New York

Robert Goodnough

At Tibor De Nagy Robert Goodnough’s current show marks another of his periodic turns to statements of great reduction and economy. Goodnough’s work for some years has been involved with the manipulation of formal elements stemming from the simplistic phase of later Cubism, presented either as abstract constructs of great density and impact or as elaborated compositions using these same elements to deal with a generalized subject of some kind. Both of these approaches have retained a Spartan aversion to decorative richness through a range of colors which never stray far from primary hues plus black, white, and grey, and an execution sufficiently cavalier in its retention of drips and gaucheries of draftsmanship to cancel out any suggestion of thin-blooded elegance. In the case of the “subject” pictures (e.g. the “Boat” series) the progressions have been toward a full, almost Baroque summation of the theme, followed up by a period of work severe, hermetic, and Apollonian.

It is just such a transition that is seen in the present show. The large Bomb III, a pyramidal composition of heaped-up forms, suggests the debris of a Goodnough machine of the immediately previous period. Structural lines enclose the entire group of forms to adumbrate the shift to simpler forms of greater concentration. The other paintings in the exhibition carry out this promise of spare, more rigorous construction. As in the case of the large “Prometheus,” they are mostly loose diamond-shaped compositions floating in the undifferentiated space of the sized or raw canvas. Each is made up of rows of linear vertical rectangles all about the same size, drawn over slightly larger soft patches of color. The chromatic spread of these colors is greater than seems to be the case at first: the dark colors are close in value and so the blues, greys, and greens take a while to separate out. Toward the edges of these sets of angular forms the colors become lighter, close to or identical with the hue of the grounds.

The series of smaller Prisms (I through V) experiments with just a few such rectangles of either pencil, or red and green color over precise boxes of pale tones. These mute and stripped-down works seem to represent a kind of clearing of the decks for perhaps a future sequence of again progressively more complex developments utilizing a wider variety of compositional elements than the drawn boxes and reserved agreeable color that dominate this group.

While it is true that the point of this show lies partly in its contrast to earlier works and so for some tastes there might not be a great deal of compelling interest except in the context of Goodnough’s entire oeuvre, the reflective understated qualities they do have are not trivial or light-minded. Their architectonic soundness makes the necessary connection with the wider scope of the artist’s earlier works and is relevant to the ever-increasing formalism of so much postwar American painting.

Goodnough’s repeated and varied assaults on the tangled question of his subjective concerns and highly formalized pictorial constructions have developed in him a rare ability to deal with very complex states of feeling within limits that lesser talents debase to problems of design. His riper compositions have a tough-minded expressiveness without the condescensions of windy, belittling narrative. This time around we see him reticent and austere, but not without meditative gravity.

Dennis Adrian