Guy Goodwin, "Mattress World: Sweetness" (2020), acrylic, cardboard, glue, tempera, and wood, 72 x 53 x 6 inches (all images courtesy the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation, New York, © Jason Wyche)

Guy Goodwin, who was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1940, and is in his early 80s, has always been a maverick artist who pursued his own obsessions. Beginning with the painting “C-Swing” (1974), and his exploration of a limited number of thickly painted, predetermined linear shapes, Goodwin’s work has gone through at least four distinct phases, whose investigation of materiality resembles no one else’s in his generation. I think the fact that he has never really fit in and that the radical changes his work has undergone, from abstraction to representation to the use of words to connotative color, is one reason why he has never had an in-depth survey — and why, to my mind, he deserves one. 

Sitting in the empty gallery and looking at the work in Guy Goodwin: Mattress World at The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation (May 1 – October 23, 2021), with David Reed listed as Curatorial Adviser, I thought it would be useful to point out some of the constants, as well as what has changed over a career approaching its 50th year. 

The first constant is that Goodwin has long been engaged with the materiality of paint and built-up forms. Even in the mid-1980s, when he painted still lifes and city scenes viewed from his fire escape, usually at night, the pleasure of applying creamy pastes to canvas was evident. The other constant is that, as I wrote in my review of his exhibition at Dolan Maxwell, “Goodwin’s approach remains blunt and direct […]” (Artforum, Summer 1989). 

These works demonstrate his continued interest in the directional thrust of his thick linear shapes from the mid-1970s. It seems to me that his transition from abstract to representational art, while maintaining his interest in jagged shapes, enabled him to broaden his field of reference and include discarded things. Since the mid-1980s, when he painted large, moody still lifes of old and broken shovels and farm tools, Goodwin has continued to incorporate things that have outlived their usefulness. 

Guy Goodwin, “Studies on Paper for Mattress World: #5” (2021), acrylic and tempera on paper mounted on Homasote, 33 x 24 inches

As a painter who began his career in the mid-1970s, when a linear view of art history still dominated, alone with a widespread consensus that painting had become an obsolete medium rooted in bourgeois ideology, Goodwin’s choice of subjects and materials, such as diner menus and discarded cardboard, forms a potent metaphor for his stubborn resistance to this narrow view of history: as a story of progress in search of ultimate truths. This is one of the keys to his work. 

Another key is the recognition that even though he left the South when it was still segregated, and moved to New York, with teaching stints in Ohio and Vermont, he did not try to assimilate into an art world that, until recently, denied the influence of one’s origins. 

The third key is the importance of drawing and collage in his work. The exhibition includes two charcoal drawings, three studies on paper mounted on Homasote, and a selection of notebooks in a vitrine by the front of the gallery, across from the desk, all of which further open up Goodwin’s singular body of work.

After painting still lifes and city scenes, Goodwin moved back into abstraction, composing fields of equally sized brushstrokes in which his muted palette was dominated by warm pinks, cool blue-grays, mossy greens, swamp browns, pale and sulfurous yellows. By naming his paintings of this period after well-known jazz compositions, such as “Return in ‘E’” (1988) and “Freedom Suite” (1989), he was equating his paintings with music. Sonny Rollins’s “Freedom Suite” (1958) is considered a landmark piece linking jazz with the Civil Rights movement. 

By 1996, Goodwin gave up working on flat surfaces. In 2012, after making relief paintings incorporating letters and words, such as “Black Olive Oil” and “Black Broccoli” (both 2007), he deepened his exploration of connotative color. This is what I wrote of the work (Hyperallergic, June 1, 2014): 

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.

Installation view, Guy Goodwin: Mattress World at the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation, New York

Goodwin’s linking of color to a specific historical event related to a disturbing, dramatically staged collision between rich and poor, white and Black, underscores the artist’s determination to open abstraction to the political and social realities of America, as did his fellow Alabaman and friend Jack Whitten. Being a firsthand witness to the effects of racism and Jim Crow laws had left an indelible mark on them. 

