Brenda Goodman’s work has seen a resurgence in the past two years, with shows at Brooklyn’s Life on Mars Gallery and a retrospective at Detroit’s Center for Creative Studies, her alma mater. Goodman was part of Detroit’s Cass Corridor movement in the 70s and I first encountered her work and influence while living in Detroit in the 80s. I have followed the morphing styles of her paintings ever since. Continuing an ongoing conversation, held over multiple lunches, I recently sat down with Goodman at her favorite New York restaurant to talk about her interests and work, and discovered how deeply her painting and life story are intertwined.
Brenda Goodman, Installation view the Sciatica series in the exhibition Karmic at Life on Mars Gallery, 2016. Photo: Miguel Libarnes.
Courtesy of the artist and Life on Mars Gallery
Bradley Rubenstein: I think we should just jump right in and start with the Big Questions. We were talking about a lot of younger artists like Dana Schutz and Keltie Ferris, a whole new generation of what are being called “millenials,” who I think are coming at painting from a very different angle than either you or I are. There is something about your work—and I think your show at Life on Mars Gallery illustrated it well—that really begs the question, why does art matter? How does painting relate to other disciplines? What philosophical questions can it help us with? We are, after all, alone on the planet, existentially. I don’t know what you are thinking; you can’t know what I am thinking. Painting is our way of communicating. Like music or literature, it is a language where we can talk using colors, lines, and shapes instead of words. David Foster Wallace said, “Art at its best is a bridge across the abyss of human loneliness.” I think your work exemplifies this act of seeking to reveal things about oneself—to communicate.
Brenda Goodman: Most of my work comes from many marks I put on the surface. Then one shape pops out and starts to speak to another shape, and I just sort of put them in touch with each other until a feeling emerges and I develop it. When I worked earlier with the symbols, I created the shapes. I would have something or someone in mind and draw those shapes until one appeared, and I would say, “That’s the one!” Later the marks were all from my unconscious. It becomes a very intuitive process. I am as surprised as the viewer very often because I don’t know why or how I arrived at a certain painting, but what I do know for sure is it is from my gut and it’s honest and real and speaks its truth. Sometimes they reveal something to me; sometimes it’s not so clear. But either way something strong and emotional is being communicated.
I think I was was born with a strong core. Although my childhood wasn’t an easy one, that core is what I think people sense in my work. I’ve been in the abyss many times in my life, and I’m not afraid to show those dark, fearful, alone, and painful places in my work. I wasn’t afraid either to spend years in therapy digging into my childhood. I took what resonated with me from many different spiritual practices as well. I remember a card I gave my mother when I was just 14. I wrote a note in it saying, “Instead of always criticizing my faults, why don’t you ever compliment me on some good things I do, and you might find I’ll change.” Who says that at 14 to their mother? I've always had a strong need to express my feelings to others, and as an artist for 50 years, that’s what I do in my work and my relations. I need to do this to survive, and so far I have!
Brenda Goodman, Not a Leg to Stand On, 2013, Oil on wood, 72 x 80 in. Courtesy of the artist and Life on Mars Gallery
I did a painting in 2013 called Not a Leg to Stand On. It was one of those paintings that revealed itself after it was done. There is this very large red figure whose arm and fist stretch across the the entire painting, and underneath that figure is a much smaller figure that only has one leg. I looked at the finished painting and knew it was me and my mother because she was so overwhelming and controlling that I never thought I had a leg to stand on, unless I could say how I felt. Not all paintings deliver such a clear message, but this one did. I wouldn’t paint if I couldn’t express what I feel.
Sometimes I get tired of people thinking paintings have to deliver an explicit meaning, or any meaning for that matter. Much of painting for me is just the pure joy of putting oil paint to canvas and watching it become beautiful. For me, even when my paintings are dark, or sad, or even happy, they have to be beautifully painted. That’s crucial to me.
There was a painting in my last show at Life on Mars titled Almost a Bride (2015). It is beautifully painted. It has all my passion for making the paint sing. For me a painting should not disappoint when you view it up close. People asked me what the painting means, and I said, “I don’t really know.” It just feels so right and strikes something deep inside. That’s good enough. When I stand in front of a Morandi, I feel transported to another place. Some bring me to tears. Yet I have never had words or a meaning I could attach to them. And I doubt if Morandi, as he painted these bottles year after year after year, had “Ah ha!” moments of clarity and meaning each time he completed one. I think he would be pleased to know his work is communicating from another realm.
