Why is Robert Goodnough Still the
Most Under-Rated Painter In America?

It seems typical of Robert Goodnough that he did not attend the opening reception of his most recent exhibition at Katharina Rich Perlow Gallery, in the Fuller Building, at 41 East 57th Street. In the 1950s and 60s, when he exhibited regularly at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, where he made his debut in the landmark exhibition "The New Generation" in 1950, Goodnough didn't attend many of his own openings either. In fact, his reputation for social elusiveness was such that when he finally did show up for his eighth solo show at the de Nagy Gallery, in 1961, the writer B.H. Friedman noted, "This time he came to the opening, where he seemed to be the only stranger."

Along with Robert Rauschenberg and Larry Rivers, the critic Irving Sandler once cited Goodnough as one of the six or seven artists among the Second Generation of the New York School "most included in exhibitions and publications of the 1950s." But when I asked Sandler recently why he thought Goodnough was not better known today, he seemed as puzzled as I was, saying, "I can't really answer that question. I just don't know..."

Sandler, by far the most reliable chronicler of the postwar period in the New York art scene, also once stated that "the Second Generation's sense of family was even stronger than the first." And if that is true, then Robert Goodnough would have to be considered the distant relation. After all, he's virtually the only New York artist of comparable stature who is nowhere to be found in "The Artist's World," Fred W. McDarrah's 1961 photo book chronicling the movable feast that was the Manhattan avant-garde, from loft parties to meetings of The Club; from the Cedar Bar, to communal dinners in Chinatown; to openings on Tenth Street and in uptown galleries and museums.

True, when he was still a student at N.Y.U., Goodnough did help Barnet Newman and Robert Motherwell organize the well-known Subjects of the Artists lectures at Studio 35, and later participated in discussion groups with de Kooning, Motherwell, and Pollock at The Club. He also made a 8 millimeter film called Le Pauvre Artiste with a friend named Marta Fabry about an impoverished artist making a sale to a rich collector in his studio that was, according to B.H. Friedman "as much a spoof of Kerouac's Pull My Daisy as of Murger's La Vie de Bohème. "

But unlike Alfred Leslie, the painter who made Pull My Daisy with photographer Robert Frank, Goodnough was not a regular participant in downtown happenings. Nor was he by any means a party animal. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, you won't hear stories about him flaunting multiple love affairs á la de Kooning or getting into drunken brawls or even loud arguments at the Cedar. ("I had just come to New York and was new to all of this," Goodnough, who was actually from a small town upstate but obviously saw Manhattan as a place apart, told Matthew Rose in a 1987 interview in Arts magazine. And that was the gist of what this reserved provincial, fresh out of the U.S. Army and skimping by on the G.I. Bill, had to say about the fabled watering hole of the New York School. Period.)

His social reserve, however, seems hardly sufficient in itself to explain why, despite being in the collections of MoMA, the Whitney, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and just about every other museum that matters, Robert Goodnough is still the most under-rated painter in America. My own theory is that even more damaging than being dismissed as a party-pooper in perhaps the most socially incestuous art scene in history was the erroneous perception that Goodnough may have been something of a fence-sitter.

"I'm not crazy about labels," Goodnough once stated but the art world loves them. So what do you do with a guy who studied with and acknowledged as influences both Amedee Ozenfant, a Purist from Paris and a stickler for "discipline and precision," and Hans Hofmann, the let-it-all-hang-out guru of free-form "push and pull"? Goodnough himself didn't help them to figure it out when he was quoted saying things like, "I like to work freely, to slash with the brush and let loose. I also like to work carefully and with discipline."

Not many academic critics and art historians were as perceptive as Barbara Guest, who, like her fellow New York School poet Frank O'Hara, had an intimate grasp of what New York School painters were up to. Noting that Goodnough had been called "that Cubist," by those who didn't really understand his work, Guest wrote: "What that term implies is surprise, wonder that a painter brought up on the New York scene which is a corridor stretching from the studio of Hans Hofmann to the Club, whose walls were constructed and decorated by the Action Painters, should so little appear to be one of the group. As if he had discovered within this corridor a separate passage for his own private use."

Another problem may have been that while being embraced by Clement Greenberg (who included him in "New Talent," the group exhibition that he organized with Meyer Shapiro for the Kootz Gallery in 1950) could work wonders for strict formalists like Ken Noland and Jules Olitski, the early endorsement by the art world's biggest polemical blowhard could only add to the confusion for a more complex and varied artist like Goodnough.

"I originally met Clem Greenberg in Provincetown when I was studying with Hofmann," Goodnough told the writer Matthew Rose. "He's always gone to my shows and kept track of what I was doing. When I had a studio on Christopher Street, down on Eighth Avenue, he came by one day with John Myers. I had just finished a couple of paintings that were a little more disciplined and the shapes were more isolated. They were not overlapping shapes like some of the other paintings. Greenberg liked this one painting very much - it was controlled. At one point he called for a "large and bland Apollonian art.' And this painting kind of fit into his scheme."

