PRINT March 1966

Joe Goode and the Common Object

ONE OF THE EARLY NAMES offered for the movement which was finally called Pop Art was “The New Paintings of Common Objects.” This was the title of an exhibition at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1962, which included work by Joe Goode among works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, James Dine, Edward Ruscha, and others. The careful wording of the title suggests that even then the exhibition’s organizer (Walter Hopps) suspected that while the group held together well enough as a presentation of the new imagery that had been emerging since the very late fifties, careful examination, sooner or later, would distinguish differences which would strain any but the most loosely unifying of titles. All of the Pop artists might make “new paintings of common objects,” but not all of the new painters of common objects could easily be classified as Pop artists. The work of artists like Joe Goode, for example, seemed to force the distinction between those artists who had been formally (as well as iconographically) revolutionary––Lichtenstein and Warhol––and those who have been permitted, by the employment of certain energies released by Pop art, to resume the working out of a thematic strain that is as old, perhaps, as American culture itself.

Central to the liberation of both streams of common object painting has been Jasper Johns, who, for Warhol and Lichtenstein, bridged the distance between their art and Abstract Expressionism and who, for Joe Goode, bridged the distance between himself and a tradition of common object painting exemplified by such earlier artists as William Michael Harnett, John Frederick Peto and John Haberle. The historians will one day, undoubtedly, have to deal with the considerable differences in national and geographical origin between the artists of the Abstract Expressionist generation in America and their immediate followers; among the former, a considerable proportion have either European or immigrant backgrounds, while a similar proportion of the latter have come from a scattered variety of grass-roots backgrounds. Jasper Johns, for example, comes from North Carolina; Joe Goode from Oklahoma City. Had neither ever heard of John Peto (which is not the case), one could reasonably assume that certain native strains of American life, certain sentimentalizations, certain responses to a pervasive loneliness in American living might have readied their art to echo, without deliberation, that peculiar attraction to the common object which seems to be ingrained in the very fiber of American life.

Aside from whatever polemical, or programmatic significance a work such as Johns’ novel coat-hanger lithograph may have possessed, an entirely new dimension is brought to it when it is examined alongside, not the work of some third-generation Abstract Expressionist of the late fifties, but a work, for example, like Peto’s The Cup We All Race 4. What had been, perhaps, a puzzling, even irritating, formal device, suddenly comes to partake of that tradition of desperate, lonely attachments to well-worn common objects which appears again and again in American art, American literature, and American life. The Savarin can, with its cast paint brushes, whatever relevance it may have had to Pop art, suddenly becomes one of those mute, battered Old Friends to which Harnett, Peto and Haberle never tire of giving immortality.

The common-object iconography of Harnett and Peto was placed at the disposal of ends innocent to the point of primitivism. Formally, the pipes, racks, cards, lamps, books, pistols and horseshoes provided perfect foils for the exploitation of that trompe l’oeil style in which both the artists and their low-brow audiences delighted. The “messages” of the paintings were the stupifying homilies of American folk-philosophy: the value of the tried and true, the sad inevitability of decay and death, the trustworthiness of the plain and the simple, the vulnerability of all before the ravages of time, etc., etc. Today, one of the great sources of our interest in viewing these works is the tension between this “manifest content” and the desolate spiritual landscape which the paintings actually reveal. We are touched, not by the sentimental truisms, and certainly not by the true-to-life trickery, but by the plain tale of isolation, loneliness, cultural barrenness and stunted growth which the paintings so remorselessly tell.

The modern artist, one suspects, spends a good deal of time rummaging about in the materials of exhausted conventions. The innocence which John Peto or John Haberle brought to common object iconography was impossible for a young artist coming to maturity in the early years of this decade. One can imagine him toying with the possibilities for parody presented by a trompe l’oeil style and the turn-of-the-century sentiment. In any event, the screwdriver lithograph of 1962 finds the young Joe Goode frankly acknowledging his interest in the direction indicated in the Johns coathanger lithograph, and soberly testing the possibilities of a discarded iconography. Via Jasper Johns, we see Goode making his way back to a tradition of the common object which is not Pop art, and which is not dependent primarily upon any of the modernist painting traditions. It was this connection, carefully established, which gave the now rather well-known milk-bottle series its compelling gravity and at the same time made it so difficult to assimilate in the prevailing atmosphere of modern art in Los Angeles.

The series consisted of milk-bottles, sometimes painted with an even coat of color, sometimes thickly textured with paint, placed singly or in groups on a shallow platform (sometimes simply on the floor) before a monochromatic, feather-textured canvas, evenly painted throughout except for, in some instances, a traced shadow-outline of the milk-bottle set before it. The works coincided with a number of developments in the Los Angeles area at that time, and there is no doubt that they were formally related to them. The influence of Robert Irwin’s severely reductive canvases (Irwin had been Goode’s teacher at the Chouinard Art Institute) was making itself felt among the younger artists. In addition, the intense reaction against gestural painting of any kind was exemplified best, perhaps, by the universal admiration accorded the immaculate surfaces of Billy Al Bengston’s paintings, and the positioning of solitary milk-bottles against an evenly-painted surface could easily have been read as an admiring parody of the centered placement of emblematic devices in Bengston’s work. Lastly, of course, the works coincided with the immediate and wholehearted acceptance among younger Los Angeles artists of the developing Pop art movement on the one hand, and the reductive, gestureless abstraction of Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland on the other. While the milk-bottle paintings, therefore, could clearly be seen as a part of the developing Los Angeles “scene,” there was nevertheless, an unsettling quality about them, an intrusive moral overtone which set them apart from the inscrutably noncommittal presentations of his fellows. John Coplans, reviewing the Pasadena exhibition, called them “. . . the loneliest paintings imaginable.” (Artforum, Volume I no. 6, pg. 28.)

It is easier to see now that the overriding concern of the milk-bottle paintings was the selection and presentation of an exact symbol of a certain quality of life in America. A particular, horrendous sense of vacancy, sterility and entrapment informs these paintings as well as the two remarkable series which followed them: the house paintings of 1963–64––pencilled, nondescript houses set in the center of a monochrome color field––and the window paintings of 1965––disembodied windows all the more isolated and prison-like for being set freely afloat in Magritte-blue skies. In all of them, what we are given is the common object of Harnett and Peto, without the innocence, without the sentiment, without even the quality of “puzzle” with which Johns was able to infuse it (and thus reclaim it).

As meticulous evocations of that American ambience of “quiet desperation” at which previous common object painting had only hinted, the staircase constructions which Goode is currently exhibiting at the Wilder Gallery are perhaps the most cogently realized works he has yet devised. Passive, like all of his work, the constructions emanate an oppressive atmosphere of vacuous Midwestern tidiness. Also like all of his work, the staircases are in formal sympathy with much of the advanced work being done by his contemporaries: in this case, they hover in a region between a kind of “ready-made” on the one hand, and the reductive, geometric sculpture of Robert Morris or Donald Judd on the other. But they are neither ready-made, nor do they come out of the tradition of sculptural confrontations which produced either Judd or Morris. They are constructions of common objects, and come out of a tradition of common object painting. That Goode’s process has been that of re-inventing and putting to his own uses this tradition is what gives his works their conviction.

––Philip Leider