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Michael Goldberg: Wall to Wall, Coast to Coast

Over the Moon: New Paintings 2000-2003

by Peter Frank

Michael Goldberg quintessentializes abstract expressionism. A member of that school's second generation, a native of its home base (New York), a student of its paterfamilias (Hans Hofmann), and a friend to its titans, its also-rans, its allies (notably poets such as Frank O'Hara), and its supporters, Goldberg has never strayed far from the tenets-or for that matter the reflexive heresies-of the movement. Whether painting, drawing, collaging, or printing, working with clear or scumbled line, rendering figural or non-objective imagery, composing relationally or "all-over", Goldberg has always relied on the gesture. Well, "relied" is a mild term in his case: no painter, not Franz Kline, not Norman Bluhm, not Joan Mitchell (Goldberg's ab-ex ex), not even Willem de Kooning (who is purported to have said, admiringly, "If you really want a good de Kooning, ask Goldberg to do it"), has sourced the structure, presence, or meaning of his or her work more thoroughly in the gesture than has Goldberg. For him, the gesture is no mere trope, no stylistic calling card, it is a way-the way-of making art.

This dramatic, even romantic claim infers that Goldberg subsumes himself in the gesture, that there is no one signatory Goldberg gesture (the way there is with most action painters, not least the aforementioned), but that any gesture is fair game for him-and besides-or, rather, because-what matters to Goldberg even more than to any of his painting pals is what results from the accretion of gestures, the whole that is entirely congruent with the sum of the myriad parts. As a result, Goldberg's work is less distinctive, at first glance, than his compeers'-but no less distinctive on the second, encompassing glance. At that, Goldberg's paintings themselves are signatory, either roiling, burgeoning explosion-aftermaths or elaborate cartographic, even topographic fantasies in which the gestures both define and are confined to distinct, if febrile and chimerical, regions.

A glance at the catalog to Goldberg's small retrospective at Omaha's Joslyn Museum last spring suggests that this bifurcated approach, or at least modulations between the two poles, has characterized his art since at least the mid-1950s. (The show omitted his work from the 1960s and '70s, alas, but this writer's recollections of the jaunty figural work and spare abstractions from these years bear out the analysis.) But that approach could be seen even in showings of Goldberg's current work-showings that spanned three years and a continent. It's very unusual for an artist who isn't a household name to be shown simultaneously in three different cities, particularly in exhibitions organized and coordinated to present essentially the same body or bodies of work in each city. But, then, Goldberg-an artist's (and a poet's) artist if ever there was one-has earned such an honor.

Although it doesn't take the leaps of form and organization that distinguish his oeuvre overall, Goldberg's painting over the last three years displays its own evolution. His gesture has been in essence a scribble, drawn in oilstick, a line that loops and pools, tumbles and whipsaws, sometimes performing lithe acrobatics before a variegated backdrop of colors (as in the earliest pieces, from 2000), sometimes worrying itself into knots, only to be fractured by a dense overlay of thick scrapes and strokes, and most recently breaking out into color itself, so that within the bulges and bubbles defined by gestures in black, gestures of red or pink or blue or green shimmer and clot with equal vigor. This is some of the most energetic painting Goldberg has produced since his salad days, and as usual, the energy is keenly focused yet exuberant, lyrical and athletic. It is not expansive: the overall schema has less a centrifugal than centripetal force to it, tending to pull in somewhat from the canvases' edges. It's scumble for scumble's sake-and a revelation of all that scumble can do.

Given that each of the three galleries showed pretty much equal amounts of work from all stages in the artist's latest period, seeing all three shows may sound like an exercise in redundancy. But the experience was not like, say, catching up with the same traveling exhibition in three different venues. It told me less about the peculiarities of each dealer (who, working in tandem, had equal access to all the newer painting and drawing) or each space than it did about the breadth of possibility in this body (or bodies) of work. A particularly nervous-looking painting in New York had a far more relaxed counterpart hanging in Chicago; a schema that seemed sweet and contemplative in Chicago looked raw and unforced in Los Angeles; a field of intense busyness in LA was mirrored by a graceful, rollicking canvas in New York. Truth be told, this vast a range of effect was not available in any one gallery-and had it been, the copious selection of paintings would have obscured rather than elucidated the subtle contrasts and continuities. If Goldberg had shown the work in three different galleries in the same town, then okay, one could have grasped its scope. But since three galleries in the same market aren't likely to compete with one another like that, it took three in different markets to reveal the extent of Goldberg's most recent variations. You just hadda be there-and there-and there.

At the Manny Silverman Gallery in West Hollywood, April 12-May 14, 2003; Lennon, Weinberg in New York, April 24-May 31; Thomas McCormick Gallery in Chicago, May 10-June 7.


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