My mental snapshots of Michael Goldberg start circa 1968 on an Easthampton bay beach. It’s windy, early spring. Our party of daytime drinkers is crouched on the dunes, smoking Gauloises and pot. The one at the shore line pouring the Bloody Marys tells me Goldberg’s backstory: Back in the '50s, when he made his precocious reputation, he signed his paintings “Michael Stuart.” The youngest second generation New York School Abstract Expressionist came from the Bronx.
Then (maybe after a water bagel), Michael Stuart’s conscience or good taste (they were the same) caught up with him.
“My name is Goldberg. Why should I sign myself Stuart?” he said. “I’m changing it back.”
At The Cedar Bar, when the First Generation New York School Abstract Expressionists heard the news of the oddly signed paintings, they clucked admiringly at such chutzpah and stylishness. “How about that Michael Stuart? He changed his name to Goldberg!”
He was a Pan-ish vivid person, an imp. A race-car driver with a Purple Heart. A gap between his teeth. That very day, he taught us the Beckettian minor-key song of beach life and longing we would never stop singing,
Carrying home the shoals from the shore, Maude,
Carrying home the shoals from the shore.
Those were the happiest days of all, Maude,
Carrying home the shoals from the shore.
Goldberg then was 44. When first a student at the Art Students League, he was fourteen. Like us, the early bloomer was in something of a monetary slump.
According to my memory, Mike acquired a huge supply of bronze powders as a gift from an unnamed industrial donor, and began to use them religiously, first as huge circles, dense and dully gleaming like planets, then in ornamental slivers and curves.
I learned only recently, from John Yau’s interview in the Knoedler catalogue, that those bronze powder paintings bored him, and weren’t fun to make. “The subject of art is money,” he said at the time.
On those Tuesday evenings in pre-gourmet supermarket, pre-Armani Soho, Goldberg once turned up at a series of openings in one of his several
jackets by Meladandri (a menswear designer then the height of luxe fashion). And no shirt.
He replaced his front teeth with painstaking precision, insisting the dentist measure exactly the god-given gap he wanted fixed forever between the two perfect fakes.
When Lynn (Umlauf, sculptor and wife) appeared in 1969, we fell immediately under her strict culinary command, I first realized she wasn’t kidding around about perfection in eating or art while shelling peas for Thanksgiving dinner in Stockbridge, Mass. Her uncompromising nature clarified his life. As did the years in springtime Italy, bringing back cathedral architecture, and (although Goldberg disowned an interest in landscape) the golden yellow and brilliant light.
He was the first person I ever heard use the word “asshole.” He landed it with eye-opening accuracy, like a martini onion plopped into a parasol drink. In the early ‘80’s when I lived there, he dipped into Los Angeles, just then on the cusp of a gallery scene. My mind’s eye is partying on a mogul’s patio overhanging the Pacific, enjoying the asshole’s champagne, and Michael’s eyes glittering with delight.
I can and will always hear Michael and Lynn debating the textural quality of the taleggio, the subtlety of the olive, the delicacy of the baby bok choy or the garlic shoots, systematically or furiously hairsplitting matters of taste. I remember the New Year’s Eve dinner of reindeer. I must be fantasizing a dessert of chocolate mousse cake.
A few weeks ago, Lynn and I sat at that angled round table in the shadows of Michael’s studio and its ruthless white light releasing a flip-book of memories: dining, arguing, drinking, laughing, listening to Billie Holliday or the down and out blues, always in the presence of a new layout of Goldberg variations—the real dessert—it seemed every time.
Goldberg’s worktable still brims with vitality and crazy joyously colored oil sticks big as bombs. What optimism, concentration and genius went into this work and life.
“Everything I do takes off from Mondrian,” Lynn quotes him saying as I lay eyes on the final two skeletal works, one sectioned in black into familiar four squares, the other drawn and strung additionally with the lines of its future diagonal thrust. Double squares, double rectangles, tryptichs and grids have also been transformed in this space into deeply alive and exuberant riffs on abstraction that, as Charlie Parker took off from Stravinsky, take off from Mondrian.
The Encarta World English Dictionary provides several definitions of “shoals.” As a noun, it may mean “an underwater sandbank or sandbar that is visible at low water”; “a large group of fish or other marine animals swimming together”; or “a large group of similar people or things.” As a verb, it means “to group together to form a shoal.”
I expect the door of discussion to open soon with a Michael Goldberg retrospective that makes manifest the trajectory of his amazing and revelatory shoal, his body of work. Remember, Lynn witnessed his last word on earth was “Hello.”
