featuresStudio visits
Saturday, May 19th, 2007

Brenda Goodman

“Brenda Goodman: Self-Portraits 2003 – 2007,”
Mabel Smith Douglass Library Galleries
Rutgers University, Douglass College Campus. (732) 932 – 2222 ext.838
8 Chapel Drive, New Brunswick, NJ 08901

April 23 to August 3, 2007

“Eccentric Bodies”
group exhibition with Harriet Casdin-Silver, Bailey Doogan, Orlan, Ernestine Ruben, Berni Searle, and Linda Stein. Mason Gross School of the Arts Galleries
33 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. 732- 932-9407, ext 27

June 14 to August 3, 2007

Both exhibitions are part of the Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series

Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 59 2006 oil on wood, 36 x 30 inches  All images courtesy of the artist
Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 59 2006 oil on wood, 36 x 30 inches All images courtesy of the artist

Does anyone call him or herself an Expressionist these days?  The bloviated gigantism of the “Neo” 80’s finished off, deliberately no doubt, what the cool reactions of the 60’s and 70’s had started, and the word “Expressionist”––also its variants: ism, istic, big E, small e––can hardly be handled thereafter without the smirking forceps of quotation marks.  But these terms were once indispensable, and maybe enough time has passed for the restoration of their nuance.  The best painters of the day, after all, have generally been expressionists, at least for a time.  (An all-star roster would start with Titian––older and in a hurry––run through late Goya and early Cezanne, and end with de Kooning and Guston.  This skeleton line-up can be filled out according to taste and emphasis.)  Expressionism has always entailed an alchemical negation of technique, per se, but what was forgotten in the extremity of rhetoric that blossomed like catbriers around the New York School (and has been with us ever since) was how mucking around with paint could also be a way to get at visual reality––a more convincing way, potentially, than even the most transcendent design or optics.  Vermeer’s rooms are unsurpassably alive but his people, even those half dozen that seem charged with thought, have several fewer dimensions than a Rembrandt self-portrait with its skin that is paint that is skin.  Rembrandt’s lopsided 350 year-old eyes, helter-skelter paint ridges and all, look right into yours.

By the 1950’s, however, the correlation between expressionist brushstroke and inner state was revealed to be purely indexical––calligraphic rather than graphic.  In any case, what reality was there for painting to capture apart from the here and now of the process and materials?  At the time it hardly seemed to matter that de Kooning was already extricating himself from this cul-de-sac with violent “glimpses.”  Nor that Pollock, at the end, had been trying to move back to his Jungian, Tintoretto-bedeviled roots––though alas, he was unable to surf his alcoholic fury anymore.  The cleanest break of all, of course, was Guston’s return to the figure by way of the cartoon, and to most people it only made sense in retrospect.  The consummation of Expressionism as purest Abstraction had become for him, paradoxically, a kind of formalism, as if he could foresee all those 30-foot shmears painted with really big brushes silting up in the museum basements of the future.

It happens that there is a direct route of transmission between Guston’s work and Brenda Goodman’s, as we’ll see in the following interview, which she and I conducted in the spring of 2006 and in early 2007.  Goodman, now in her 60’s, is simply one of the most vital painters anywhere.  Her work is both expressionistic and undeniably real––sometimes tender as a wound, sometimes crusty as a rock.  Though she is in well-known public collections––e.g., The Detroit Institute of Arts, MacArthur Foundation, The Agnes Gund Collection, the Carnegie Museum––and has had numerous one person shows––e.g., at Howard Scott Gallry, Nielsen gallery, Cavin-Morris, Revolution in Detroit, Phyllis Kind in Chicago––she is massively underappreciated for what she has done and is doing.  An upcoming retrospective in the Spring of 2007 at Rutgers will go some way to redress Goodman’s lack of recognition––and who knows after that?  Brenda Goodman might be just the sort of tough-minded prophet to make gorgeous, dark, painterly self-investigation––that is, Expressionism––trendy again.

Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 2 1994 oil on wood, 48 x 40 inches
Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 2 1994 oil on wood, 48 x 40 inches

David Brody: Brenda, you’ve been working in New York for how many years?

