GLENN GOLDBERG with Phong Bui
I’ve been following the evolution of Glenn Goldberg as a painter since I was exposed to his work in 1986. It was on the occasion of his recent exhibit All Day at Betty Cuningham Gallery (February 28 – April 4, 2015), in cooperation with Jason McCoy Gallery, that I was finally able to view his latest output, and to sit down with him afterwards on-site to catch up and discuss his work, and more.
Phong Bui (Rail): We first met at the opening of a group exhibit of the founding faculty members of the New York Studio School in the summer of 1986. You had just started teaching there, and I had just arrived as a student. And then I saw your work for the first time in a group exhibit at Willard Gallery in memory of Marian Willard Johnson in the fall, but it wasn’t until a year later, in 1987, that I got to see your one-person exhibit at the gallery, which must have been your last exhibit there since it closed in the same year.
Glenn Goldberg: Yes, that’s right. My last show there was actually their last show.
Rail: My first question is how did you get to show with Willard Gallery which was mostly associated with artists of older generations such as Lyonel Feininger, Morris Graves, Mark Tobey, Charles Seliger, and so on? You must have been the youngest artist on the roster.
Goldberg: Susan Rothenberg, Lois Lane, and Kenneth Price were showing at Willard at the same time as I was. Miani Johnson formed an incredible gallery. I was one of the youngest in the stable, along with Justen Ladda. I came in on the heels of the “New Image” painters, along with Neil Jenney, Susan Rothenberg, Lois Lane, Robert Moskowitz, early Donald Sultan, early Bryan Hunt, Judith Shea, and a couple of others. My work wasn’t fully a part of that generation, nor was I. Looking back I could say that my work was an addendum to that movement. I suppose the commonality may have resided in the relationship between image and ground, which I was very interested in at the time, but my investment in minimalist thinking of the ’70s gave my work a reductive property. You could say that my right foot was in the ’80s while my left was in the ’70s.
Rail: Or that your head was in the ’70s while your body was in the ’80s.
Goldberg: Yes, that seems like a fair description.
Rail: I can see, however, why the interplay between flat, silhouetted images and the tightly pointed minimal ground especially resonates with the works of Moskowitz and Lois Lane. But what do you think separates your work from theirs? Was it the issue of size?
Goldberg: It wasn’t size so much, as most of us were making similarly large-sized works, give or take a foot or two. I was making paintings that were 96 by 70 inches. In hindsight, I think it had more to do with how I treated the images on large white, or off-white, beds with industrial materials such as enamel paint. Their images were also far more literal.
Rail: Was there a specific reason for using enamel paint and for using wood panel as surface support?
Goldberg: I was interested in the resultant dissonance that occurs when something very intimate and fragile is expressed with crude materials. For example, I would create very elegant lines that were descriptively like a letter or a flower, and then I would fortify them with an alternate physical presence.
Rail: You mean the ground with the enamel painted flat was one way to anchor the image?
Goldberg: Yes, partly because it was heavily painted, industrial, and not elegant.
Rail: In some of your paintings, the surfaces are tight and uniform like ceramic.
Goldberg: The way I dealt with those images was by taking them through a process of endless addition and subtraction. I was using the white as an eraser, basically. It built up quite a bit the more I would erase.
Rail: Which can be very compelling as long as the quality of lightness is intended. Actually, just last Thursday (March 12th), on the 6 train, after having spent a short time at the press conference at the Italian Cultural Institute of the next Venice Biennale All the World’s Futures, I was reading Okwui Enwezor’s curatorial statement which began with an epigraph of Walter Benjamin’s paragraph, extracted from his famous book, Theses on the Philosophy of History. Enwezor describes Paul Klee’s wonderful small painting entitled “The Angel of History” or “Angelus Novus,” painted in 1920, of an angel with his open mouth, spread wings, fragile, tiptoeing feet, and haunting eyes looking at the viewer that Benjamin himself saw as a symbol for a state of despair, the horror of history, and the bleak future of civilization. I happen to see Klee’s image of the angel as an expression of gaiety, childlike perspective, dry humor, poetry, and music—features that are, I think, intuitive to Klee. His floral forms could be read as heart shapes or wings of butterflies, angels, or birds in those early paintings. Then I read a small essay that you wrote, “My Job: Painter,” which, in eight short paragraphs, essentially summarized your whole life’s work as a painter. In fact, in it you recalled an instance when you were making drawings on the wall and had this anxiety and fear that your drawings would be covered, painted over. In other words, the act was not allowed. It shows an awareness of the fact that, as much as you feel you would like to produce something declarative, it’s always going to disappear. You associated it with the ritual of the Tibetan sand mandala, in that as soon as the mandala painting is made, it begins to be dissembled. This actually gave me greater insight into how I can further benefit from looking at the work. How did those shapes, forms, and colors of distinct nature come into being?
