The Color of Light: A Studio Visit with Greg Goldberg
On the eve of his debut solo show at Stephan Stoyanov Gallery on the Lower East Side, Greg Goldberg confesses to obsessions with time and his love affair with light
There is a welcoming demeanor to Greg Goldberg’s bright, airy Manhattan studio that compliments his own as he places canvas after canvas on the wall and explains his process. He observes how color changes with different light throughout the day. The linen texture of his square oil paintings gives each piece a natural grid structure as he slowly builds the compositional architecture of each work. Combining loose, geometric blocks with sweeping, gestural brush strokes, the dynamic and free form shapes are applied with a veiled precision. This apparent ease actually emerges from intense deliberation about what colors should be placed next to another, and how the moods of different parings harmonize or develop tension.
His influences range across art history: Brice Marden, Emil Nolde, Peter Paul Rubens. He doesn’t necessarily seek out these particular artists. Rather, their work has become a part of his visual consciousness simply out of years of random exposure: he found himself in the depths of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in front of Peter Paul Rubens’s Wolf and Fox Hunt (c. 1616) one day, for instance, because his four-year-old son loves the enormous hunting scene.
His father, an architect, is another formative family member. “His buildings are rigorous yet sensual, where there’s order but love of materials at the same time. That philosophy infuses my own thinking about painting.”
The discovery of artists have proven to be turning points in his development.
Spending a semester in Italy, I discovered the paintings of Pontormo. I had a very powerful, visceral reaction to the color and composition of his works. The color was really carrying the emotional experience of the painting. Later on, I saw a Rothko retrospective at the Whitney, with some late violet paintings. There was a feeling of being immersed in the color space of the paintings. Then there was a Donald Judd show of plywood wall pieces with a few Plexiglas inserts at Pace. It was a perfect marriage of material and design. They were so simple and straightforward yet everything was so exquisitely done. Plywood never looked so good. At that point, I realized I was more interested in the experience that non-narrative abstract work was giving me.
Elements from these predecessors combine in work devoid of overt subject matter. NYC 6/28-12/24 (2012) is an example that evokes the colors of Die Brücke, the smooth surfaces of Old Masters, and the luminosity of Mark Rothko; while Goldberg exclusively focuses on capturing natural light through color.
This intense, pared-down focus is relatively new. After graduating from Skidmore College in 1996, he worked with the figure for years before deciding to start from scratch about 10 years ago. This shift toward abstraction did not come easily. It took years for him to find comfort within this new practice. One reason for the difficulty was that he received very positive feedback from his Surfer series. The Museum of Modern Art purchased eight of these early paintings during a group exhibition at Rivington Arms in 2003.
I was thrilled, but it was also a little strange because I had already decided to stop making representational work and had began making abstract paintings. I was starting the process of reinventing myself and trying to find what I felt was a more authentic identity as a painter. So to get such a positive response but to be doing something entirely different was difficult.
The link between the two bodies of work is the attention to light. In Surfers, a white-hot sun reflecting off the beach shines on men’s faces, and we see the sun’s effects upon extremely tanned skin. Each surfer squints, smiles, or stares out beyond the paper. The time of day is evident in each.
Another activity that Goldberg depicted was motocross. The sports imagery attracted him for a few reasons:
With the motocross imagery I was interested in turning tiny cutouts from magazines into very-large and iconic paintings. The color, composition and paint-handling were the means to achieve this. I’ve never surfed, but in high school Point Break was one of my favorite movies. I think the whole fantasy of surfing (as well as mountain biking) and trying to capture some of the idealism interested me. With the surfers, the light in the drawings and color limits (only pure acrylic color diluted with water, no actual mixing, only optical mixing) were important.
In his current work, drawing allows Goldberg to quickly experiment with his optical interests outside of the studio. He was encouraged to draw by his friend Michael Toenges, a German painter. After spending six weeks in New York, Toenges gave Goldberg some leftover gouaches. “One afternoon, when my son was napping, I made a drawing. It was a great experience. It allowed me to work through ideas quickly. My paintings are done over several months while a drawing takes about two hours. I could see new color combinations quicker.” He keeps a set of gouache paints packed in a box, with the right paper and brushes alongside to easily bring his work to a new location.
Location and the time of year are two primary factors in Goldberg’s color choices. Once you notice the titles—which typically include location and date when the painting was made—the subtle shifts in mood become apparent. Some are made in his parent’s Connecticut backyard, others were completed in the Dominican Republic. You can feel the difference.
The largest paintings are worked inside his North-facing studio. Fortunately a parking lot—not a skyscraper—is adjacent to his studio building, allowing for abundant light to stream through one wall of glass. His workspace is impressively tidy, and not just because of my visit. Glancing around, you’ll notice that every jar is labeled and dated, the brushes are arranged by size and drawings are stacked by date. This organization outside of the paintings is necessary to complete the organization within. Goldberg’s work is an accumulation of thin glazes, and each layer contributes to the painting’s final effect. The first layers that ultimately get buried still hold a bearing on the final tonal relationships, so Goldberg keeps a guide to track each work’s progress. He neatly brushes each color to a corresponding paper guide. It’s fascinating to compare final images with these accompanying swatches. They keep a strict, chronological log of each painting as Goldberg builds on the history of his daily experience with light.
Greg Goldberg: Northern Light, on view April 17 through May 31 at Stephan Stoyanov Gallery, 29 Orchard Street, New York, NY, 10002, 212-343-4240