New York

Michael Goldberg, Knossos, 2007, oil stick and oil on canvas, 81 1/2 x 74".

Michael Goldberg, Knossos, 2007, oil stick and oil on canvas, 81 1/2 x 74".

Michael Goldberg

Michael Goldberg, Knossos, 2007, oil stick and oil on canvas, 81 1/2 x 74".

This exhibition brought together paintings that Michael Goldberg made in the 1950s, at the beginning his career (he was born in 1924) and in the 2000s, near the end of his life (he died in 2007). The juxtaposition of his earliest and latest works indicate that the artist never really veered off course; he remained consistently concerned with the “physicality” of paint, which he liked to “push . . . around hard.” The “apparently haphazard composition, the hostile, indifferent surfaces” of his paintings, give the “impression . . . of being fragments of a vast, continuing process beyond [his] control.” Art historian John McCoubrey understood the new (American) art of the time to be characterized by “chance and accident.” Goldberg’s work satisfied McCoubrey’s conditions, and he emerged as an important figure in the so-called New York School of Abstract Expressionism. Indeed, the seemingly “violent agitation” of Goldberg’s paintings—a phrase used to describe the mental state of Jackson Pollock—not to say their convulsive, automatist, manic intensity or freewheeling chaos, is classically Abstract Expressionist. To borrow what Maurice de Vlaminck said of his own Fauvist phase, Goldberg seems to “paint with [his] heart and [his] loins, not bothering with style.”

Yet, to judge from the five small paintings—all Untitled—and the four large paintings from the 1950s (Untitled, 1951; Still Life with Onion Rolls, 1956; Park Avenue Façade, 1957–58; and Dune House I, 1958) Goldberg clearly had a “style.” A second-generation Abstract Expressionist, he in effect conventionalized what was once experimental, exploratory, or “unconventional” into a style of handling paint. However, one can see the influence of such predecessors as Wassily Kandinsky and Erich Heckel in his paintings as well. Not to suggest that the Sturm und Drang of Goldberg’s paintings is inauthentic—rather, their authenticity is grounded in and certified by what Harold Rosenberg called the “tradition of the new,” as revitalized and reoriginated by Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Goldberg’s earliest works, however dynamically sublime and ostensibly reckless, confirm and ratify the achievements of the American Abstract Expressionists in the prior decade, all while digesting and besting European iterations of abstraction, Expressionism, and Surrealism.

However, it seems that Goldberg truly came into his own when facing old age and death, and coming to grips with existential inevitability. For the artist, 2000 and 2001 were boon years: The paintings he made during that time are unequivocal masterpieces, at once highly personal and aesthetically daring, especially in their use of black as both atmosphere and substance. All are concerned with self-preservation. Old Man and Death, 2001, reveals a peculiar humanism. A dark, turbulent painting, with masterful passages of color, it is fraught with Todesangst. Epic in scale and urgent in detail—a snake pit of gestures, a quicksand of conflicting actions, process painting run amok—it absorbs us into its distress. These later canvases are highly emotional responses to mythical and art-historical places in Italy and Greece. Goldberg conceived of the Tempio Della Fortuna Virile, 2000, its title a reference to the still-standing ancient Roman structure, and he painted Grotto in the Kingdom of Naples, 2001, just as Joseph Wright of Derby had done in 1778. In Wright’s work we look past the dark grotto, where bandits console one of their mournful comrades, to see the light and sea outside. In Goldberg’s painting, light, dark, and color fuse inextricably to form a stormy sea in which, perhaps, the painter is implicitly drowning. The mountain range near Athens, colloquially known as the “crazy mountain” because of its extraordinary length, appears in Horns of Hymettos, 2001. Perhaps he correlated this geological phenomenon with the craziness of his painting, with its Dionysian energy. Lindos, 2007, is named for a town on the Greek island of Rhodes, known for its hilltop acropolis. The geometrical formality of these compositions infuses Goldberg’s art with dignity and composure.

In 2007, Goldberg painted Knossos, where, according to Greek myth, King Minos commissioned the archetypal artist-genius Daedalus to build a labyrinth. But the artist’s version seems concerned primarily with the labrys, a double-bladed ax that was excavated from the ruins of the city’s Bronze Age palace. The labrys was an apotropaic sign used throughout the Mycenaean world to protect against death. It implies that Goldberg wanted his paintings to survive his life—to endure as the sacred mountains and temples of the ancient world have. Goldberg’s paintings from the 2000s suggest that perhaps an artist’s late works can be his most original, once he realizes that he is running out of time.

Donald Kuspit