New York

Robert Goodnough

Emmerich Gallery Uptown

While the reduction in the work of many painters has been toward simpler and tougher premises, Robert Goodnough has reduced his work in the past few years to purer poetry—the flutter of light across the surface of the canvas. The small masked pieces are very susceptible to metaphorical analogies. He has used mostly shades of gray, introducing pastel colors into some pieces, although the primary sense of color is generated by the unsized brown weave of the canvas which functions as a middle ground for the highlights and shadows of the paint.

In both last year’s show and the present one, it seems that the most successful paintings are those in which the scattering of pieces manages to set the entire surface into motion. The grace of the work depends upon the proper size and distance of fragments from each other, allowing the right amount of canvas to show through. It depends also on the stacking of the planes and on the tapering off of a cluster to a well-felt flick of segments at the end. The strength of some works is a function of the equilibrium reached between seeing the cluster as a discrete form, holding its own against the canvas, yet preventing any reading of figure against ground. When scattering is too diffuse, or when the pieces are too close together to allow the canvas to be felt through them, the paintings seem either awkward or flimsy.

Too often, however, even the works most successful on the terms just described offer the viewer mere tingles of sensation. Perhaps they are meant to appear transitory or ephemeral, as if in the process of becoming or having been. But this is not substantial enough. One desires more, feeling rather cheated. Goodnough himself seems to have recognized this problem. In order to solidify his works, he has begun to experiment with firmer configurations. Green Color Statement, for example, uses a triad of groupings. Each one behaves both as a figure against a ground, working against each other as large areas, and as individual configurations of small pieces. The placement of the clusters, however, still seems unresolved. They linger tentatively, making the surrounding canvas rather inert.

More interesting is the painting, Slate Gray Statement, in which Goodnough has brushed a stain of gray paint over the canvas. The texture created in this way gives the work a solidity and power absent from the wispier paintings. The grayness generated by the work is the richest expression of color in the show.

It seems peculiar that Goodnough has entitled many of his works “color statements,” because they seem to have little to do with color. While he demonstrates a fine eye for shades of gray, warms and cools, darks and lights, everything functions as value. In several of the new paintings, he has tried to use pastel colors, but they also fail to work as hue. Perhaps the reason for this is that the small pieces are tempered by each other so that one sees only the cumulative relation to the brown of the canvas. Slate Gray Statement is the only painting that transforms gray into color. The other works show how masterful Goodnough is at suggestion, but it remains the subtlety of an elegant emptiness.

Lizzie Borden