The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2018

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MAR 2018 Issue

Michael Goldberg End to End: The 1950s & 2000s

Michael Goldberg, Knossos, 2007, oil and oil stick on canvas, 83 x 74 1/2 inches.©Michael Goldberg Estate; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY
On View
Michael Rosenfeld Gallery
January 27 – March 24, 2018
New York

Thirty-three works, fifty-seven years of Michael Goldberg’s long and rich artistic career. The alpha and the omega of his artistic life: nine paintings from the 1950s (1950-1959) and twenty-four from this century, from 2000 until 2007, the year of his death. Presenting the extremes seems prudent because this is a gallery show and not, alas, a full-scale museum retrospective.

Any consideration of Goldberg’s career conjures up the matter of what came to be known as the “Second Generation Abstract Expressionists.” Goldberg was born in 1924, and clustered around him we find Grace Hartigan (1922), Joan Mitchell (1925), Al Leslie (1927), Helen Frankenthaler (1928) and Al Held (1928). Excellent painters, but somewhat eclipsed by contemporaries like Ellsworth Kelly (1923), Robert Rauschenberg (1925), Cy Twombly (1928), Jasper Johns (1930), and Andy Warhol (1928). The second generation Abstract Expressionists come along just in time for the metamorphosis of American painting into divergent, diverging styles. Where the first generation of any movement is made up of innovators, the second is made up of artists who extend and give depth to the work of their predecessors. Which is to say, once brought to life, artistic movements stay alive despite the arrival of new trends. Much of Amy Sillman’s work, for example, would be incomprehensible without the tradition of gestural abstraction embodied by Michael Goldberg.

Born in the Bronx, Goldberg improbably began his artistic training at the Art Students League in 1938, when he was fourteen. At the age of seventeen, in 1941, he entered Hans Hofmann’s School of Fine Art, where he remained until 1942, when he became a paratrooper in the United States Army, saw action in several war theaters, and earned a Purple Heart. Much of his life is rehashed by friends in the homage to him that appears in the informative February 6, 2008, issue of the Brooklyn Rail. Goldberg showed under the name Michael Stuart in 1951, but shed that alias quickly.

His Bronx, Jewish origins reappear in a still-astonishing painting of 1956, Still Life with Onion Rolls, a large 74 × 76 piece. The title, setting aside the onion rolls, takes us back to Cubism, nominally the antithesis of Abstract Expressionist frenzy. That paradox is the ironic point here: Goldberg’s painting defies the sort of 360-degree analysis critic Clement Greenberg often advocated. Instead, Goldberg locates us before a fixed structure: the painterly space is divided into discreet units that stand apart from one another: there is an above and a below. We may not be able to find the onion rolls, but they are there. What we do know is that Goldberg has assimilated a tradition and made it into something all his own. Allusions abound here, especially to Hans Hofmann, but they merely emphasize Goldberg’s amazing vigor.

Michael Goldberg, Still Life with Onion Rolls, 1956. Oil and tape on canvas, 74 x 76 inches. © Michael Goldberg Estate; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY.

The work included here from this century is Goldberg’s answer to the question: “Where do we go from here?” What would be the fate of Abstract Expressionism? The answer is Knossos, another large, 83 × 74.5 inch painting, from 2007. If in the 1956 painting we detect allusions to Modernism, what we see here is the painter in the fullness of time. To utter the name Knossos is to evoke the history of urban art in Western culture. Crete takes us back to our origins, but it also takes us back to the mythical labyrinth at whose center stand the Minotaur and death.

The painting then is an affirmation of creative energy in the face of old age. The energy is no longer ubiquitous on the canvas but channeled, controlled, and used sparingly. All the dividing lines here are ultimately dead ends, but there remains a small, private space—a heart pounding at the center of a hardening geometry. This superb painting stands as Goldberg’s autobiographical elegy. He did not go gentle into that good night.


Alfred Mac Adam

Alfred Mac Adam is Professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College-Columbia University. He is a translator, most recently of Juan Villoro’s Horizontal Vertigo (2021), about Mexico City.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2018

All Issues