This essay was written in conjunction with Phyllis Goldberg on view at CUE Art Foundation September 6 - October 13, 2007.
There are things that Phyllis Goldberg just won't change.
Living in New York, for instance, where she has resided since she was born in Brooklyn in 1927. But when it comes to her art practice, she is constantly evolving. Over the past decade alone, her work has ranged from abstract painting to photo collage to raku-fired pottery. On the eve of her first solo show in New York at the CUE Art Foundation in Chelsea, she laughs and says, "It doesn't make sense at my age to start a career."
Goldberg's small, square paintings dominate her show. They are simple, spare, modest things, the colors and figures of each canvas slightly varied. Each composition by itself is quiet, humble even, and overall they come across as being resistant to any sort of explanation or interpretation. That said, it is possible to anthropomorphize the monotone shapes in the paintings as coagulations of Victorian-era silhouettes or sculptural busts. But the ragged figures are what they are, and Goldberg's take on them is straightforward and unpretentious. "I just make as many as I can until I get tired of them," she says, adding, "I will leave the question of infinity to the scientists."
Her paintings may inspire certain associations with early 20th-century abstract painters, but she is not pushing a Suprematist platform or Albersian theories of color relativity. Instead, she draws her inspiration from artists interested in process and the role of the artist as a champion of new perspectives. When reflecting on the great art she has seen in her life, Goldberg remembers a series of Picasso drawings in which a bull was rendered, by increments, a Cubist eruption of sharp angles and harsh lines. Also in her esteem is Richard Serra's ode to artistic experimentation, Verb List, 1966, a written enumeration oftransformative actions available to artists: "to distill, to arrange, to twist," etc.
For Goldberg, the verb of choice seems to be "to continue." Once she finishes a series of paintings, she doesn't pack away her ideas about them but often looks for ways to reinterpret the subject. In some cases, she even transforms photographs of her oil paintings into new painterly works that bear no resemblance to the originals. Beginning with a photograph of an oil painting, Goldberg digitally manipulates the image, transforming it into something new. She then flattens the image by printing it directly onto canvases and finishes the piece by painting over the printed photographic image with acrylic. These works are richly layered, and some, like Untitled, 2006, even recall the vast abstractions of Clyfford Still.
Although Goldberg does not look directly to Still, or the other Abstract Expressionist painters for inspiration or as guides, she was certainly exposed to the innovations. She received a B.A. from Brooklyn College in 1967, when New York School heavyweights like Ad Reinhardt were lecturing there. She remembers Reinhardt with a smile. "He had outlines and images, but he didn't have a normal teaching style-no tests." In those days Goldberg was not as committed to being an artist as she is now. "I thought I would study art history because I liked going to museums," she says. It wasn't until the late 80s that Goldberg began pursuing art-making seriously.
Since then, she has managed to cultivate her work in a variety of mediums, never staying with one for long. Her high-ceilinged West Village apartment serves as her studio as well as her home. Books and plants spread across window sills and shelves, and her top-of-the-line laptop, which facilitated her recent foray into digitally manipulated imagery, sits on a desk in her bedroom.
She is getting ready for her show, and the floors and tables in her foyer are covered in the wrapped photographs and paintings that comprise this exhibition-surely more than will actually make it onto the walls ofCUE. At this point Goldberg does not know exactly which works will be displayed, but she tells me that she hopes to include a wide variety ofdifferent projects, including some unusual recent photographs. Six years ago she began taking pictures of a very curious subject-an Olive Oyl doll. Initially, the toy was a gift to her then-3-year-old grandson, but he tearfully rejected the present, perhaps alarmed by the doll's creepily outsized eyes, bizarrely crosshatched hairline and rodent-like snout. In Goldberg's photographs, Olive Oyl has been recontextualized, as if to justify the sinister quality that her grandson instinctually detected. The toy is bound with thin archival tape, giving the impression of a fly caught in spider web, or a prisoner strung up in tortuous suspense above some ghastly fate.
But the photographs of Olive Oyl were only the beginning. Soon after taking them she picked up a 16-millimeter camera for $5 at a flea market and set to work on what would be her first film: three minutes of footage that document the Olive Oyl dollmanipulated like a marionette. More recently she has been exploring the theories of Freud and Heinrich von Kleist about dolls as subordinate objects. She is also intrigued by the haunting tableaus found in Dare Wright's iconic Lonely Doll series. It's hard to say how long she will dwell on this fascination-her perpetual curiosity will surely nudge her in new directions. Yet with painting, photography and film already in her artistic repertory, it's hard to predict what Goldberg will undertake next. But she is philosophical about it. "A medium," she says, "is just a means to experiment, not the motivating factor."
The writer, Katherine Jentlesonis an arts writer based in New York City. She is currently the editorial assistant at Art & Auction, a monthly magazine that covers the art world from a market perspective. She is a recent graduate of Cornell University, where she co-founded Cornell's premier feature journalism magazine, Kitsch. Her B.A. is in Comparative Literature, but she wrote her honors thesis on the Catalan painter Antoni Tàpies and is considering postgraduate work in Art History. The mentor was Benjamin Genocchio, a former chief art critic for The Australian newspaper in Sydney, who is currently an art critic for The New York Times. He is the author and editor of three books on the visual arts, including an anthology of art criticism. He holds a Ph.D. in Art History with a specialization in non-Western art and has taught and lectured on a wide variety of subjects.