Brenda Goodman, Almost a Bride, 2015, Oil on wood, 80 x 72 in. Courtesy of the artist and Life on Mars Gallery
BR: Going back a minute to some of the work we were talking about the other day, one of the shows that caught both of our attention was the Jack Tworkov retrospective. There was a lot going on there—a lot of range to his work. Looking at a still life from the 40s, you made the comment that you didn't think that kind of Cezanne-influenced picture would be immediately recognizable as a “Tworkov.” That was kind of an important thing to note; it used to be more common for a painter to work through a lot of ideas, styles, history—things that you don’t really see today. Now, the idea of taking that much time to really practice the discipline of painting, to learn your history, is gone. What was your experience like at Arts and Crafts? How did you arrive at the way of working that we see in a picture like The Cat Approaches (1974) in the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA)?
BG: It's true. Fifty years ago, being an artist was very different than it is now. Arts and Crafts was a very traditional art school. I don't imagine there are many or any art schools today where your painting teacher wants you to do months of thumbnail pencil drawings of still lifes, learning everything you can about composition. Then we were allowed to use earth colors (oil of course) for quite a while, and then finally color. We were taught how to apply paint so it “breathed.” Sarkis, my teacher, would say, “Every square inch of the painting should breathe.” And we were encouraged to have influences. I was so many artists through the years, and even though I was open, I sometimes wondered where “I” was in all of this. I was Dubuffet for three years. Every time I picked up a pencil, a Dubuffet would pop out. Sarkis said to me, “Stop fighting it. Become him. Look like him, talk like him, paint like him” —and it worked.
There have been many influences in my work: Van Gogh, Gorky, de Kooning, Ensor, Morandi, and Guston. I learned from all of them. There’s an affinity we have with certain artists because we resonate with them. Time is different in 2016 than it was in the 60s. The desperate need to have something unlike everyone else is so strong now, and there is an urgency to do the work that doesn’t allow for a slow maturation. I would go to school in the morning, draw and paint till 4 o'clock, and then go downtown to a coffeehouse, a burlesque show, or anywhere that there were interesting people to draw. Then a few hours sleep and at it again. Sometimes I would fall asleep on a stool with a paintbrush in my hand. So for the first 11 years I learned my skills, experimented with surface and textures, and then was getting ready for something more personal to happen—something that comes from deeper inside.
Brenda Goodman, The Cat Approaches, 1974, Oil and pencil on canvas, 66 x 51 in. Collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Founders Society Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Conrad H. Smith Memorial Fund and the Gertrude Kasle Gallery
In 1973 I met a well-known poet in Detroit, Faye Kicknosway, and I began sitting in on her creative writing classes. I wanted to find a vocabulary to share my everyday life—a visual diary. I wanted symbols for me and everyone in my life. I became an abstracted shape that felt like a heart to me. I was very tough on the outside and very vulnerable in the inside. I wanted more of the softer part of me to come through. Then I created shapes for everyone in my life. Much of the inspiration to do this was being in these writing classes. The Cat Approaches was done after I found a solid place in me where all these symbols lived. I had done some cat drawings from years earlier, and Faye loved them and wrote a whole series of poems about them. One of the poems was called "The Cat Approaches," and from that poem I did a painting with that name that hangs in the DIA. All the works from this period had a surreal quality. It was 11 years from when I started art school that a personal voice began to emerge. So to go back to your original inquiry about my history, you can see how different it is from today's art world. I feel so grateful for my early school days.
BR: We talked a little about movies and TV a while back. I think that painting doesn’t live in a void and that there are other mediums that both influence painters and are also informed by painting. Are there things that you have read or movies that have either influenced you or that you think are of some importance at the moment? I think I said that there was a real sense of the theatrical to some of your paintings and that your sculpture seemed like a way to extend your painted world into three dimensions.
BG: The only times I made sculpture, which were few, were when I was in a transition with my painting. Working three-dimensionally helped mix things up. When I did the tar-cone-shape self-portrait pieces I had recently moved to New York, and it seemed necessary to do them to express how lonely and difficult that move was. I had lived 33 years in Detroit. It was my first move away from home. I did three or four of them, and I thought that the sculptures moving around a stage would be really powerful. Every once in a while I think it would be great to design a theater set, but as of yet I haven’t.
Brenda Goodman, 3 Sculptures, 1977, Canvas Strips, Tar, String, Wire Mesh, 67 x 12 x 11 in. (approx.). Courtesy of the artist
I don’t think I'm affected by popular culture in my work. Many artists work from that place, but I haven’t. What I do connect to, though, are places and events that resonate with what I already feel inside.
When the Gee's Bend show was at the Whitney, it had a big impact on me. I resonated very strongly with their quilts, and I could see their influence in my work for a while. But more than that was an article I read that their homes didn’t have any insulation, so they used Life magazines as insulation and covered all their walls with them. I started searching for old Life magazines and began cutting out pictures that personally hit me. I did a whole series of paintings around 2003 where I glued these images into the paintings.
