The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" - a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.
Brenda Goodman is a contemporary American painter. She has been painting for over 50 years. However, in the last few years, her work has been shared with a more widespread audience and she’s received much overdue recognition because of the singular vision and powerful emotion in her paintings. A few examples include her award with the American Academy of Arts and Letters, her 50 year retrospective in Detroit, several reviews of her work in Hyperallergic and the Brooklyn Rail and her recent exhibitions at Life on Mars.
Brett Wallace: What was your origin in painting?
Brenda Goodman: I used to copy cartoons, and I remember doing a little oil painting when I was 8 years old – I wish I still had it – of a black and white dog. I did not know at the time that I wanted to be an artist. My father was in the grocery business, but he liked to draw. He was really, really talented and I would copy Norman Rockwell paintings from the Saturday Evening Post covers and he would copy in the faces for me. It wasn’t until high school that I started becoming interested in art, and I started taking evening classes at the College for Creative Studies, but in the old days, it was a small, private art school that was called the Society of Arts and Crafts. It was right behind the Art Institute in Detroit. So I took evening classes, and I loved it.
Even then I wasn’t 100 percent sure I was going to be a painter. I took ceramics. I took sculpture. I took painting. But I knew right away once I started taking the classes that I wanted to paint. Then they gave me a scholarship to start classes after I graduated high school. That’s what I did.
BW: Were you following artists at that time?
BG: No. Not when I first started in 1961.
BW: And, you were in Detroit?
BG: Yes, I was born in Detroit. I started school there, and I didn’t leave there until ’76.
BW: Where did you settle in New York?
BG: 94 Bowery. A lot of artists lived on the Bowery back then. I remembered seeing Jake Berthot painting at night in his studio across the street.
I didn’t leave Detroit until 1976, however I would come to New York once a year to visit. I only knew one person, Bobbie Oliver who had a loft on the Bowery. And so I would come, and I would stay with her when I was doing my once a year trip to New York to see real art. Then in ’75, she said she wanted to move to West Broadway, and her loft would be available for rent. It was a fourth-floor walk-up, and I said, yes. So I just moved from Detroit straight to that loft, which I was very familiar with, and familiar with the building.
I’ll tell you, it was a very rough four years. I didn’t know anyone, really, except her; and the neighborhood was a lot different than it is now. I don’t know if you ever walk in that area, but it’s totally changed. When I was there, I would have to get someone to remove the guy who was drunk that was sleeping across the doorway. A lot of guys like that were all over the place. Chinatown was on one side, and Little Italy was on the other. I was right in between Grand, Hester, and Canal; and everyone was sort of separate. Slowly that all started to get cleaned up. The bums sort of disappeared, and it got a little better; except then the Chinese started moving in on Little Italy, and a lot of the stores in Little Italy moved to Queens. So Chinatown sort of took over the whole area, and at first it was all very nice and exciting; but after 34 years there, I had reached my total limit of what I could tolerate. I hated it and everything irritated me.
BW: Could you share more of what your early paintings were about?
BG: I was in art school from ‘61 to 65 where I learned the basics of painting inside out. In ’73 I had my first one-person show in Detroit, and it was the year after my mother died, and I wanted my work to become more personal.
Then a poet, Faye Kicknosway, who was pretty famous in Detroit, saw my show, and she bought one of the pieces. She had a real surreal bent to her poetry, and I was ready to have my work become a lot more personal. She asked me if I wanted to sit in on one of her creative writing classes. She was teaching at Wayne State University. That turned everything around for me, because I, at the time, was – how do I put this? – super, super tough; and, to some people, very scary. That was my defense, because I was afraid to feel vulnerable. I wanted that part of me to come out more.
So when I was sitting in on her creative writing classes, I started creating these little symbols. The one for me, as you can see in “The Cat Approaches” painting, an upside down heart; a very abstract heart, but for me it meant a heart and opening up and being vulnerable. Then I started creating little symbols for everybody in my life.
So for years, my work – maybe 12 years – became a diary, a visual diary of what was happening in my life. They were abstracted shapes but you knew there was something going on. So, I thrived on these symbols and telling a story, until I didn’t want to do that anymore. I painted myself into a corner and wanted a change in my life and work. It’s 1983; I quit smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, and I stayed out of my studio for almost a year, because the association of working and smoking was so strong. Then 11 months after that, I was sitting at Food, the infamous artists’ hangout on Prince Street in SoHo. All the old-timers knew about it. It doesn’t exist anymore. I had these little six by eight-inch index cards, and I just started scribbling marks on them. All of a sudden, this whole new thing happened when I wasn’t thinking about people’s shapes and stories anymore. It was making marks and letting certain images come from the marks, and that’s basically what I’ve been doing ever since, with the exceptions of 1994 and 2003-2007. In 1994, after working for 10 years painting abstractly, I wanted a more personal element in them again. I had gained weight and was up to 200 pounds. So, I did a series of self-portraits.