Goldberg: For lack of a better word, I was involved with the drive to generate a world of intimate and poetic images, as offerings of “devotion.” I’m aware that the word devotion evokes all kinds of complex references and misunderstandings, but so does the beautiful mess of being a human being in an extremely complicated world. I guess I’ve always resisted the desire to make works that fit into a pre-existing genre. I have also resisted the desire to make work that is overly legible, seemingly opposite to an aim of minimal artists. But, by the time I came to some maturity in the ’80s, I was reacting against formalist ideologies. Everyone was making big and expressive paintings, be it Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, or whoever else. So there again, I belonged to neither decade, but I continued to make work that reflected my particular position in between.
Rail: I can relate. We have to choose our freedom. You mentioned earlier how you were interested in Minimalism of the ’70s, especially Richard Tuttle, Robert Ryman, and Fred Sandback. Can you offer more detailed reasons?
Goldberg: First of all, I was trained at the Studio School, and then at Queens College. I’d refer to both experiences as a combined plastic and pictorial training. It was not about volume, nor chiaroscuro, and so on. It was basically tied to the history of early Modernism—how colors relate to each other, how the image relates to the picture plane, what the picture plane means. There was a huge focus on drawing and structure. The teaching at both schools was also about the idea that a painting would be filled up by a subject, so we students were encouraged to go through the process of finding the subject through its elements, be it a traditional landscape space, or a space of tension à la Mondrian, or color as plasticity as in Hoffman’s sense of the word. All of those things were offered to me when I was at the Studio School for one year and one summer from 1977 to ’78. I then worked in production in the cosmetic industry and went to graduate school at Queens College in January 1979.
Rail: You also mentioned that while you were at the Studio School both Gretna Campbell and Ruth Miller were very important teachers to you. What about other teachers like Nick Carone, Charles Cajori, Mercedes Matter, among others?
Goldberg: I would always meander into sculpture and sit in on crits with Peter Agostini. George McNeil was around, but Ruth and Gretna provided just as much formal training, and also offered necessary moral support. They made me feel that it was possible for me to be a painter. Nick Carone’s hard-drive education was very useful. Nick was very eloquent and passionate about his idea of art. It was convincing because he believed in what he was saying. He was the best at teaching what the picture plane was, although I did not understand it at the time. Ruth was key, and still is, in terms of saying simple things that were so profound and mattered so much. I felt that she believed in me. She would say things like, “How are you?” Her words were always direct and heartfelt. It is an idiomatic question—“How are you doing?”—but I knew she was concerned about me, particularly when I started to show a little bit. She knew that I was showing as a young artist and I was confused and unsettled. I was also inspired by the intellect and grace of Andrew Forge. In any case, to answer your earlier question about my attraction towards Minimalism, which you can say was somewhat contrary to what was thought of as the Studio School, the assumptions of filling up a rectangle with colors and many forms were no longer a given for me. It dawned on me that I could start at the very beginning, as if the canvas was a void, so Ryman was instructive for me, Tuttle was instructive for me, Sandback and Robert Grosvenor were instructive for me. The idea of the support, the wall, how we get off the wall and up from the floor, which relates to what lies in between painting and sculpture, was so important to my growth at the time.
Rail: Would it be correct to suggest that the white enamel was used as an aggressive yet gentle way of canceling out those assumptions that you’ve just described?
Goldberg: Yes it was. But it also involved a new interest in language. If you have a vertical line, you could make a stretch and find a reference for it, but as soon as it has a little curve at the top, it becomes more literal. We could say it could become like an umbrella or a candy cane or a thing. These visual semiotics were interesting to me in my early formation of how my images were made. Why and how they were made.