I think it’s good that Mike went out on an up note. Some early work had just been sold at Christies for a high price, his show at Knoedler’s was as they say well received, so he was able to feel that at long last he was getting some of the serious recognition that we all crave. Or maybe it was that he was at last getting serious attention again, because I don’t know how big a deal Mike was in the fifties but the fact that the National Gallery owns paintings of his from that period is surely a good indication that he wasn’t marginal. I spoke to him a few days before he died and he was pretty much himself, allowing for his clearly being very weak. I find it hard to imagine him going on living in a way that he would have found difficult if not impossible. He was the original great guy, generous to a fault both with material wealth and intellectually, and he liked the world and the good stuff that is in it. A Mike who found it difficult to go out and really was finally unable to drink would have been a hard act to perform even for him.
I met Mike in the seventies and we soon became good friends. I liked his attitude to life and I liked talking to him about art, and learned a lot in the course of doing so. Among the many funny things about him that I shall remember is his buying an expensive office chair from the chair shop downstairs for his studio, so that he could as he said fuck it up. He liked photographs of Matisse and Cézanne in their studios looking enigmatic or however you describe that, probably ones of Picasso too. The chair—which he bought only a few years ago—was a finishing touch to his own studio which would become integrated into it as it, like the floor and his trousers, became covered with paint. Then his studio would have a chair for him to sit in which was like the ones in the photographs except that this one would be a New York School chair, covered with paint—and in that doubly a Mike Goldberg chair because it would be something expensive that was being treated negligently.
The studio was Mike’s life in my opinion. Everything else was everything else. I think he really lived to work as much as any other artist I know or have known. That was what the famous artist in his studio thing was about. I think he was very bound up in the idea that an artist is, more or less only, her or his work. His paintings are all pretty dense, materially and in terms of the amount of adjustments and movements one is obliged to take in when looking at them. Back in the seventies he was doing black paintings and works on paper which had a single image but were very thoroughly worked. Then he started making paintings with a lot of color in them again and didn’t stop. I think he liked charcoal and oil stick, among the more obvious reasons, because the instrument itself is that much less distant in its relationship to the canvas than is a brush. Where a brush must be constantly replenished, the oil stick vanishes into the canvas as one uses it. Mike didn’t want to vanish into his paintings by any means, but he wanted them to have a life of their own. I spent a fair amount of time in that studio, that being where I’ve stayed a lot of the time when visiting New York over the past two decades. We’d look at the work and I always knew what he was trying to do and why it had to be uncertain. He used colors which were sort of Fauvist but never described them as such, he had enthusiasms for Renaissance which I don’t share but in which he found what he had also found in the work of painters in post-war New York, a (Kantian, actually) sense of space—mostly conceived as a landscape space in some sense or other—as the expression and repository of life experienced as a force. He succeeded in what he was trying to do.
Mike was a gentle breeze and a storm. He turned like a swirl and went straight like an arrow. His way of being true to himself attracted his friends. He could get away with exaggerations and deliver sweet concern without ever letting himself be trapped by sentimentality.
As a person and as a painter the center of his universe was attention, respectful attention with no self-indulgence nor saccharine pity for others. He was enamored with life while he also dreaded the routines we waste so much time in. He read voraciously but never had any conceit about it. He would not fill his speech with quotes but hardly any literary or critical event escaped him. Mention of a text would find him informed.
He couldn’t bare the many courtly hypocrisies of the worlds he navigated: the literary, the artistic, the social. I didn’t always share his opinions about a person or a work, but because his sometimes outrageous dismissals were issued always with some kind of self-deprecating humor, whatever he said would lead me to consider one more time my thoughts.
Mike was particularly taken by what he found to be real and un-rhetorical. An authentic person would receive from him total affection. One of his sayings in life and art was: ‘let’s cut through the bullshit’.
Arriving in his and Lynnie’s studios, I was greeted by jazz music selected to fit the occasion. Starting last year, however, especially in their country abode near Siena in Italy, there were lots of Beethoven piano sonatas. That’s when his great last paintings were beginning to be hatched, works of light yet profound luminosity that remind me of Matisse’s last radiance into the paper cutouts that so much added to his own and art history’s horizon.
A Memorial for Michael Goldberg will be held at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery at 1 P.M on March 1, 2008. With Tributes by Gerald Jay Goldberg, Lynda Benglis, Phong Bui, Janet Coleman, Ann Freedman, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Klaus Kertess, Luke Matthiesse, Ellen Phelan, Lucio Pozzi, David Shapiro, Larry Osgood, including “Michael Goldberg,” a film by Bill Page. Reception to follow in the Parish Hall.
Janet Coleman is an author and actor.Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe