something has changed in Goodman’s recent work.
In “Green Ice” (2018), white and pink forms exist on a narrow diagonal ledge made of built-up black paint, with a triangular line above them, like the outline of a tent or pyramid. Deep black gouges mark the painting’s upper area, or green sky. And yet, even as I write the word “sky,” I also recognize there is something mineral-like about the cut green surface. Is it meant to evoke cracked ceramics, with the picture plane literally splitting apart, a scarred skin?
For years, lasting at least until 2011, when Goodman stopped painting her self-portraits, she has often transported us to a sunless interior. In paintings such as “Green Ice” and others, it is not clear where we are or even what we are looking at. Are we inside a body or vessel, or outside in the world, or somewhere in between?
But a new work like “Passing Through” is filled with intense shades of blue, green, yellow, and red, whose faceted clusters bring stained-glass windows to mind. There is a joyful feeling of light entering into this work – and that light offsets the despair that has run through Goodman’s work for so many years.
The cuts and gouges do not dominate. Some, in fact, seem to have been filled back in.