New York

Robert Goodnough

Tibor de Nagy Gallery

In a series of large mural-sized canvases painted over the past two years Robert Goodnough has been synthesizing two alternate tendencies which have made themselves felt throughout his development. In his show at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, this combination is especially manifest, taking form in a new kind of openness and clarity which mark these paintings as among Goodnough’s major achievements in an otherwise uneven career. One has always noted this artist’s vacillation between an impulse to structure, perhaps too rigidly (derived from the Purist disciplines he experienced while studying with Ozenfant), and an almost repressed desire to give free vent to his more exuberant, expressionist leanings, encouraged by later study with Hans Hofmann. Allusions to figuration, always a problem for Goodnough, and which were explicit in a series of Boat Abstractions painted in 1965–66, have now been submerged almost entirely as structure gains a rhythm of its own. Only the rough skeletal suggestion of his favorite dinosaur form with its scaly platings in the painting 11-L, or the vertebrae-like sequence of colored patches in another picture refer vaguely to the organic, subjective basis of Goodnough’s vision.

In these new paintings Goodnough has begun to scatter disparate torn or hard-edged shapes buoyantly across wide areas of the whitish-grey primed canvases. Always legible, yet still freely rendered, these patches jostle and flow over each other in dynamic channels. I found 11-L to be the most intelligent painting, with its successful balance between an overall order and the internal freedom of juxtaposed forms. One or two of the other paintings exhibit the kind of predictability and stiffness to which Goodnough’s expression frequently falls prey. A repetitive use of dulled colors—slate blues, umber or rusty browns, greenish greys, with only occasional accents of bright cadmium red or orange—does not work forcefully enough to redeem this particular kind of formal regularity. One feels in these paintings that the discrete forms are made to follow each other in sequence, and are lined up in parallel loosely curving bands, not so much because of a special need to structure shapes in that way, but because once started, that was the most logical—and predictable—though least challenging way to complete the configuration. Somehow the necessity is not one of formal will, but of an abdication of such a will—an easy escape so to speak. And yet one realizes the tremendous effort Goodnough is exercising to allow an intellectual design to inform and energize rather than to dominate his painterly freedom. It is this aspect of the show that is most encouraging (and most realized) for anyone who has followed Goodnough’s work over the years.

Emily Wasserman