The Transpersonal and The Personal: Carol Brown Goldberg’s Painting and Sculptures

By Donald Kuspit

“Free radical. An atom or molecule that bears an unpaired electron and is extremely reactive, capable of engaging in rapid chain reactions that destabilize other molecules and generate many more free radicals.”
-The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition Unabridged

Carol Brown Goldberg’s paintings are pure abstractions, however libidinous their surfaces, and her sculptural figures have what Breton called the “extreme degree of immediate absurdity” characteristic of “acts of Absolute Surrealism.” Painting and sculpture have been at odds since the Renaissance—think of the paragone—however equally valued, and pure abstraction and Surrealist representation have been at odds since modern art separated them. They have been unequally valued: pure abstraction has been elevated over “impure” dream or fantasy art, as Breton also called Surrealism, as more of the essence of art, however inescapable dreams and fantasies—idiosyncratic representation—remain, and however much art has been shown to begin with a dream or fantasy (the way a pearl begins with an irritating grain of sand), suggesting that they are its essence. I will try to show how her pure paintings and surreal sculptures are connected to each other, and what the import of this relationship is, while arguing for their special place in the history of modern art.

In Goldberg’s paintings pure abstraction reaches an epitomizing climax. In her sculptures surreal representation reaches an epitomizing climax. Seen in art historical perspective, they are consummate statements of modernist ideas. More pointedly, they epigenetically advance them in the act of recapitulating them: pull all their aesthetic and expressive stops to evoke feelings and communicate meanings implicit in modernism from its start but that only become explicit when it has reached the final stage of its development—the ripe stage that Goldberg’s paintings and sculptures exemplify. Driven by “inner necessity” and conveying “internal reality,” her abstract paintings show what awaits one when one neglects “outer necessity” and denies “external reality” (Kandinsky’s terms): one finds oneself looking into the abyss, which looks back into you, to refer to Nietzsche’s famous phrase.

Goldberg returns to external reality—the human figure—in her sculptures, but internal reality inevitably informs external reality, making it strangely surreal—which makes it more convincingly real. It is invariably personalized: knowingly or unknowingly, one views it through the lens of one’s feelings—not Kandinsky’s pure, universal feelings, but one’s impure, particular feelings, memorable mixed feelings about people that, for one reason or another, have become meaningful to one. Goldberg’s highly individualized sculptural figures are screen memories of the different people she knows, casually or intimately—people who have made an impression on her, fleeting or deep, and that she has imprinted with her impression, amused or intense, of them. They may look like clever constructions at first glance, but at second glance they show themselves as uncannily expressive.

This is where her paintings and sculptures meet: where her sculptures show themselves to be abstract and subjective and her paintings show themselves to be representational and objective: both abstractly represent subjective states. Their difference has to do with the difference between the subjective states: the paintings represent a transpersonal (“disembodied”) state, the sculptural figures represent a personal (“embodied”) state. The fluid paintings are “cosmic,” the sculptural figures are earth-bound. The everyday found objects of which they are constructed seem like dead organs, while the pulsing dots and lyric gestures of the paintings are intensely alive. They dramatically interact—dialectically integrate, as it were—while Goldberg’s figures seem on the verge of disintegrating into a pile of discrepant parts, seemingly found by chance. (According to Breton, the best Surrealist sculptures are made of randomly found objects, ordinarily incommensurate but “magnetically” drawn together, as though by chance—unconscious chance being the impresario of Surrealist art—making them more expressively striking and complicated, not to say intriguing and dramatic, than realist sculptures. The objects seem to separate in the act of coming together, making the work as a whole a contradiction in terms—a paradox.) Falling apart and fragmented even as they paradoxically hold together in a makeshift body, Goldberg’s sculptural figures are about to fall into the abyss—so I see it—at the center of Goldberg’s paintings. It is their core, lynchpin, sometimes dense with darkness, sometimes luminous with light, as though darkness had an inner light and light had an inner darkness. Sometimes they’re dense with color, imploding into colorlessness.

