A fresh, unexpected buoyancy comes through in Brenda Goodman’s recent abstract paintings, which mark her entrance into new territory. Goodman, who recently turned 80, has been making strong work since her student days in the mid-1960s at the College for Creative Studies (then the Society of Arts and Crafts) in Detroit. In 1976, she left Detroit, where she was part of the gritty Cass Corridor movement, and moved to New York. While her work was included in the 1979 Whitney Biennial, she did not start to exhibit regularly in New York until she was in her late 70s. Continuing to work in a way that did not fit into the art world’s commercial interests, Goodman flew largely under the radar until 2015, when her work was selected to be in the Academy of Arts and Letters’ annual exhibition and she received an award. In 2019, she had her first show at Sikkema Jenkins, which continues to represent her. 

Goodman’s oeuvre can be divided into distinct periods, each characterized by a body of work that resembled nothing by her contemporaries. Between 1994 and 2007, she made a series of self-portraits portraying herself as an insatiable devourer that I have described as “one of the most powerful and disturbing achievements of portraiture in modern art.” Never interested in formalism or literalism, she has developed a lexicon of symbols that are both overt and allusive, while often focusing on a form that occupies either a largely flat, abstract space or a hollowed-out representational space. In 2019, I wrote

Central to this path is Goodman’s preoccupation with the body: as primordial form; as a damaged or wounded self; a ravenous psychic force; viscera and scarred skin.

The scars are still there, as viewers will see in her current exhibition, Brenda Goodman: Hop Skip Jump—New Work 2022 at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. (February 3–March 11). What has changed is that thin washes of color have replaced layers of viscous paint. As in her previous body of abstractions, she applies the washes to wood panels, whose surface she has cut into with a sharp blade. Along with changing the density of her medium, she no longer cuts into every surface. 

Brenda Goodman, “Let It Shine” (2022), oil on wood, 60 inches x 72 inches

On that surface — scarred or unscarred — we see thin washes of color ranging from luminous pinks, reds, and yellows to darkly moody violets, browns, taupes, and blacks, in geometric forms that fit loosely together. When she covers the entire panel with these forms, as in “Let It Shine” and “Morning Light” (both 2022), the paintings resemble abstract mosaics or walls made haphazardly from shards.

In “Let It Shine” small shards of soft yellow and pale blue peek through a wall of mostly dark green, brown, slate gray, and taupe geometric shapes. A large, slightly curving shape is outlined in black in the painting’s upper half. Within that clearly demarcated area are washes of soft, luminous yellows, pinks, reds, and tans, with a pale green shape in the middle. For all of the darker shapes’ flatness and adherence to the picture plane, the shards of pastel colors evoke a space behind the mosaic wall in which a few cuts are visible. Set within this wall, the outlined shape seems to be both billowing and held in place by the surrounding darker, geometric shapes. The floating form filled with cheerful colors is new to Goodman’s work. The paradoxical combination of freedom and entrapment animates the composition, and invites viewers to read into the painting, particularly in light of her previous preoccupations with the damaged body. 

The dark, mostly brown shapes in “Morning Light” are larger than the ones in “Let It Shine,” while the shards are smaller and fewer. Glowing red breaks through a seam near the center of the painting; in close proximity, another red bleeds through a crack between two shapes and down the surface of the form below. The wall seems to be made of stone-like forms. Outlined in black, four irregular shapes filled in with bright pastel colors float within the wall. Are they portals? What radiant world do they open into? In contrast to “Let It Shine,” the surface of “Morning Light” has no cuts. The feelings of joy and calm are unmistakable. 

Brenda Goodman, “Above and Beyond” (2022), oil and mixed media on wood, 60 inches x 72 inches

“Above and Beyond” (2022) is marked by deep incisions, a field of cuts, in its mostly dirty ivory surface. Two gray tubular forms extend in from the top right edge and turn downward near the middle, dividing the composition into almost equal parts. On the painting’s right side, Goodman depicts a receding space occupied by an open red doorway, which casts red light into the area below it. The space is located within a layered world of abstract silhouettes in different shades of black, gray, and taupe, interspersed with pale yellow, pink, and blue forms. On the painting’s left side is a large, irregular rectangle in a washy gray, topped by a black shape that seems to be tilting back in space. The tubular forms divide one world from another. From the juxtaposition of volumetric forms and flat rectangles to the cut surface and the smeary red doorway casting its fading color, all kinds of tensions abound in this work. 

Goodman has always worked without a safety net. An outlier throughout her career, this is one reason why she had to wait so long to be accepted. Eschewing a signature style from the beginning, her trajectory has yet to receive the institutional attention it has long deserved. Perhaps this is because her juxtapositions of different vocabularies and the resulting tensions seem to arise out of unspecified traumas and unnamed feelings. The self-loathing that Goodman has expressed in her paintings can be unsettling. She has never been afraid to enter treacherous territory from which many artists shy away. This is why her new paintings are so radical. The floating shapes convey a feeling of joy, however much they are surrounded and held in place. You might be able to leave the past behind or move beyond the wall that contains you, but that does not mean the scars will disappear. Goodman’s acceptance engenders radiant islands of calm. 

Brenda Goodman, “Is it Ok?” (2022), oil on wood, 60 inches x 72 inches

Brenda Goodman: Hop Skip Jump—New Work 2022 continues at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. (530 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 11. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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...