Brenda Goodman: I moved here on May 8, 1976 to this very loft in Chinatown on the Bowery.

DB: And before that you were…?

BG: Detroit.  Where I was born and bred.

DB: When did you start painting?

BG: I used to draw little cartoons when I was 8.  So I knew I liked art then, but I didn’t know I was going to be an artist.  When I was in high school, I started taking classes at a small art school in Detroit called The Society of Arts and Crafts.  It’s now CCS (Center for Creative Studies) and they offer a degree, but back then, it was a small art school.  I got a scholarship to study there full-time when I finished high school.  So I went there for 4 years and then I taught there for a couple years and then I knew if I didn’t get out I’d be one of those people who would be there forever.  I knew I had to leave, so I left.  I taught here and there and did my work and then I had my first one-person show at a co-op gallery in 1973.  It was the only avant-garde gallery in Detroit.

DB: So you were learning about contemporary art in art school in Detroit?

BG: I can’t say I was learning about contemporary art, it was a very traditional school.  You had to draw a still life for 6 months before you could actually start painting.  Then you had to use earth colors and then you could eventually use color.  We didn’t do things out of our imagination, people didn’t talk philosophically to us, we just looked at things constantly, either the figure or the still life.  And that was my training.  As I got older and left art school, and was tuned into what was happening in NY, I would read the art magazines.  I was influenced to some extent from contemporary work that was being done outside of Detroit.  But there was also the Cass Corridor.  This was a community of Detroit artists and we were all in one building.  We all had studios together.  The Detroit Institute and the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art did a show about us in 1980-81.

There was a really good gallery in Detroit that started to represent me in 1974—Gertrude Kasle.  She mostly showed all New York artists.  Big names like de Kooning, Guston.  And then she took me on which was a real honor.  She brought in Marcia Tucker.  I got to know her when she was in Detroit, so when I got to New York at least I knew Marcia.  I started helping her out and volunteering when the New Museum wasn’t even a museum, when it was in the Thread Building in Tribeca.

Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 4 2004 oil on wood, 64 x 60 inches (diptych)
Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 4 2004 oil on wood, 64 x 60 inches (diptych)

DB: I’m trying to get my bearings.  I know that the relationship between artists and other artists, fashions that are coming and going, are very fluid and not linear.  Were you connecting to stuff that seemed like the most advanced stuff going on?  Or were you connecting primarily to stuff that was happening in an earlier generation?

BG: I think it was mixed.  Certainly I was into my main influences: Dubuffet and de Kooning, Guston, Soutine and Gorky.  I was also thinking of people like Pat Steir who was doing more conceptual pieces like the birds and the weathervanes from 1971, very different than what she is doing now.  And Joan Snyder with her stroke paintings.  There were other contemporary people I was interested in.  And, I did try to get in touch with them when I got here.  Wasn’t so easy.  I was somewhat tuned in here, but not in an avant-garde way.  I wasn’t into installations, or radical art––certainly not political, or even feminist work.  I was in my own world.  Even in the Cass Corridor, my work was separate from what other people were doing.  When I got here I was pretty isolated.  I didn’t know how to network and I didn’t network.  I stayed in my loft and painted, and taught drawing and painting classes.

DB: You mentioned Guston and I’m wondering how you came to be conscious of the transition in his work, from what was seemingly all-out abstraction to figuration, although it wasn’t as sudden or as absolute as some people think. There is the experience of shifting between abstraction and figuration that your body of work has in common with his.

BG: Early in my career, I was doing symbol paintings, where I had a symbol for myself and everything in my life.  They were very specific and personal but after 13 years of the symbols, I was wanting to have the paintings come from my unconscious and not have it be so personal.  So my work switched around 1985, and for 11 years I painted just abstractly until I got worn down, in a way, by the process.  There were certain things I couldn’t express.  That’s when I did a series of self-portraits, in 1994, because I wanted to deal with something that was very personal and I wanted to transcend something, so I went back to the figure––I wentto the figure I should say.  I felt it had that particular content that I was missing in the abstractions.  And yet the abstractions were so freeing and were coming from such an unconscious place and felt so important, so I integrated abstraction into these self-portraits, which made them specific yet ambiguous.