The sculptural figures are in conflict with themselves, as their wildly discrepant parts suggest, and the paintings show the strange emptiness in which the conflict exhausts itself. Taken together, they suggest an existential crisis—a crisis of selfhood, leaving the self in a spiritual vacuum, or at least spiritual limbo. Art experienced a similar crisis when it became modern: it has been argued that the break with traditional art made by modern art reflects the break with traditional religion made by the modern self. That is, the feeling that traditional art no longer made creative sense in the modern world correlates with the feeling that the transcendence (or transpersonality) that traditional religion promised was an illusion. As Kandinsky said in Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912)—he was the first modern artist who made the correlation, and was aware of the problem of making a modern religious art, for him an art that used abstract means to spiritual or transcendental effect—modern man is materialistic, not spiritual: he worships Mammon not God. For Kandinsky art was the only spiritual space left in materialistic society: the only space in which it was possible to experience the transpersonal in modern society. Or could be, if it became totally pure (abstract), in effect eschewing and renouncing and transcending materialism—the basis of modern man’s personality—which is what it did when it consciously abandoned the representation of external material reality.

In short, the question that has haunted abstract art from the beginning is whether the existential crisis of the modern self is also a spiritual opportunity. Is its cancerous self-doubt a step on the way to selflessness, or the beginning of the self-defeat that lack of belief in one’s self finally issues in? Has anxiety made the self problematic beyond repair or is it the beginning of its transcendence of itself? Kandinsky, who admitted to suffering an existential crisis—symbolized by his so-called apocalyptic (anxiety-ridden) landscapes, as he acknowledged (his early abstract expressionism)—emerged from it into (serene) geometrical heaven (his later geometrical abstraction). The fragmented character of Goldberg’s figures indicates that they are symbols of the self in existential crisis—in effect apocalyptic (anxiety-ridden) figures. In sharp contrast, the figureless paintings, with their cosmic space, symbolizes selfless transcendence. Only when the self has fallen into apocalyptic ruin can it rise into the selfless heights. But there is an abyss at the center of her paintings, as I have argued—sometimes a small, tightly defined center, sometimes a sprawling, grand center; sometimes a deep space that is in effect a black hole, signifying despair and isolation, sometimes a surface charged with color, signifying spontaneous joie de vivre (it is always churning with energy, sometimes chaotically, sometimes rhythmically)—is the self-contradictory space of apocalypse and transcendence. It has an uncanny resemblance to Malevich’s Suprematist square—which he called a void, a desert—suggesting that it is the abyss of anxiety into which the self must fall to become transcendentally selfless, like the simple geometry of the square, the most basic of what Whitehead called the eternal objects of geometry, sometimes ingressing (his word) into the world, but always peculiarly pure in Platonic heaven.

What makes Goldberg’s abstractions different from Kandinsky’s is that hers disclose the empty depths into which disintegrative anxiety drops the self while for him its fragmenting effect is a surface phenomenon. His surface is disrupted by fear and trembling, her surface shows the emptiness they obscure even as they make its presence felt. The emptiness may be felt, but it is not entered, as it is in Goldberg’s abstractions, suggesting that she has a greater capacity for apocalyptic vision than he does. More crucially, her abstractions are more spiritually convincing than his, for her abyss of anxiety is also an alembic of spiritual transformation. Her sculptures are idiosyncratically personal, her cosmic abyss is transpersonal—the site of transcendence as well of self-loss, transcendence being impossible without the dissolution of the self, its experience of its abysmal nothingness. Anxiety is transformed into awe in her paintings: they pulse with numinous power. In contrast, Kandinsky’s paintings seem facilely numinous. Kandinsky never lets go of the self; Goldberg rises above hers by falling into its depths.


After Avila, After El Escorial, After Toledo, After Valladolid—the Spanish series, 2008-2008, as I want to call them—are religious paintings. They are memento mori of a religious experience, and as such sacred relics. The horizontal and vertical of the cross are in permanent conflict, suggesting the sickness unto death the crucifixion symbolizes—the existential crisis that Christ experienced when he felt that God had abandoned him. He fell into the abyss of anxiety—the abyss symbolized by the black rectangle, overlaid on the cross, in After Toledo, and by the four black Suprematist squares in After Vallodolid, each as silent as a tomb. But the small squares, symbols of the smallness of the self and self-loss—the death of the self—are inserted in the center of large, luminous blue squares, the luminous heavenly blue symbolizing transcendence. This geomorphic center, pulsing with energy—it is a grid of Pointillist dots, sometimes resembling a lattice, and implicitly extending infinitely—occurs again and again in Goldberg’s paintings, whatever their titles: Biocentricism Will Fuel Us to Mars, Flickering Bulbs in the Studio of Nostalgia, both 2010, and I Paint the Music and My Children’s Sunsets, both 2008 (among other works). The titles are clearly personal, even sentimental, but the center, and the work as a whole, is clearly transpersonal.

