Carol Brown Goldberg: The Shape of Time

By Barbara Rose

In assessing the career of any artist, one seeks those threads of continuity that connect the works in a stylistic sequence that defines the sensibility and preoccupations of the artist who created them. Even in the case of an artist like Picasso, whose career is ruptured by breaks so extreme that he has been considered schizophrenic, there are both stylistic and thematic consistencies that unite the vast body of divergent works. In Picasso’s case — outside of an extraordinary technical facility and audacious experimental attitude — the constants are a love for painting, a reverence for the old masters coupled with a taste for violence, and a profound misogyny at odds with his overwhelmingly direct eroticism. Sex and death provide his iconography, while primitive brutality and infantile narcissism are the hallmarks of his style.

Few, if any, artists in the history of Western art have been as obsessed as Picasso with the dual poles of Eros and Thanatos that bracket human life. One thinks of Caravaggio or of Francis Bacon, perhaps, or of the bloody erotic martyrdoms of Baroque painting. These are the painters of basic instincts, not of lofty transcendent spirituality. They are linked by an attraction to dark impulses rather than to soaring spirituality. The idea that artists from different periods of time and different cultures could be linked in terms of sensibilities and formal patterns is the important and original fundamental insight of anthologist George Kubler in his book, The Shape of Time. A student of the great French art historian Henri Focillon, the author of The Life of Forms in Art, Kubler continued Focillon’s inquiry into the idea that artists could be divided over the centuries, or even millennia, into “families of mind.”

Applying this methodology, one can define the Etruscans—whose idea of the afterlife is a repetition of the pleasures of this life– as bound to earthiness, whereas the Byzantines — who abjured and denied the body — worshipped instead the transcendent qualities of disembodied light and color, representing the opposite “family of mind,” which is dedicated to transcendence and illumination. The iconoclasm that characterizes both Jewish and Islamic art favors abstraction, in the latter case in ornamental decoration and in the former case in the incandescent luminosity of the color field paintings of Rothko and Newman and the extraterrestrial geometric abstractions of the late Al Held.

As a young artist, Carol Brown Goldberg was a figurative painter of bright-colored images that shared the flatness and linearity of pop art without however embracing the ironic satire of commodity culture that is the basis of pop art iconography. These deliberately “primitive”-looking paintings of dense foliage and exotic dream imagery have more in common with the exotic fantasies of the Douanier Rousseau than they do with the researches of the Fauves and German Expressionists into the depths of the barbaric psyche. One observes a distinct stylistic break between these early works and the subsequent abstract paintings of volumetric objects floating freely in space that are inspired by Leger’s bold geometric abstractions as well as Al Held’s powerful images of mysterious unidentified flying objects that inevitably bring to mind space-age science fiction.

A voracious reader, Goldberg had become interested, as was Al Held, in the latest scientific theories, especially those concerning discoveries in cutting-edge particle physics such as fractals. Her research into finding visual equivalents for such phenomena was cut short by the catastrophe of 9/11, which affected all Americans — creating a crisis in artistic iconography that has yet to be evaluated and deciphered. Unable to continue her painstakingly patient process of covering the canvas surface with repeated circles, creating an all-over pattern, Goldberg began drawing and painting portraits of the heroes and victims of 9/11, as well as producing enormous drawings of threatening, stampeding elements.

None of these works represented a conceptual iconographic program. They were simply images generated by her emotional reaction to the horror of the terrorist attacks and their aftermath. Indeed, although her works appear planned in advance, Goldberg is an intuitive, not conceptual, artist who begins with a process rather than a preconceived image. As she continues working, she constantly changes, rebalances, and alters her imagery until she is satisfied with the sense of pictorial equilibrium and expressive content that she desires has been achieved.

In her recent paintings, Goldberg has come full circle, returning to concerns she first investigated in her earliest abstractions. In those paintings, she researched the relationship of intensely colored, eccentric, volumetric shapes to the space through which they were hurtling with careening speed. Her “all over” paintings, beginning with the series of abstractions based on a circular motif disposed in an all-over grid, on the other hand, while still radiating life and energy, do so with a subtle rhythmic pulsation of circles that seem to move imperceptivity as we look at them.

Undoubtedly, these paintings relate to the retinal stimulation of “op art.” However, rather than dazzling the eye with a superficial brilliance derived from the interaction of adjacent colors, these paintings draw us in with their darker mystery. They permit, indeed they require, an extended duration in order to be fully perceived. In this sense, they are more related to Ad Reinhardt’s icons for meditation than they are to hard-edge geometric painting. There is an evident structure derived from an underlying grid, but it is not mindlessly adhered to. The circles, which seem to shift as we observe them, constitute only one of the complex series of intertwined illusions that the artist, now certain of what she has to say and equipped with the wisdom of experience, is able to realize. The degree of sophistication required to master such a task informs us that it is the result of building on what has gone before, transforming the unguided energy of youth into the discipline of an ordered sense of space and a more conspicuous awareness of time.

Goldberg’s latest paintings continue to be concerned with time as much as they are with the problems of space and spatial illusions. They represent a brilliant fusion of some of the fundamental concerns of modernism together with a renewed sense of energy and optimism that reflect perhaps the fresh sense of possibility engendered by the current shift in American politics. For even if Goldberg is not a figurative artist painting what she sees around her, she is keenly aware of and in touch with the zeitgeist, especially as it affects her personally.

The lightness and fragility of the transparent labyrinthine forms of linear elements threaded through the levels of geometric grids receding in perspective toward an open center for which they act as a kind of “frame” may be read as a new sense of both the fragility of life as well as its complexity. Again and more than ever, the image requires time to be decoded. It is the opposite of the graphic “all at once” impact of hard-edge or pop art. The homage to Pollock in the linear elements that thread and wind and slide in and out of the concentric squares, on the one hand effectively fixes them on one plane, which at the same time contradicting the recession in depth created by an implied perspective — and on the other hand these elements provide a lyrical counterpoint to the rhythmic repetition of the circles and rectangles they constitute.

Goldberg’s homage to Pollock in the linear elements that thread and wind and slide in and out of the ordered circles, effectively fix her forms on one plane, contradicting the recession in depth created by an implied perspective. These linear elements provide a lyrical counterpoint to the rhythmic repetition of the circles and rectangles they constitute.”

The most brilliant new element, however, is Goldberg’s articulation of the surface by means of suspending pulverized glass in pigment so that it dries into an all-over shimmer that glints and changes with the light and the position of the viewer. The effect is that of the twinkling cosmos at night, on the one hand, and of a constantly changing and hence constantly alive surface that is optical rather than tactile, creating a constant challenge to the nervous system to respond to and to the mind to process — in terms of where the surface is located and how it constantly changes in relation to the viewer’s perception. The idea of creating a surface that literally flickered and danced was originally explored by the Italian futurist Gino Severini in his paintings of the whirling crowds in dancehalls covered with colored sequins.

The pulsating energy created by the reflections from these fragmented, granulated points of light is a constant sense of wonder. The contrast between the fixed forms of the rectangular structure, the lyrical “melody” of the interwoven linear threads and the sparkling, every-changing surface, is both literal and metaphorical. Goldberg paints listening to music, usually the songs of the internationally popular group “Ivy,” whose members Andy Chase and Dominique Durand, are respectively her son and daughter-in-law. Her personal need for structure and focus in a world in turmoil are expressed in her attention to structure and detail. The result is a synthesis of freedom and order that exists not only as an aesthetic achievement but also as a survival guide to those perplexed by the Chinese curse, “may you live in an interesting time.”