BW: Those are very powerful paintings. And, I recall you walking through those works in your artist talk last summer at Life on Mars.
BG: It was like a mirror for me, to say, okay, you’ve got to get a hold of yourself here and look at yourself. So I did that whole series to sort of reflect on me. It was a very powerful, very personal experience. Sometimes I go back after doing a whole series of work, and I have a desire to do self-portraits again, which I did from 2003 to 2007. They’re all on my website.
But going back to the work from 1983, it’s just packed with scribbles and marks and then I just start pulling out certain shapes. I would take one shape and I would make it a color; and then that would inform whatever was next to it. Then they just grow that way. The paintings just grow. That’s why all of my paintings are so different. It’s not like there’s a variation on a theme, because whatever marks are on that piece – I’m going to see different things. Then the painting sort of evolves and grows from those particular marks. So in my show at Life on Mars there were no two paintings that were similar. You knew they were mine, but it just was whatever was on the surface of those original boards. That make sense?
BW: It’s admirable how your work has transformed from this narrative style of painting, and then into figuration, and then into a combination of organic abstraction and figuration, which you’ve been doing for years now. You’re able to gracefully move between these different modes almost seamlessly. It feels to me that you have a strong self-reflective compass and painting is a way of working through the journey, regardless of the style.
BG: Totally, 100 percent. After I learned the basics of painting, the work got more personal. That’s my whole purpose and reason for painting: to put out there what I’m feeling at different times. You would never know, for example, with Robert Ryman, how he feels from year to year. And, no doubt that is not what he wants to communicate. He’s coming from a different place with his work. But with me, one of my goals as a painter is to remove all the veils that block the viewer from being able to feel the painting, to feel the experience; even if it’s different than my intent. People don’t say, I don’t believe your paintings; I don’t trust them. They never say that about my work, because it’s just coming from a real place in me. If it didn’t, I think I would have to stop. You’ll see that in the “Karmic” show opening March 11th. I hope you see it.
BW: Yes, I’ll be there.
BG: That would be great. All 21 pieces are new. After I got back from Detroit, which was a 50-year retrospective of my work, I got severe sciatica. It was really, really painful; and the only time I didn’t have pain is when I was sitting. So I went into my studio, and I started doing my little six by eight-inch pieces. For three months, I just painted what it felt like to be in that much pain all the time. You can feel it in the pieces. When you see them, you’ll know what I mean. They’re about that experience. You might not know it’s sciatica, but you can feel the tension in the pieces, where there was such a discomfort level. The show is going to be me and Glenn Goldberg and Steve DiBenedetto. We’re all unique painters so it should be a very interesting show, to say the least. Plus each picked a younger artist we’ve mentored and their work will be in the project room; a great idea for a show.
BG: In 2009 my partner’s son died. I painting a series called, “Troubled Waters”. These paintings are about his illness and death. They were painful paintings. They’re difficult paintings. They’re almost hard to look at, but I needed to paint them.
BW: Could you talk about the monolithic form in those paintings, it feels embryonic in a way, either coming into life or leaving life?
BG: Yes, leaving life basically. I didn’t want them to be realistic. I wanted them to feel figurative and yet not figurative, abstract yet you knew what was going on.
BW: Not at all. I think exploration is an essential ingredient to the vitality of paintings - otherwise aren’t we doomed to just repeat ourselves?
BW: How important is imagination and exploration in your work?
BG: I used to paint from little sketches. This was in the ‘80s. After a while, I said, this is no fun. First of all, the drawings were much more spontaneous and intimate than the paintings; and they just became like copies. So years and years ago, I stopped doing that. Whatever happens on the surface. It was just marks, and then it starts to develop into. “Almost a Bride”, from my show in 2015 at Life on Mars, that’s a hard painting to explain how it happened. All I know is, it felt right. It looked right. Everything about it was right. But I didn’t have a definite story behind it. But, other people brought their own interpretation to it. And, they know it was honest and real even if I couldn’t necessarily explain all the different parts to it. Is that disappointing?
BW: Not at all. I think exploration is an essential ingredient to the vitality of paintings - otherwise aren’t we doomed to just repeat ourselves?
BG: It comes out as I go along. That’s exactly what happens. They start off that way, and I have absolutely no idea how they’re going to finish. Sometimes they get very frustrating somewhere along in the middle, and I’ll start working it and working it and working it, and I feel my ego getting in the way; and then I’ll wipe out practically the whole painting and begin again. It just has to feel right. Whenever there’s an area that you’re trying to hold onto, trying to make it right, that’s the time you have to let go completely. Surrender is the biggest challenge of all in painting, I think; letting go. Sometimes it doesn’t always go well – I’m moving along, and I think it’s all coming together, and then something doesn’t feel right. I keep trying to make it right, and I’m going more and more into my will and my ego, until I have to just take a big brush and break it wide open again. Of course, as soon as I do that, it all comes together; surrender is the most important part of painting; letting go.
BW: By the way, that might be the headline of this whole piece because surrendering seems so core to your work and your journey. How has surrendering changed over time for you?