Brenda Goodman, After September 11 (3), 2001, Oil on paper, 15 x 20 in. Courtesy of the artist
Another example—we lived a mile from the Trade Towers, and I was on the roof of our building on the Bowery and saw a plane fly into them. I did a series of about 12 oil-on-paper pieces after that tragedy because there was nothing else I could think about. I needed to paint what I felt.
And lastly in 2006 I began taking singing lessons. Music was never part of my life and certainly not singing. Ever since a teacher ridiculed me in front of my third-grade class, I never sang a song. So it was very exciting to learn songs, and some of the early ones were Christmas songs like “Away in the Manger.” Every time I had a lesson I would go home and do an oil-on-paper piece about my lesson, and some had a very personal version of the nativity scene in them. So as the world of music and voice opened to me, it also entered my paintings.
None of these examples are about pop culture. Most of my paintings come from my innermost feelings, and I make that visible through my work. But there are times when things outside of me resonate with something already there inside me, and I have a strong need to paint it.
BR: You went from Detroit to New York and lived in the city. Can you talk a little about why you moved upstate and how that has changed your work?
BG: We always came upstate to the Catskills for the whole summer. I have a studio next to the house, and that’s where I painted all day—very different from the darkness of the Bowery loft. On Labor Day we’d pack the car and go back to the city. But in 2009 my partner Linda’s son, Jon, died 9 months after being diagnosed with cancer. We made a decision to stay upstate where it would be more healing. We never went back to the loft again and had everything moved up here.
One of the biggest changes for me was I sort of lost my identity as an artist, which never happened before. Linda was Linda, and I was Brenda. Most people didn’t know I was an artist, and if I told them they weren’t really interested. So it was weird to not have my artist identity attached to me. And then there was the realization that I would disappear off everyone’s screen. So I went through a pretty dark spiritual crisis in the country of what to do with my art and me as an artist. Could I settle for just painting for “me” and let go of all the many years I invested in my career? This was an abyss I had to go through, and of course I came through with the decision to go back in my studio and paint because that’s what I've always done. That’s who I am, a painter.
Shortly after that Michael David, a well-known painter in his own right, wanted to open a gallery in Bushwick and asked his friend, painter Joan Snyder, who she would recommend to exhibit. She gave him my name, and he offered me a show. That was 2015. At the same time I was chosen for the 2015 American Academy of Arts and Letters Invitational—a show I had wanted to be in for 40 years—and won an award for exceptional achievement. Then John Yau wrote a great review of my show at Life on Mars Gallery, and many many other wonderful things have been happening since then—and all since we moved to the country!
Brenda Goodman, Troubled Waters 2, 2009, Oil on wood, 20 x 24 in. Courtesy of the artist
Living in the mountains, though, hasn’t drastically changed my work like it did for Jake Berthot when he moved upstate and his work took a sharp turn into landscape. I still come from inside me and whatever is happening in my life. When Jon died I did a series called Troubled Waters. It was very dark. Then three years ago I lost 70 pounds, and a shift happened inside me. I felt happier and more confident on a deeper level, and the work became lighter and more animated and even more colorful. And then recently I experienced severe sciatica for three months and couldn’t do anything without pain except sit. So I did 21 small pieces of how it felt feeling pain all day.
All of those changes could have happened on the Bowery as well as in the mountains. But I think it has had a good effect on my general mood. I’m not as irritable. I don’t scream at honking horns, construction everywhere, and traffic jams. We walk our dog on a dirt road every morning, looking at the mountains and all the creatures that scurry around.
Brenda Goodman, (5) Sciatica and (4) Sciatica, both 2015, Oil on paper mounted on rag board,
6 x 8 in. Courtesy of the artist and Life on Mars Gallery
BR: I really enjoyed the recent work at Life on Mars, the little pictures you painted while recovering from sciatica. Of course you were painting from your feelings, but in this case “feelings” had a double meaning, both emotionally and the physicality of pain. There was something about them that conveyed that feeling of endurance in order to make a painting. In some ways they neatly sum up your career, for me.
BG: I would say endurance is just built into my constitution. I don’t do things halfway or give up easily. If I lose something I will spend hours, days, or weeks till I find it. I resolve every painting I do and won’t let it leave the studio until it feels absolutely right to me. At almost 73 now, my knees and back are giving me trouble (welcome to the club), but I won’t stop painting what is in my heart, and I will never retire! Anyway, have you ever heard a painter say they have retired? No….they just paint till they can’t anymore.
ArtSlant would like to thank Brenda Goodman for her assistance in making this interview possible.