Goldberg, like Kandinsky, is often inspired by music, suggesting that she is painting what have come to be called musical abstractions, acknowledging, as Kandinsky did, that all art aspires to the condition of music, which is abstract and expressive at once, as Pater said. Kandinsky was a synesthesiac, Goldberg may be one, that is, a person who sees colors when she hears sounds, suggesting the interchangeability and “primitive” unity of the senses that is said to exist in children. Kandinsky thought it was one of the reasons why the child was the “greatest imaginer.” Or Goldberg may be seeing the “color” in music, and the “music” in color: romantic music has been said to be “colorful,” and music that has “color” is regarded as romantic. Music may be spiritual—pure spirit in auditory action, it has been said—but more to the point of Goldberg’s vision is the fact that her paintings, with their infinite, open, cosmic space and densely textured, geometrically finite center—sometimes possessing the same pulsing energy, suggesting their inseparability and interaction—are major statements of what has come to be called the abstract sublime. Robert Rosenblum, who developed the concept, argued that it was the quintessence of romantic painting. Abstract sublime painting is the modern way of rendering visionary spiritual experience—serious religious experience. The comparatively small finite, highly focused center has the same function as the comparatively small, highly focused figure in traditional representations of visionary spiritual experience, that is, numinous experience of the sublime: it throws the infinite space—sacred by reason of the fact that it seems mysterious, that its invisibility is felt to be informed by pure spirit, that the “hidden God” dwells in it—into stark relief. To mention only a few examples of traditional sublime painting, Goldberg’s central abstract “figure” has the same “perspectival” purpose as the black ships in Caspar David Friedrich’s Arctic Scene, 1798 and Turner’s The Fighting Temeraine Tugged to Her Last Berth, 1838, and, more pointedly, the towers in Van Gogh’s The Old Tower in the Fields, 1884, Country Cemetery at Nuenen in the Snow, and Old Church Tower in Nuenen, both 1885.

The BP series, 2007 and the NT series, 2011 shows that Goldberg can be spontaneous as well as structured, wildly “free form” as well as rigorously formal and systematic. Indeed, they synthesize and what has been called systemic painting and abstract expressionism, even as she shows their opposition while refining them. NT 2 and NT 16 are particularly consummate examples: linear gestures meander with automatist energy, meteoric flashes in black space, its abysmal depth focused by neat orthogonal lines that converge in the infinite distance. Their dispassionate logicality contrasts with the passionately illogical gestures. Instinct and intellect are at odds, however together in the same image. Gestural abandon is geometrically framed, containing it but not integrated with it, however much the pointillist dots in which some of the gestures begin (end?) are reiterated and miniaturized in the framing grid. The dots are in effect free radicals, chain reacting with each other in Brownian movement, destabilizing perception.