Goodnough's work overall, however, didn't fit into anyone's scheme, and this made it hard to place in a climate of contention between the critical camps of Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, who became his arch rival when he weighed in with the influential essay, "The American Action Painters." To make a long story short, in the popularity contest between the two First Generation behemoths, Greenberg championed Pollock, while Rosenberg pushed de Kooning. Goodnough, who has composed pictures with both "overlapping shapes" and "more isolated shapes" all throughout his career, never did fit into the polarized scheme that caused the Greenberg-Rosenberg wars. It was perfectly natural for him to move between Greenbergian Apolonianism and Rosenbergian Action Painting, and even to combine elements of both in one canvas, confusing, and perhaps even offending, those who would insist that every New York artist remain loyal to either one camp or the other.

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That it did not respect arbitrary boundaries was exactly what made Goodnough's work seem so fresh and appealing when my wife and I first discovered it in the mid 1960s. Jeannie and I may have looked like stereotypical hippies with our bellbottoms, love beads and long hair, but we much preferred making the rounds of the galleries on 57th Street or Madison Avenue, then the two hubs of the art world, to making the scene at Fillmore East or Woodstock. We made a point of seeing everything, and what struck us immediately about Goodnough's work was that while it could be funky and gestural it didn't look like warmed over Abstract Expressionism. Then again, even when the shapes were more controlled, disciplined and isolated (to use Goodnough's own terms) the paintings didn't look flat and pat like a lot of the hard-edged Pop and Minimalist stuff coming into vogue around that time.

Goodnough's paintings, which seemed to be everywhere, not only at de Nagy, but in numerous group shows in other venues, were often huge. They looked ambitious and even heroic in the way that one wanted New York School Painting to continue being very much in what Harold Rosenberg referred to as "the tradition of the new." At the same time, some of them also had a funky, almost humorous nonchalance, as though the painter had a wry eye on art history and could make vital and visually witty connections between Gericault's wave-tossed raft, Rubens' spirited steeds, and the sweeping gestural strokes that de Kooning and Kline laid down with broad housepainter's brushes. As Fairfield Porter once put it, "Goodnough is full of respect for tradition, which he uses for new formal ends." Obviously, Goodnough's paintings were very much in what Harold Rosenberg referred to as "the tradition of the new."

What seemed most new to Jeannie and me when we first discovered Goodnough's work was its buoyancy, which made Barbara Guest call him "an innovator" for being the first painter to work outward from the center toward the edges of the canvas, "in order to lift the weight from the bottom of the picture." This weightless quality, further enhanced by the grace and velocity of his forms, sometimes created the impression that Goodnough's huge canvases were on the verge of taking off from the wall like flying saucers!

Goodnough married the romantic and the prosaic with an aplomb that often made us want to applaud, as one would a virtuoso musical performance. There was so much going on in his paintings at once, from flat, geometric areas of pure color, to vigorous gestural thrusts, to graffiti-like passages of raw charcoal drawing that got incorporated into the composition ala Twombly, rather than covered over. Nobody else around at that time seemed to be juggling so many disparate methods of mark-making in such an eclectic and yet coherent manner.

Especially exciting was Goodnough's way of combining strong formal qualities with quirky hints of subject matterparticularly in those compositions where angular, shard-like shapes and patches of color created semi-abstract suggestions of dinosaurs, figures on topsy turvy boats, and carnivalesque crowds. His work anticipated much that would come later, in the pluralist or postmodern era, from New Image painting to the variously allusive abstractions of artists like Terry Winters and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

That Goodnough is not better known, even while his work is greatly admired by other painters and coveted by savvy collectors, can only be attributed to one of those inexplicable miscarriages of fortune or peculiar mysteries of the human personalityand perhaps to his stubborn refusal to engage in art world politics or tailor his work to the expectations of myopic critics.

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Goodnough arrived in Manhattan soon after being discharged from the army at the end of World War II. He had been drafted in his hometown, Cortland, New York, a year after graduating from Syracuse University, where he had gone on scholarship at the recommendation of a former high school art teacher. Conservative as American art education still was in the early 1940s he did not discover modern painting until he was in the army, stationed in New Guinea, and saw the work of Picasso and Mondrian in a magazine.

And not a moment too soon: "I was tired of painting people that looked like people, with eyes, nose and mouth in just the right places," he told B. H. Friedman in "Goodnough," a monograph published by Editions Georges Fall, Paris, in 1962.

"This looked like the time to make some changes and free up a bit. It seemed that in order to grasp the true energy of a person more was needed than to show features, arms and legs. People moved and did things; they didn't just sit and pose; and what they did came from underlying energies and drives."

While his degree in Art Education from N.Y.U. would eventually enable him to teach at the Fieldston School, Cornell University, as well as at his alma mater, he initially supported himself with odd carpentry jobs, and even, for a time, ran a newsstand with a struggling playwright named George Franklin.

In 1947, while sharing a house on the dock in Provincetown with two other young painters, and attending Hans Hofmann's summer classes, he composed some verses about his war experiences, raw, strong stuff with lines such as "Closely I saw the enemy, touched the hardened forms,/Grinning in a ditch, where they had fallen." However, in another section of the same poem "As the battle moved/in a great kaleidoscopic pattern" is even more telling regarding his visual orientation, reflecting as it does the shimmering compositional dispersal that characterizes his best work. In fact, B.H. Friedman observes astutely in his essay that "Even in his poetry, Goodnough's image is beginning to emerge: an image emanating from the tension between rigid form and emotional content..."