BG: I understand surrendering more now than when I was a younger artist: I remember there was a painting in the early ‘80s or late ‘70s that I was working on, and I was still working with my symbols. There was this little shape I was painting, and I wanted it to get done. I wanted to see it finished, and it needed time to dry; but I was very impatient, and I kept putting it on taking it off, putting it on and taking it off; and finally I just left it alone. I went out for dinner and went to sleep. Next morning it finished itself. There have been so many times when I would just willfully and doggedly want to make something work, and I knew that I had to let go of something in order to have that happen. Sometimes it would be days, and sometimes it would be weeks, before I could let go. But each time you let go, the painting just magically comes together; because you’ve gotten yourself out of the way. So if you keep doing that – and I’ve been painting for 50 years – if you keep doing that, you really start to trust that process. So if you ask me, what’s one of the most important things I’ve learned about painting, it’s the amount of time it takes to surrender to it and be open to it to be whatever it wants to be.
There are 15 of these little sciatica paintings that are going to be in the Karmic show at Life on Mars; and in each one, there was a time when I thought, well, this isn’t working. This isn’t feeling right. What am I going to do? I said to myself, “you’re going to have to do something that’s unexpected, or make a mark that’s going to change the piece. It’s time to let go”. I did. Practically each piece had that element in it. I had a smile on my face, because I knew I had to do that. But part of it is, it has to be a good piece on top of being open and honest and real and heartfelt and all that stuff that I care about. Each piece has to be a good painting. I know if anyone does a eulogy when I die, the one thing they won’t say about my work is, it’s uneven. It won’t happen. I don’t understand when an artist can’t edit his or her own work and know if it’s a good piece or an unfinished piece or not a good piece. I won’t let anything out of my studio unless I think it’s a really good piece. You, as a viewer, might not like each one; everyone likes different ones; or some people like a different series more than others. But there aren’t some that are bad paintings and some that are good paintings. It’s just not going to happen with me, because I just believe no matter what it still has to be a good painting. When I talk to artists and students, I’ll say, “This is all over the place”. I don’t know where to focus. Go look at those de Kooning paintings of the woman on a bike, and look at those razor sharp lines he put on the bottom to clarify all the chaos around it. Then you’re learning something about not giving up your emotions but adding to it by making it a damn good painting.
BW: What advice would you have for younger painters?
BG: I would still tell students, and any young artists, just go into your studio for five, six years, and not think about showing, not getting into the art world and learn how to paint, if you want to be a painter. It doesn’t happen overnight if you want to be a really good painter. You’ve got to really focus on it and experiment. I guess the biggest thing I would say to young people is, experiment now, when you’re young; especially if you’re still in school, as much as you can. Because it’s going to get harder and harder when you leave school. There will be more pressure. When students do their thesis show, the teachers want them to have a unified body of work. Well, that’s the last thing they should have. The very last thing they should have is a unified body of work when they’re just finishing school. Everything in the show should be completely different than everything else, to show that they’re exploring and learning and trying to figure out what feels right for them, and what doesn’t feel right for them, instead of trying to get a style right away.
I think those are things that the younger artist doesn’t have patience for. When I was young, we had a lot of patience. It’s not like that anymore. Everyone is in a hurry to make fast paintings and get recognized quickly.
BW: Who inspires you? I see some Guston in your work, but you have your own DNA.
BG: Yes. There are certain artists that we have affinities with, which means there’s some stuff in Guston’s DNA that is in my DNA. Or Dubuffet. Every time I picked up a pencil, Dubuffet popped out. I went to my teacher and said, I believe in being influenced; but when am I going to find myself. He said just become him. Look like him. Talk like him. Paint like him, and stop fighting it. As soon as I gave into it – once again, another level of surrender – I was able to move forward. But there will always be some Dubuffet in my work. Ensor, Soutine, de Kooning, Morandi were also strong influences.
BW: Could you share some insight into your process?
BG: Ever since I was a student, back in the 60’s, the thing that interested me the most was making different kinds of surfaces, making textures with different materials. I experimented and still experiment with different materials that will convey a particular emotion that I want to express at the time. I feel I would be very limited in expressing myself if I only knew how to put paint on canvas one way. Sometimes it’s with glazing and thin veils of color. Sometimes it’s using ash from our wood stove and pumus to give the paint more thickness. Many times it’s a combination of several techniques in one painting. Even at 72, I’m still discovering new tools to use and ways to apply paint. I use Q-Tips, sponge brushes, sponge rollers, cake decorators, and squeegees to just name a few. One day in 2001, for some reason I had House and Garden on the TV and this woman was on a ladder using a circular sponge roller from the hardware store to paint bamboo shoots on a mural and I though that’s an interesting tool. I went to the hardware store and came home with some sponge rollers and was off on new way of applying paint.
BW: What are you working on next?
BG: I don’t know until I start a new painting. But, I feel a confidence and clarity in my work that’s stronger than I’ve ever experienced before.