DB: A lot of people talk about Guston being important for their work, especially people of my generation, but you had an actual relationship with him.

BG: He really liked my work and we exchanged a few letters.  But the thing about Guston, as with de Kooning, and as with Gorky, Soutine, and Dubuffet, which were the big ones in my life––then Morandi later on––you have a connection to them.  You’re on the same wavelength, or whatever you want to call it.  You have this affinity with certain artists and there’s a reason why you’re influenced by them, because there’s something of them already inside you.

DB: The 1994 self-portraits seem like an intermediary state between pure abstraction and the more decisively figurative work you’re doing now.  There’s a full continuum in your body of work, and you’re always jamming it all together into the frame, as if to see how everything talks to each other.

BG: I’ve spent my whole life as a painter experimenting with materials. And so, I have a very wide range of materials and techniques that I use.  I don’t have to stop to learn a new technique inorder to communicate an emotional experience. What I have always loved doing in painting, even when I was a student, was combining thick and thin and glazed and opaque all in one painting and making it work as a visual whole. I find that tremendously challenging. I also move back and forth between abstraction, figuration and the combination of the two a lot in my work as well as changing scale from very small to very large….power in the small painting and intimacy in the large ones.  All these things are part of me now and they inform each painting I do

DB: The work you were doing before 2003 was abstract figurative painting.  There might be hints of realistic space and light, hints of figures, but at most they were no more definite than in late Ensor, say, and they floated in something like this weird psychic space.  In the beginning of this series of self-portraits from  the last few years, you were very explicit about painting figures in spaces with light hitting them, and you explored that in drawing and painting with characteristic intensity.  In a way that is a return to a traditional approach, but if so, it is also contemporary, given the return of the figure in painting everywhere, and because people can put feminist readings onto this work.

Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 1 2003 oil & paper on wood, 64 x 60 inches (diptych)
Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 1 2003 oil & paper on wood, 64 x 60 inches (diptych)

BG: Absolutely.

DB: Was that change organic, coming from within the work?  Or is it from looking around at what’s going on?  I mean, do you think its part of your responsibility to respond?

BG: That’s a very interesting question.  But that’s not my driving force—I certainly don’t go out of my way to think “how can I make this look more contemporary?”  The earliest of the new paintings surprised me because the self-portraits in ‘94 were much more abstract and more generalized.  You wouldn’t recognize it as me.  You knew it was a figure looking like it was doing something, eating mostly.  I was dealing with being overweight, with eating issues as my starting point.  It turned out there were a lot of other levels of interpretation.  When I started the first ones of the new self-portraits I was coming from a similar place. In self-portrait 1, 2003 and self-portrait 4, 2004. I had a desire to paint myself much more naturalistically; I felt it was important not to have a veil between me and my feelings, between me and the viewer.  With the earlier ones it could be anybody.  I wanted the work to be open.  So much contemporary painting is not open.  You know, it’s like a wall—you can’t penetrate it.  You have no clue who the artist is, or why they’re even doing what they’re doing.  Which is fine—I mean you can paint for different reasons and come from different places.  But for me it’s always been crucial that I reveal myself, share my journey.

So the first few had heads of my inner demons behind the figure of me and in those I wore a mask..  They seemed so vulnerable  I felt I had to hide somewhere.  And then  after 4 paintings I removed the mask and was ready to face my audience. I felt vulnerable but strong.

DB: The jump from all-over to figure/ground seems to me a bigger one than from abstract to narrative or Expressionist to naturalistic.

Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 8, In the Studio 2004 oil on paper, 19 x 24 inches
Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 8, In the Studio 2004 oil on paper, 19 x 24 inches

BG: In the self-portraits from 2003-04, I would place myself in a bare room where the scenarios would get played out.  After I did these figures in the rooms, I decided to do some small paper pieces of me in my studio rather than as an isolated figure.  And what was exciting for me about these was that I wanted to incorporate all the things I love to do in one piece rather than say, oh I have a desire to do abstract painting now so I have to stop doing the self-portraits.  What I was able to do in these pieces, was put my nude, vulnerable self into my studio, among my canvas, brushes, and paints. Within the studio, I am either looking at or painting an abstraction. All my canvases staked against the wall, gave me yet more room to play with abstract elements. I didn’t have to give up anything. My figurative abstract needs were satisfied.