Rail: Okay! So those early silhouetted forms seem to suggest multiple potential readings. But as far as how they were made, I remember some of the images—especially the central ones—were stenciled, spray-painted as much as they were sanded, and then painted over with oil paint and enamel. There was a mediation between the handmade and the quasi-readymade.
Goldberg: It was my method of emphasizing and making feeling tangible, to highlight the difference between what I think and how I feel. I titled some paintings, “Emotional Facts,” which is a contradiction of course, but feelings can seem tangible. My intention is to resist being swept away by emotion, and clarify them down if it’s at all possible.
Rail: So the Hofmannesque idea of push and pull, which is very masculine as an undertaking, turned into reductive essentialism.
Goldberg: Yes, it’s as grounded as the wall, yet I sought an intimacy that was quiet and not sentimental. In fact, I made a bunch of paintings that used a small strip of wood on top and bottom so air could come behind or in between. I’ve made paintings to put on shelves with the implication that you could take them off, then put them back in the same or other places. They’re portable objects.
Rail: I, too, like the idea that a painting can be leaning against a bookcase, though it has to be small. This idea was both emotional and political motivation for Tom Nozkowski after being exposed to Sienese paintings during the first trip he and his wife, the artist Joyce Robins, took in 1971. Anyway, why did you decide to go to graduate school at Queens College instead of elsewhere? Was it because Louis Finkelstein, Gretna Campbell’s husband, was teaching there?
Goldberg: Louis, the head of the graduate department; Gabriel Laderman; Rosemarie Beck; and Tom Doyle were there. But, yes, it was essentially my attempt to perpetuate or expand my education until I felt confident enough to be on my own that drew me there.
Rail: Do you think what potentially lies behind the fear of things being painted over, erased, as you have described in your childhood, which may align with your attraction to Minimalism, is a fear of claustrophobia, which relates to Vuillard’s interiors, one of your and Louis’s favorite painters besides Bonnard?
Goldberg: Yes, without a doubt. My love for paintings began with Corot’s plein air paintings, especially his oil sketches that he painted during his trip to Italy in 1826. I love the range of his creamy grays, which in some ways relates to minimal backgrounds of the late ’70s. You could say that the claustrophobic interiors of Vuillard are to some extent evidenced in my paintings of the late ’90s.
Rail: You mean the oil on panels that were filled with networks of dots, patterns, mandala-like resemblances, and whatnot?
Goldberg: Yes. And the color became loud and vibrant. After years of image dominating ground, the ground began to answer back and assert itself.
Rail: Which reminds me, in the same essay, “My Job: Painter,” you spoke of references to nature and natural forms such as birds, flowers, animals, plants, petals, etc. as though they were functions of nature deprivation syndrome. You’re an urbanite, which is the opposite of Klee. Klee grew up with a large garden behind his house in Berne, and he had a strong interest in botany. However, we’re informed by his writing that he insisted that his rapport with nature was an attempt to open up an inner world for himself in which dreams, fantasy, and poetic elements in nature could all interweave.
Goldberg: For me, aspects of fantasies, dreams, and imagination answer the constant confusion that we face everyday, and are essential to movement in the world. This sort of belief, of course, embraces neither irony nor pragmatism. It is alright. It is a matter of necessity more than anything else.
Rail: What was behind the shift from singular and sparing images on minimal backgrounds in the ’80s, which we have just talked about, to the more filled, packed surfaces on which floral/mandala-like forms were co-inhabiting with various formations of dots and flecks of color networks by the mid-’90s? And what about the development of wood panels?
Goldberg: That shift occurred more naturally than it appeared. On one hand, my wife is a weaver, and a fabric designer, which I’m sure has a subliminal effect on my visual perception. On the other hand, I felt that the ground should not just be a support mechanism, it should be more active. I worked towards that view. In other words, the figure and ground should compete so that the space has less air, or no air at all. As the space is compressed or filled, the images are buried.
Rail: That makes sense.
Goldberg: It was about the early 2000s that I began to, in some way, re-enter the figure/ground space again.
Rail: So you seem to go through phases where single images or a few images are painted on fairly minimal backgrounds, and phases where you pack up, fill the surfaces with patterns, dots, and so on.