Soon Goodnough was supplementing his meager income by writing reviews and articles for Art News, along with other New York School painters and poets like Elaine de Kooning, Fairfield Porter, John Ashbery, and James Schueler, who offered a lively alternative to dry, academic criticism in the heyday of that publication.

"Far out on Long Island, in the tiny village of Springs, with the ocean as background and in close contact with open, tree-studded fields where cattle graze peacefully, Jackson Pollock lives and paints," Goodnough begins his feature article, "Pollock Paints a Picture," in the May 1951 issue of Art News, setting the scene in an atmospheric manner which indicates that he could have made a career in journalism, had he so chosen. But when he gets down to the serious business of describing Pollock's working process, he starts thinking as a painter and reveals his true vocation. Indeed, Goodnough could as well be talking about his own approach to abstract painting as Pollock's when he writes: "The nature of the process is important. It is not something that has lost contact with reality, but might be called a synthesis of countless contacts which have become refined in the area of the emotions through the act of painting."

Perhaps sensing his sympathy to her husband's work, Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner, invited Goodnough and the photographer, Hans Namath, to stay the night, rather than making the long trip back to the city late in the day, after they finished the interview and photo session. Pollock, who was gregarious to a fault when drunk but depressive and withdrawn when sober, happened to be on the wagon at the time.

"After dinner there was an evening to get through," the photographer would later recall. "Pollock was pleasant but he didn't talk much. He hardly said anything. Goodnough wasn't a big talker either, so things got a little boring."

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Rumor has it that Robert Goodnough, who now lives in upstate New York with his Japanese wife, Miko, is still not much of a talker. Well, one would have surmised that this most taciturn of artists would have grown even more so with time; most people's personalities tend to concretize as they get older. Often, with artists, the work can ossify as well. Happily, this was not true in Goodnough's case, Jeannie and I discovered as soon as we walked into the Katharina Rich Perlow Gallery. That the show included both early and recent paintings enabled one who had not seen his work for awhile to reconnect with what initially attracted one to it, as well as to follow the continuity of his concerns.

Goodnough has several different modes of expression which appear to develop more or less simultaneously over several decades, rather than occurring in chronological "periods." For example, the 1997 oil on linen "Horses II" in the show at Perlow harks back to "Rearing Horses," a 1959 painting inspired by a Rubens copy of Leonardo's "Battle of Anghiari," which was not included in the exhibition. In both the earlier and later paintings, the main emphasis is on capturing a dynamic sense of equine movement in purely abstract terms with long, rhythmical "action lines" that flow upward from right to left over a vigorously worked ground covered with variegated color areas.

Another characteristic approach to which Goodnough returns from time to time can be seen in "Angular Lift,", at 68 X 104 inches, the largest canvas in the exhibition, which while executed in 1985 reminded us of some of his paintings from the mid 1960s. Here, rather than being integrated with the ground, shard-like shapes (the term Goodnough prefers to "forms") in muted red, pink, blue, white, green, and slate-gray tones appear in angular configurations at the center of an expansive field thinly stained with a pale, neutral hue. Further enlivened by the drips that Goodnough does not like to cover "because it's part of the process of doing the work," "Angular Lift" is one of his large yet "weightless" paintings even though it was created with overlapping shapes.

In both "Color Shapes,1984," and "Reflection, 2002-2004," on the other hand, a multitude of tiny, roughly triangular, isolated shapes soars over a luminous, liquescent ground, resulting in even greater buoyancy. Such graceful formations of small color particles on solid, yet subtly modulated fields, recurring in Goodnough's oeuvre over several decades, provoke a visual sensation as exhilarating as watching a flock of migrating birds sail across the sky.

Recently, however, Goodnough has been working most steadily on a group of paintings similar to ones that he did in the 1950s, with more grounded concentrations of layered and interwoven strokes, often in subdued monochromes interspersed with more strident bursts of red, yellow, and blue hues. Paintings such as the sizable oil and acrylic on canvas "N-R-K-A," 2004, with their vigorous gestures and elegant drips, are akin to some of the works that Barbara Guest was referring to when she wrote, "Goodnough laid down his color in short brushstrokes, again employing the expressive elements of cubism. But he certainly did not construct his painting cubistically. He was very far from that in his path toward the edges of the canvas."

All of the paintings, early and recent, in Robert Goodnough's exhibition at Katharina Rich Perlow Gallery glowed from the walls with an immediacy and a vitality that made clear once again how long overdue Goodnough is for wider recognition as one of the most innovative American painters active from the postwar period to the present. Unlike many of his contemporaries Goodnough has worked quietly and steadily, with a minimum of posturing. And while it might be said that his avoidance of the limelight has worked against him, perhaps in that final assessment he will benefit from having fabricated no public myth to get in the way of what matters most: the work itself.

­­Ed McCormack