I had Kiki Smith over when I had just finished these and she said, you know you should approach some galleries from a revisionist point of view because usually it’s a male in the studio with a model, or a male at the easel, and here you’re a nude figure in your own studio with all your paintings and your tools around you.  There aren’t many paintings like that, she said. So I thought, well that’s interesting, that’s not something I was thinking about—I was thinking about what I feel in my studio, the vulnerability.

Brenda Goodman Self-Portrait 16 2005 oil on wood, 48 x 40 inches
Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 16 2005 oil on wood, 48 x 40 inches

This painting is about my mother who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1972.  After 6 months she went downhill.  My relationship with her was very volatile but we were also very close. Her life was difficult. I didn’t come from a family that showed a lot of physical affection.  The emotion was yelling and screaming, basically about money.  When she was diagnosed I was 29.  I didn’t know how to deal with it.  I didn’t know what to do.  She looked at me and I looked at her and she said through her eyes, “I don’t want to talk about this.”  And it was clear, so we didn’t.  There were no hospices, no social workers, you know, there weren’t all the tools we have now to deal with cancer.  And so when she was in the hospital—the day she died was on my birthday, interestingly enough—I was at the end of her bed and I just watched her die.  I couldn’t do anything other than that, and through the years I’ve thought if I could do it over again, given who I am now, I would have sat next to her and held her hand!  Back then, I couldn’t do that, I didn’t know how to do that.  It was terrifying.  I don’t know if it would even have entered my mind. I couldn’t express this abstractly—an abstract painting can’t do that, it just can’t.  It can’t go to those very specific places.  So as long as I was painting this way I felt I could revisit places in my life that needed healing.

DB: It’s refreshing to hear an artist so committed to the painting process and the materials of painting talk about a therapeutic value to art; with someone else it might sound hokey but in your case it connects to a visionary, Expressionist history of figure painting as a summoning of spirits, if you want. And maybe if figurative painting’s not doing that then it’s not engaged?

BG: But this is what my work has always been for me.  If I didn’t deal with issues in my life, whether they come from something that’s happened to me from the outside, or something I’m going through inside, I don’t know if I would paint.  There’d be no reason for me to, because my work is about my own personal journey.  The key is to know enough about painting ––to have painted long enough—to make it more than just a personal thing that stops there.

After I finished painting my mother, I started thinking about stonewalls.  It’s funny; I used to call my mother “stonewall” so everything is all very connected.  A lot of what these paintings are about is just dealing with the obstacles of life, of being human.  Worry. My fears of getting older.  That’s so much what this body of work is for me.  The fear of dying.  I think about it alot.  I try and use my work to help me cope with my anxiety—to balance it or sort it out, or do something with it.  So one day I was just thinking of a black stone wall sitting in my studio, and how impenetrable it felt.  And sometimes I feel that about my life and the things that have happened and the things that haven’t happened.  Self-Portrait 18 started as a big rock in my studio, and then when I started to paint, it became the back of my body.

Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 18 2005 oil on wood, 72 x 60 inches (diptych)
Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 18 2005 oil on wood, 72 x 60 inches (diptych)

DB: The figure and the rock have been going back and forth now for quite a while.  The big figures are filling up space, almost squeezing the edges of the canvas, and then there will be a cleft that will allow just a little bit of space.

BG: I was thinking of the body as stone, the body becoming rock, and the graphite lends itself to that kind of feeling and texture.  There is a lot more ambiguity.  I just want to say something about the drawings, having spent all last year doing them: things change in them very fast—one drawing informs the other much quicker than in the paintings.  In the drawings, so many things happen—that large long 190” 5 panelpiece I showed you—it started with a representational figure on the left and ended on the right with the figure as monolith.  And then that became part of the vocabulary.  All of that happens when you put one piece of paper up after another.

Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 32  2006 graphite, pastel, colored pencil on paper, 50 x 190 inches
Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 32 2006 graphite, pastel, colored pencil on paper, 50 x 190 inches

DB: It’s hard to look at this new one, the one with branches and not think of a gravestone.

Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 37 2006 graphite & oil on paper, 60 x 44 inches
Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 37 2006 graphite & oil on paper, 60 x 44 inches

BG: Well it is, in a way. The monolithic shape I used in the last panel of the long drawing didn’t  reveal its meaning until I did this drawing with the branches.  Then I saw that it was the shape of the gravestone that my brother and I picked out for my mother which was black granite. it was just a shape that I really enjoyed making, but recognized it as soon as the piece was finished  So, after I did this whole piece, you know, I’m sitting back and I see something going on in the bottom that was just a little light shape, and I kept staring at it and then I saw a little black shape within it  and I said, Oh God, this is like a tombstone within a tombstone.  It felt so spooky to me.  It was like a little dream within the piece.  And, then I said, Well, I’ve got to bring it out more!  I just hope this isn’t a premonition of my last piece!  And those drips on the right hand side of the entrance, they’re just drips from the branches.  But then they became like little praying figures.  They’re in the perfect place.  It just all fell together.

DB: That evolution seems typical of your work.  You have some kind of a space and an object or figure that looms up and takes over the entire painting and then you find a way to go into that and open it up again.  Even your abstract paintings seem like a continuous efflorescence of big, impenetrable masses that are then opened by a void, which in turn becomes a presence, which takes over the space.  And that’s why you have this piled up effect of spaces within spaces.  You can grasp this quickly from your work—you push things to the point where they become really formidable and monolithic and overbearing sometimes, but then you find some light or some space within that—there’s a process of continuous renewal going on.

BG: After doing the gravestone drawing, you can see something shifted.  I started taking pictures of rocks and trees in Central Park. It just felt like there needed to be space, some shift.

DB: In this new one you just put out, these seem like rocks in a kind of grassy, winter landscape with bare trees.  The rocks are looming up in the foreground.  The surface of those rocks is very worked and suggests flesh.  It feels like an equivalence of rocks and being.  The rocks have an animated outline quality as if they were talking to each other.

Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 38 2006 graphite, pastel, colored pencil on paper, 38 x 50 inches
Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 38 2006 graphite, pastel, colored pencil on paper, 38 x 50 inches

BG: Right.  As I thought they should.

DB: A nervous kind of interaction between them.

BG: One is falling off.

DB: And, yet, the whole thing is controlled in spite of the roughness of the surface.  It has an almost Chinese landscape quality to it, the space of it, the mood of it: contemplative, but with a large dollop of anxiety.

BG: That’s good.

DB: Maybe it’s the color as well, the light.  Even though the surfaces are modeled, the light isn’t casting shadows.  It isn’t theatrical light.  It’s light that feels like suffusion.

BG: A couple of people said about this one, and I wasn’t aware of it when I was doing it, that the trees on the on left became the fissures on the rock.  It creates sort of an ambiguity there.  It was an interesting observation.  Obviously, it felt right for me when I was doing it.

DB: The fissures are key I think.  They might start as a very gestural mark, a kind of scrawling, attack-mark, and then you push it to the point where it becomes illusionistic in places.  There is a little flap of skin that is folding back and there is a void behind it.  Illusionism plays into the figurative associations you have with the rock.  But it also encapsulates your approach to painting going back to the beginning: refusing to wall-off gestural abstraction from narrative.  Maybe a young painter coming up wouldn’t think twice about that.  But where you come from and the way you’ve done it, it’s against the grain.  Going back and forth like that way.  Yes, there is the example of Guston, but few others.

BG: You have to keep in mind, he had a very cartoony edge to him I have never been interested in.

DB: I see no reference to the cartoon in your work.  When you have imagery that is more summary than illusionistic, it’s clearly Expressionist rather than Pop.

BG: I agree.  You used the word “animated” and these two rocks are animated, but not cartoony.

DB: In this fissure, it’s just the process laid particularly bare.  It keeps opening up into illusionistic landscape.  And landscape becomes texture becomes skin becomes rock which becomes just paint.  The whole thing keeps cycling around until you find the maximum psychic impact.  It’s very rare.  I don’t see that kind of painting around much.