Goldberg: Continually, yes. I think it’s natural for an artist to go through phases in his or her work. I mean, sometimes you go through phases in which you accumulate, consume information by ways of filling the surfaces of your paintings. And other times you go through phases where you just want to do the opposite: to get rid of things so you can breathe again and see something.
Rail: I remember seeing them, especially the paintings, in my last visit to your studio in 2005, they were painted with single images that seemed to combine the floral forms and mandala structures. They also looked as though they each had a magnet that pulled all the stars around their orbits so they would become something else. They also were floating mostly on the right, I never see them on the left.
Goldberg: That’s right. Which is important in a way because I think the body has its own needs. Although painters essentially paint with their eyes and their hands, their bodies have to participate in locating elements. And things aren’t always as symmetrical as they appear. Whatever people call it—a flower, a mandala, an energy form—to me it is a place to visit. At some point, about three years ago, I decided to make paintings using just black and white and the infinite gray scale they generate in between. It actually felt great because I didn’t have to deal with colors, which can be very intrusive and distracting. I was reminded again how and why I love Agnes Martin’s and Alan Uglow’s paintings. None of these works were ever filled with things. They dealt with the articulation of breath.
Rail: Do you think that in this body of work, take “Tapestry” (2015) for example, there seems to be a strong reference to vaudeville/Broadway musicals in how the total image appears? It looks as though through the use of repetition—which is something that consumed and digested when you were interested in Minimalism—and the use of structures or patterns I should say, “Tapestry” shares something with Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie” (1942 – 43) in terms of sound and rhythm. As Holland Cotter in his New York Times review (January 1, 1992) wrote, “If Paul Klee had designed video games, they would look something like Glenn Goldberg’s work.” I am also thinking of Joseph Stella’s iconic painting “The Bridge” (1920) seen through a black-and-white acid trip.
Goldberg: I’ve never thought of the vaudeville and Broadway musical references, but, early on, my grandparents were involved in carnival acts. They traveled around and performed together, and lived the carney life. They were in Atlantic City when it first started. I sometimes see structures and images in my work that remind me of carnival booth games. The repeated profiles of the flying birds and ducks help push energy outward.
Rail: What about “Noon” (2015)?
Goldberg: It’s entitled “Noon” simply because the energy of it felt like it’s midday, rather than dusk or morning. I feel the rhythm is connected and disconnected at the same time. I like the relationship to music or dance. It looks like it would be static but it’s actually not. Movement in the still.
Rail: Do you feel that the sound that “Tapestry” generates in particular is either loud or quiet?
Goldberg: It’s rather quiet but forceful, I hope: like Thelonious Monk with his broken rhythm or dissonances where silences form an essential part of melodic power.
Rail: What is the function of the fence in the foreground? In “View” it looks almost like a steel structure that suggests a train going by on the track.
Goldberg: The fence motif started with some previous smaller paintings in about 2012. In some cases, it’s a point of entry for the viewer to look beyond into another space and place. In other cases, the fence motif extends and incorporates itself into systems of borders that are integral parts of the paintings.
Rail: I also noticed that the star and circle motifs that appear on the border of “Tapestry” also reappear as different patterning in the painting. One could say it’s similar in treatment to how borders function in illuminated manuscripts, such as framing the text.
Goldberg: Or enhancing the field of vision, or lending overall coherence to the whole painting.
Rail: It’s true. Can you tell us how the figure came about in the painting “Friend” (2015)?
Goldberg: At some point I felt like I could refer to a person, or an invented replacement person. He’s both friendly and a bit menacing. He’s walking across the picture plane to the left, but his torso seems to be in three-quarters profile. His head is frontal but his two eyes are looking to the right of the canvas. It cannot simple say “Oh, he’s happy,” or “Oh, he’s friendly,” or “Oh, he’s scary.” It’s all in there, and for me that’s the same as us. He is awkward, but he is always moving, always paying attention. He’s a prototype of a kind of vulnerable strength. He’s living a life and he’s limping through a variety of conditions, and he’s not done yet. It took a long time to find a way to include what one could call a person or a figure or an image of a human being: many, many years. I wouldn’t say I avoided it, but now that he has appeared, he’s a friend and one of my integral team members.
PHONG BUI is the Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.