Given my long interest in Goodwin’s work, on my way to the exhibition I wondered if I could see it with fresh eyes, if I had missed something in my years of previous looking.

In 2010, Goodwin began using cardboard as the substrate on which he applied acrylic paint, followed by layers of tempera, which is his homemade concoction of pigment and Elmer’s glue. This change in materials and processes resulted in a radical shift in his work. He went from being a terrific tonalist painter, whose work emanated a murky light that shared something with the late 19th-century American visionary painters Albert Pinkham Ryder and Ralph Albert Blakelock, to a vibrant, idiomatic colorist whose work does not look like anyone else’s. He became original out of necessity. 

This is no small accomplishment. More importantly, Goodwin attained this singular position when he was over 70, which we seldom think of as the age when an artist breaks through to something fresh, unexpected, and challenging.

Guy Goodwin, “Mattress World: Mini Matter” (2020), acrylic, cardboard, glue, tempera, and wood, 42 x 51 x 5 inches

Existing somewhere between painting and relief, these works are composed of thick rectangles of layered cardboard protruding from the wall. In shape, scale, and proportion, they may remind you of a bulky boxspring used to support a mattress, an association the artist emphasizes with the exhibition title, Mattress World

The works are comprised of negative spaces and rounded forms, which fit together with similarly colored forms or are isolated forms partially sunk into the surface. The interplay of rounded shapes and negative spaces brought to mind children’s brightly colored playgrounds, where everything is covered with something durable. 

There is no correlation between the negative spaces and the forms protruding from the surface, but there is a sense of disjunctive rhythm, which recalls Goodwin’s long interest in jazz. The surfaces of the rounded forms are marked by holes, where he has used a screw gun to affix the layered form to the surface. Staples the artist has used to wrap cardboard around the edges are also visible. Goodwin’s “mattress” works do not disguise the way they came into being, which connects them to gestural abstraction.  

The colors are bright and artificial, and have nothing to do with nature. The weird violets, oranges, reds, blacks, blues, and greens recall hues you might see in diners, children’s playgrounds, boxes of crayons, and food dye. Goodwin’s distinctive palette reminds me of polyurethane toys, especially ponies and trucks. 

Guy Goodwin, “Mattress World: Lime Lime” (2021), acrylic, cardboard, glue, tempera, and wood, 72 x 53 x 6 inches

His offbeat colors and rounded forms conjure up a fantasy world of mattresses — a site for dreaming and erotic conjugation, where children’s playgrounds, non-biodegradable toys, and dyed Easter eggs meets the overstuffed restaurant booths of all-you-can-eat buffets. Are his mattresses an architectural model for a Playboy Mansion lounge, an indoor rough-and-tumble recreational center, a children’s playground, or a new experience in leisure dining? The fact that he has collapsed these possibilities and more points to the confusion and contradictions at the core of the America’s psyche. 

In the odd palette and its allusions to fast food restaurants, I can see Goodwin’s work paired with Wayne Thiebaud’s paintings of gooey, decorated layer cakes, oversized hotdogs, and rows of lollipops. While Thiebaud’s equation of thick paint and weirdly colored cake frosting can be read as a sharply ironic comment on the unhealthy ingredients of his subjects, Goodwin’s use of cardboard evokes the endless supply of containers packed with cheerful schlock that Americans seem to love to buy. 

Goodwin’s idiosyncratic palette identifies something that is quintessentially American: our artificial cheerfulness and the attempt to disguise our calculating cold-heartedness with saturated plastic colors. From John Wayne Gacy playing the clown to Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who tried to pass as Black, to the 45th President refusing to show his tax returns, Goodwin knows that Americans are always hiding something behind their wide, happy smiles. 

Guy Goodwin: Mattress World continues at the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation (87 Eldridge Street, Manhattan) through October 23.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...