BG: I guess for me why my work doesn’t ever seem “current” is that I  try and stay with the intensity and the emotion, the feeling, without making it ironic.  If anything, in this body of work I wanted to take all the veils away.  I don’t know if I have, but I do everything I can to not distance myself in my work.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t do it.  Where we are now in the art world is that artists go out of their way to distance themselves. I try to do just the opposite.

DB: Okay, let’s hypothesize: fashions do change and let’s say all of a sudden painters who are seen as having unyielding integrity and commitment to exploring self and who are masters of the medium are valued again––a ridiculous fantasy of course!  Agnes Gund bought a painting of yours…

BG: A big drawing.

DB: And I know you have other heavy hitters who have supported your work over the years.  Given that, it’s not so far-fetched to imagine some prominent gallerist coming in tomorrow and giving you a big show; Jerry or Roberta write about you and things happen.  Is rage at not getting the recognition you deserve part of your creative fuel?  If all of a sudden massive success overtook you, could you handle it?

BG: So far I haven’t had that opportunity (laughs).  What can I say?  I think I could handle it.  It would nice to experience the other end.  In many ways, my career has been very successful. I wake every morning of my life doing what I love to do. It may not come from the outside as much as I would like but inside I feel successful.

DB: What’s more important to you, conviction or delicacy?

BG: Both are important, but it ultimately has to feel right. So what’s important to me?  Every square inch has to mean something.  There’s no corner of the painting that doesn’t have the same amount of conviction andintegrity as another part. Every square inch should be important and full.

DB: Here’s a related question: is it possible for a painting to go too easily for you?  Do you need to feel like there’s something at stake in the painting––that there’s been astruggle?

Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 61  2007 oil on wood, 52 x 48 inches (diptych)
Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 61 2007 oil on wood, 52 x 48 inches (diptych)

BG: Well, that’s always an interesting question.  I think I’ve painted long enough to understand this. If something flows out and everything feels like it’s brought up to a level of meaningfulness and integrity then it’s perfectly fine if there was no struggle in it.  An example of this is a very recent painting of me,  Linda and our 11 year old Australian Shepherd. It was the day we found out the biopsy on a lump she had was cancer and she needed surgery. This was the first time we had to deal with her having something this serious and scary. I was totally distraught and went in my studio and painted us – fast and furious for 3 hours and then it was done.  It said it all for me. This kind of cause and effect does  not always happen like this nor is the channel to paint it but sometimes it is magical. Most other times the key thing is to work past the initial, spontaneous gesture making the painting fuller and richer but still preserving that  initial feeling. And that’s not always so easy.  What I’ve learned most about painting in 46 years is the act of surrender: to look at something and to know that you can keep stubbornly working on it to make it look like the way you think it should, or you can let go of that preciousness––that precious area that’s keeping the painting from being finished.  You can just wipe it out and trust something bigger than yourself to let it resolve.  So through the years I’ve  gone from taking days or weeks to let something go––that act of surrender––to minutes..”  To me this is one of the most spiritual  aspects of painting.

This past fall I continued to push the self-portraits into new and undiscovered territory for myself. I began adding sculptural, 3-dimensional elements to the pieces, using wood and papier- mache. The figures are now animated—even moving rather than stoically standing still.

The newest work along with the one of me, Pookie and Linda  are a series of large head self-portraits. I am still so much in the process,  I haven’t fully digested their meaning, but I’m enjoying myself thoroughly.

Self-Portrait 54 2006, oil, wood, papier-mache on wood, 21 x 30 x 4 inches
Self-Portrait 54 2006, oil, wood, papier-mache on wood, 21 x 30 x 4 inches
Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 55 2006 oil, wood, papier-mache on wood, 64 x 60 inches
Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 55 2006 oil, wood, papier-mache on wood, 64 x 60 inches

Brenda Goodman Self-Portrait 55 2006 oil, wood, papier-mache on wood, 64 x 60 inches
Brenda Goodman, Self-Portrait 55 2006 oil, wood, papier-mache on wood, 64 x 60 inches