Goldberg puts the unobservable—the infinite—into perspective, in contrast to Alberti, who puts the observed—the finite—into perspective. She upends Alberti’s famous pyramid of perspective, displacing the eye from the apex to the base—a mannerist reversal, creating what has been called a reversible perspective—a sort of unbalanced perspective, suggesting there is no right or balanced way of looking, particularly when one looks at the universe as an immeasurable whole. For the ancient Greeks the immeasurable was irrational—an abyss of emptiness which the gods inhabited, making it wonderful and terrifying at once. It was groundless; one could not stand in it and get a perspective on it. For the modern, scientifically minded, adult Goldberg the immeasurable can be measured—put in perspective, and with that logically grounded, so that one could intellectually place oneself in it and take a stand in and on it. Cosmic space becomes everyday space extended into infinity—suggesting that the infinite is really finite. The immeasurable was no longer wonderful, mystical, anxiety-arousing, sublime—no longer the abysmal site of spiritual experience—no longer made one insane even as it afforded an intuition of transcendental sanity: modern enlightenment is disenchanting and disillusioning, as has been said. But for the child-like, imaginative, emotionally restless and reckless Goldberg the immeasurable remains wonderful, mysterious, extraordinary, absurd, seductively unstable and “sensational”: the uncanny space of ambivalence—spiritless as well as spiritual space, or, to overstate my thought (perhaps), manically exciting and depressing at once, and thus all the more marvelously absurd. Whitehead once said that the major philosophical problem was to reconcile aesthetic and religious experience of the sunset—the experience of it as a sublime event and naturally beautiful phenomenon—and empirical understanding of it: Goldberg’s paintings struggle to resolve this contradiction, particularly My Children’s Sunsets. As Oh Baby, Baby, Baby, 2008 and Tess, Stefan and Lucas Love Each Other, 2009 show, Goldberg identifies with children, suggesting that her inner child is alive and well. Her works bring to mind Baudelaire’s remark that the child sees and responds to the world as though it was fresh and new—pre-reflectively, as it were (he thought the best art had this “intuitive,” oddly urgent, innocent quality)—which is the way Goldberg sees and responds to the cosmos. She is an idealist even though, as the identification with Christ implicit in the Spanish series suggests, she has experienced suffering and what Winnicott calls “inner death.” Her crosses convey this doubleness, not only through the uplifting vertical and earthbinding horizontal, but also through the nuanced infusion of light and darkness embedded in them. The cross is a structure of opposites—the vertical and horizontal unite in opposition—even as it suggests the possibility of transcendence through personal suffering. Suffering, whether a crisis of mind or body (always inseparably both), registers the crisis while trying to control it—stablize it in a structure like the cross. It can never be transcended until it is accepted—accepted the way Christ accepted the cross—which is what Goldberg does in her Spanish series. In the children’s paintings she transcends it completely, as their joyous luminosity shows.

Goldberg is a gnostic in her abstract paintings, an agnostic in her figurative sculptures, as their ironical, mechanical character suggests. The found objects have a tossed together look. Each is a sort of doll or puppet—a child’s toy, if you will—sometimes standing alone, sometimes grouped together, and always performing on a stage, which is what the base on which they stand is. Goldberg puts the found objects to expressive use by emphasizing their formal properties, often making them playfully explicit. The large circle and square in 017, 2009, at odds yet united in the same figure, makes the point clearly. Is Goldberg addressing the age-old problem of squaring the circle in a Suprematist composition? iThere’s almost always a whimsically comic, even sardonic aspect to Goldberg’s sculptural figures, evoking the whimsically abstract figurative “contraptions” that performed Schlemmer’s Bauhaus machine-movement inspired dances. Like Schlemmer and other modernist sculptors, Goldberg anthropomorphosizes abstraction, resulting in robotic humanoids. At the same time, Gorky and Matta in Front of the Met and Hoffman’s Class, both 2010 acknowledge Goldberg’s debt to abstract expressionism, confirming her synthesizing ability. She admires all three painters—Gorky’s surreally cosmic last paintings, Matta’s surreally agitated figures, Hoffman’s swashbuckling gesturalism—but she distances herself from them in the act of acknowledging their importance to her. Her dervishing gestural line seems more spontaneous than theirs, even as it shares their assertiveness.

And, to emphasize, she has “understood” transcendence better than they have, for their works resonate with anxiety and melancholy, suggesting that their transpersonal space is vehicle for their personal feelings, and as such expressively secondary to them. Goldberg gets very personal in her figurative sculptures, however personal her abstract paintings alluding to her children and grandchildren may be, but all her abstractions are pure, giving them a spiritual aura, suggesting that she is at home with the sublime as she is with her family. Goldberg’s sculptural figures are ghosts—the remembrances of people past in ironic tranquility—and informed with black humor, however ironically charming, while her paintings are spiritually graced.

In A Nostalgic Radical in Florence, 2010 she revisits the Italy she visited in her youth, a time when she was a “free radical,” to suggest the ambiguous meaning of the free radicals that dash about in her paintings. She was boundlessly free and daring. Her sculptures are critically daring, and her paintings convey her free spirit. She surrealizes meaningful objects into aesthetic meaningfulness—exposes the aesthetics inherent in them—and liberates gesture from descriptive constraints in her paintings, as Gorky, Matta, and Hoffman never completely did in theirs. They couldn’t separate the personal from the transpersonal, as Goldberg is able to do, deftly.