New York

Shirley Goldfarb, Yellow painting #7, 1968, oil on canvas, 77 x 77".

Shirley Goldfarb, Yellow painting #7, 1968, oil on canvas, 77 x 77".

Shirley Goldfarb

Shirley Goldfarb, Yellow painting #7, 1968, oil on canvas, 77 x 77".

My first memory of Shirley Goldfarb is as a model at the Art Students League summer school in Woodstock, New York. It was 1951 and I was sixteen. She had Louise Brooks–like black bangs and an exophthalmic gaze (a source of great unhappiness, as recorded in her journals), which she kept hidden beneath her signature huge round-lensed sunglasses. “Shirlay” (as the French called her) and I would occasionally run into one another at the turn of the 1960s, when—each from our different corners—we were part of a miscellany of Americans in Paris. I eventually left, but Goldfarb stayed on for thirty-six years and became, in her adoption of an almost mythically adored France—well, Paris, really, and of Paris, just Saint-Germain-des-Prés—part of a loose affiliation that included Beauford Delaney, Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, Joan Mitchell, Sam Francis, and her husband, Gregory Masurovsky, an exquisite draftsman. Goldfarb is in no sense overshadowed by these peers, as demonstrated by this overview and the several shows thatVirginia Zabriskie has mounted at her gallery over the years. This survey, however, may at last allow audiences to recognize Goldfarb’s master status. She was to die far too young of cancer in 1980 at the age of fifty-five.

The show traced the critical stages of Goldfarb’s stylistic evolution. When she arrived in Paris in the mid-’50s, her tenderfoot painting swung between two poles: a scabby version of Pollock’s 1946 “Sounds in the Grass” series, and a permutation of Matisse’s cookie-cutter figures as typified by Music, 1910, at the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. A double-sided painting by Goldfarb, Nude Male Figure (abstraction on verso), ca. 1950, reveals within a single work her respectable grasp of these touchstones of modernity (lamentably, only the abstract side was shown in this presentation). Once she was in Paris, the great revelation for Goldfarb—as it was for Joan Mitchell—was late Monet, including Les Nymphéas, 1914–26, then recently cleaned and reinstalled in the Musée de l’Orangerie. The two oval rooms that house those stupendous works were the classrooms of an entire generation—and not solely for the new crop of expatriates in Paris but for those AbEx painters at work in New York as well. In part from these tidal, coloristic works, Goldfarb developed what she called her “American aggressivity,” perhaps in compensation for the neurotic shyness she admits to in a French interview that was screened during the show. These paintings tended to be large-scale works either of strong, saturated complementaries (Fire and Water, 1959) or of restrained, grainy whitish walls contrapuntally shot through with a scaffolding of pale blues and pinks (La Lutte [Struggle], 1955). Goldfarb was, in fact, integral to the international wave of Abstract Expressionist painting called tachisme in France, the kind of painting we associate with early Nicolas de Staël and Antoni Tàpies.

Goldfarb’s early AbEx work, commendable as it is, took on a particularly personal thrust when her Tachisme eventually ceded place to the nervous dots of Neo-Impressionism, the “scientific method” of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac that reformulated the effect of light through the application of tiny points of pure color mixed, as it were, within the eye. In the mid-’60s, Goldfarb took the method and ran, creating shimmering veils of pulsating pinks and yellows, a quasi-Minimalist pointillism. Yellow triptych, 1966, and Yellow painting #7, 1968, are representative works.

Her ambitious move was to endure through the following decade. The landscapes of paint tesserae—systematically applied but electric in effect—were inimitably dabbed with a brush or knife, and in cresting these litanies of humble self-effacement, Goldfarb developed a palette of keen, highly personal refinement. This superb mode would serve her till the end of her life, even when it was realized monochromatically, as in White, 1979. In such works, each small patch of color becomes a letter in an alphabet coded within a plaintive missive to the world. By then, Goldfarb’s paintings had achieved an authorial dignity marking the moment when, at last, she became the very hero of her fantasies: a great French painter.

Robert Pincus-Witten