Michael Goldberg at Knoedler & Company
May 6 to July 20, 2010
9 East 70th Street, between Fifth and Madison avenues
New York City, 212-794-0550
One favored interpretation of Abstract Expressionism is that content in many of their paintings actually overrides form. This suggests that the emotional, pent-up angst raging through the subterranean reaches of the American mindset following the Second World War was a primary motivation for the generation of painters associated with this movement. Even so, the claims made for extreme content hold reservations depending of whether one subscribes to Harold Rosenberg’s “action painting” or to the aesthetic formalism advocated by Clement Greenberg. A further distinction, heralded by Barbara Rose, clearly separated “action painting” from the reaches of “chromatic abstraction” – namely in the paintings of Rothko and Newman. Clyfford Still belonged to neither group, according to Rose, but offered a synthesis between the action gesture and a built-up color field. The youthful Michael Goldberg – considered by many as a “second generation” abstract expressionist along with his close colleagues, Norman Bluhm and Joan Mitchell – also tended to favor a hybrid approachbut with one critically important exception: In Goldberg, the rejection of European taste and pictorial composition became the perquisite whereby extreme content could evolve, thus allowing his entry into an untamed territory that the uptight Still would never dare to tread.
To observe – indeed to experience – Goldberg’s Red Paintings (1962-63) currently on view at Knoedler is scarcely a neutral affair. Given their extraordinary force and paradoxical restraint, these paintings represent the kind of psychic change that distinguishes the fifties from the sixties. These interior signs made manifest reveal the staggering undercurrent of a heightened cultural transition in full throttle. In the Red Paintings we sense the American geist entering a new threshold of consciousness from the depths of political denial and sexual repression in the decade of Eisenhower to a new form of exhilaration truly on the edge of life, exemplified by Kennedy. To approach these paintings in terms of a hyper-formalist aura is almost beside the point, yet equally necessary to place these remarkable paintings into the history to which they belong. Clearly the black, brown, and white lines painted against fields of sanguine raw sienna in virtually all the 1962 paintings mark these spaces with an indelible primal accuracy. In Dear Wo, for example, a diagonal band emerges from the bottom edge ending below the space of a broken “L” that descends from the top. Instead of a constructivist emblem, we are given an immediate tension, an intuitive leap that recharges the surface, thus transforming it into an energy field. A similar effect is present in the logotypical Untitled ( a detail is shown on the catalog cover). Here a linear flare of titanium pulsates across the upper reaches of a vast sanguine space, halting short of the right edge. Roughly parallel to the white line, a trace of smudged umber runs below it. In a related painting, Sam Wells, this configuration is repeated, but in a vertical format. Here the umber is more defined in the shape of a menhir and is lightened with a touch of ochre and white where it resides to the left of a descending while line.
Having known Goldberg for more than twenty years, I became aware of his infinite love of jazz and poetry. Poets from the earlier New York School, such as Frank O’Hara (who was also a curator at the Museum of Modern Art), the Beat itinerant Gregory Corso, and later, David Shapiro, were all close to Goldberg and inspired by his work. Goldberg was a man of his own choosing. He liked who he liked and disliked the rest, regardless of their positions or their pedigree. Mike had an elegant mind. He was a true connoisseur, and often cursed a blue streak when he became impatient with art world banter that stood in the way of art. Many of his friends remember the fantastic dinners with Mike and his wife, the sculptor Lynn Umlauf, in the former studio of Rothko, and the excitement that filled the air whenever painting became the subject of conversation. I can hear the cursing with every stroke in the Red Paintings. His life was embodied in his work.