New York

Michael Goldberg

Knoedler & Company

The “Ninth Street Show,” held in 1951, marked the growing resistance of New York artists to their long indenture to French modernism, a servitude felt most acutely from the 1930s on. Virtually all the figures of the first and second generations of the Abstract Expressionist pantheon were present. The painting of the latter group manifested varying syntheses of and allegiances to Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Mark Rothko, to name the most pervasive influences. Among the most gifted of these younger artists—mostly ex-GIs in their twenties—was Michael Goldberg, a magnetic fellow of informed opinion and good humor, whose compelling paintings were then marked by his close attention to de Kooning’s lyrical felicities.

Goldberg’s bold fluency changed radically when, in 1962, he moved into an old, high-ceilinged Bowery studio marked by the lingering pictorial ghosts of Rothko, its previous occupant. It was there that the younger artist made the bulk of his fourteen Red Paintings (ten of which were on view here); these works’ scale (mostly variants of approximately 89 by 100 inches, some horizontal in thrust, others bluntly vertical) and their rusty, sumac color retain, if you will, certain nuances of Rothko’s own red murals of 1958 for the Four Seasons restaurant in the newly constructed Seagram Building—a commission that came a cropper when Rothko realized they were intended for bourgeois delectation.

Goldberg’s series also underscores his marked shift in attitude away from the fluent blandishments of Rothko and de Kooning, and toward something irresilient, a new mode favoring the grittiness of decrepit apartment walls—those palimpsests of broad-brushed, cheap oil- and lead-based house paints that dry and flake over time, and ultimately seem to personify tenement toxicity and pervasive poverty. As it happens, the grounds of the Red Paintings are made up of troweled-on lead white inherited from Goldberg’s friend Kline, whose death in 1962 plays an associative role in the resonance of these works. In the nearly half century since, the hematoid red brushed over this turbid, absorptive ground has seeped in ever more deeply so that certain passages are now quite matte, others less so, and still others filigreed with a fine craquelure. This physical evolution adds tremendously to the paintings’ sense of conviction, to their status as a new beginning for the artist, his ground zero—uningratiating but newly beautiful.

Most important are these compositions’ sharply reduced, Kline-like glyphs—often barely more than a band of dirty white or blackish green—which further mark Goldberg’s farewell to grace and belle peinture. It is surely no coincidence that, at quite the same moment, de Kooning also bid adieu to beautiful flourish with the strong, incisive gestures in his Parkway Paintings, 1960–61, works also inflected by the Kline model, a connection to which Klaus Kertess draws our attention in his fine essay accompanying the exhibition. At the time of the Red Paintings’ creation, Goldberg can only have been vying with Kline and de Kooning, the implicit historical memory of the younger artist’s work paralleling these great Abstract Expressionists’ approach to Matisse’s Red Studio. The deep moral tenor of the Red Paintings also reminds us, at the very least, of the actual physical character of the lost poverty, grunge, and drunkenness of the old Bowery, as well as of ambition against all reason, of isolation and spiritual conquest—of Jacob wrestling with the angel—that is often missed in today’s painting owing to its compromises with irony, that most literary of achievements.

The exhibition of these major paintings suggests that there may yet be more such pockets to uncover in the later Goldberg corpus, made during those decades in which the artist was, in measure, taken for granted. Certainly, paintings such as Goldberg’s The Wife and Dear Wo, both 1962—to mention only two outstanding Red Paintings—must now be counted among the canonical American efforts of that moment, comparable to those similar efforts made by de Kooning, for all the latter’s spangled glory.

Robert Pincus-Witten