Carol Brown Goldberg’s exhibition Entanglement offers us vivid evidence of her artmaking as the convergence of intellect, emotion, and technique. Goldberg has a remarkably edgy and inquisitive mind. Her paintings in the current exhibition—marked by images of dense, imagined foliage—are rooted in a unique interplay of tightly packed philosophical concepts and more ethereal poetic imaginings.
In describing to me the intellectual concept of “entanglement” that fuels this body of work, Goldberg writes:
The idea of autonomy and interdependence is contained in Bell’s Theorem of quantum entanglement with its own equation in physics… AS ABOVE SO BELOW…. we are part of the universe, we are a replication of the universe…..our body has billions of cells, the universe billions of stars….the micro and macro are mirror images in many ways… We are all interconnected, and the idea of consciousness among quantum particles should not surprise us. It is called ‘spookiness at a distance’.
Goldberg’s love of science is already well established in her writing and art. But it would be a mistake to think the path to interpreting Entanglement runs solely through the field of quantum physics. Rather, as an artist, she informs these hypernatural pictures with a deep emotional connection to the experiences of her childhood. For Goldberg, the small-town Baltimore in which she grew up was a warm place—more Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights than John Waters’ Hairspray. This was an environment where it seemed that everybody at least knew each other, and many were related in extended families. There was above everything a sense that people were connected—entangled, if you will.
In this exhibition, Goldberg uses her invented elements of nature as visual metaphors for our interconnectedness and our autonomous growth. This poetic approach seeks to resolve and reconcile two seemingly contradictory and exclusionary states of being—the solitude of the artist alone in her studio, and the interconnectivity of clans and moieties that binds us into a family, a group of friends, a community. Entanglement is Goldberg’s gift of her particularly spooky talent. She shows us that although we exist, work, think, and dream in our separate existences, we also are inextricably united to others.
Technically, Goldberg credits Klaudio Rodriguez, curator of the Frost Museum at Florida International University, for suggesting she try translating the spontaneity and immediacy of her small pen-and-ink works to largescale paintings on canvas. Goldberg was able to achieve the speedy yet controlled hand-to-brain coordination required at this scale through her discovery of acrylic paint sticks. This new medium enables her to envelop us visually, drawing us deep into the work in a way that is physical and poetic:
I want my art to be everything and everywhere….it seems at once ordinary….just made by black lines….and extraordinary in its excess…as if i am crowding life with marks of experience with marks of people with marks of bits upon bits of information…pile ups of memory and imagined futures…..my art is made inside a space where I bring the complexity of thoughts and opinions and fears and realities of existence. The work is a compression of all of art history of all of my known history, of history of humanity….the entanglements speak to the total existence of one’s life…of anyone’s life….of everyone’s life….
On behalf of American University’s students and friends, I want to thank Carol Brown Goldberg for sharing her art, Dr. Robert S. Mattison for his insightful catalogue essay, International Arts & Artists Design Studio, and our extraordinarily talented Museum staff.
Jack Rasmussen, Director and Curator,
American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center,
Over the past two years, Carol Brown Goldberg has created an extraordinary body of new work: the series Entanglement. On the one hand, these complex and stunningly beautiful paintings and drawings embody Goldberg’s profound meditations on the creative process and the origins of art-making. On the other, they personify the artist’s intuitive feeling for the biological world, as well as her continuing investigations of the advanced sciences of our age. These large paintings and smaller drawings propose a procreative and fecund connectedness between nature’s forces and artistic activity.
The Entanglement works are complementary to Goldberg’s paintings from 2005 to 2015, which dealt with her thoughts about the macrocosm. In them, freely painted centers and undersurfaces are overlaid with fields of radiant particles that pulsate throughout the compositions. They suggest a poetic equivalent to physicists’ search for the unified field theory and “implicate order” in the universe. In Entanglement, Goldberg takes on the microcosm rather than the macrocosm. These new paintings and drawings embody the search for connected growth patterns in our organic world, down to its smallest and seemingly most basic level. Stylistically, Goldberg’s earlier paintings were based on shimmering color and mark-making, while these more recent works rely on the growth sequences realized through drawing.
Human depictions of the mysterious and interconnected forces of nature go back to our origins. For instance, carvings on the inner walls of the Newgrange Mound in Ireland (ca. 3000–2500 BCE) show interwoven spiral motifs that could be abstracted versions of vines connecting one plant to another. Likewise, ancient Aegean artifacts such as the Kamares Ware jugs (ca. 2000–1900 BCE) feature curving, intersecting shapes seemingly derived from sea life. The jugs’ swelling forms, with their bulging contours, further suggest the bountiful aquatic world. And the early medieval world featured such works as the manuscript pages of the extraordinary Lindisfarne Gospel Book (ca. 715–720), with its breathtakingly complex ornament pages depicting hybrids of animal and vegetal forms tangled in acrobatic interlaces. Such powerful belief in the fecundity of nature as both intellectual investigation and spiritual revelation is germane to Goldberg’s art. In Western art history, this sensibility continued into the early Renaissance, as found in The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry series (ca. 1495–1505) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
One must also look beyond the Western world for the intricate foliate patterns that populate Goldberg’s recent paintings and drawings. Near and Far Eastern art filled Goldberg’s childhood home, the majority of it gifts sent to her mother by an uncle who had an import/export business. In college, Goldberg spent two years studying the Chinese language, which she termed a “philosophical exercise.” She spent much of her museum time during the 1980s at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art, in her words, “looking at Far and Near Eastern art–very influenced by these works.”
In the Ottoman Empire, a culture in which animal and human depictions were forbidden, the blue- and turquoise-glazed tiles found in mosques and in such royal structures as the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul (1638), capture in abstract form the bounty of the organic world. The Garden Prayer Carpet (Iran, seventeenth century) uses intricate patterns to represent Paradise as a shady garden with rivers, dense fields of trees, and flowers. Goldberg has commented that she was particularly influenced “by the detailed flat space of Islamic art.”
One major source for Islamic art was the rich and ancient traditions of China. Goldberg’s Entanglement series draws on the remarkable developments in Chinese landscape painting of the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127), as seen in the master Fan Kuan. Works by Fan Kuan and those in his style are often monumental compositions set forth in vertical formats. They feature dense natural forms and intricately harmonious shape relationships. Natural elements are crisply drawn, and the black-and-white compositions feature rich tonalities. Landscape in the Style of Yan Wengui and Fan Kuan (ca. 1370) (fig. 1) contrasts a highly detailed and imaginary landscape with empty spaces above. (Goldberg has spoken of “honoring the ‘empty’ space” in Chinese landscape painting.) The Song period landscape is a view of nature that includes humans but is uncorrupted by their presence. It represents no specific place, but its intricate composition, ordered despite its complexity, expresses the belief in an intelligent universe.
The Northern Song style of nature painting has a powerful heritage in Chinese art extending to the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), as can be seen in Wang Shimin’s Landscape in the Style of Huang Gongwang (1666). In this work, an abundance of natural forms are layered vertically, and appear to morph one into another. The brush does not pause anywhere to dwell on differentiation, but concentrates on transforming mass into movement. Goldberg’s Entanglement works are profoundly related to the stylistic discoveries expressed in such works, as well as to their philosophical convictions about nature.
Along with her global context, Goldberg is a quintessentially American artist. Nature was essential to America’s self-definition during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when it was said that Europe had the history, civilizations, and the cities, while America had nature. America was called the “natural paradise” and the “new Eden.” The Hudson River was sometimes referred to as the cathedral “nave” of the nation, and the country’s first important group of artists was the Hudson River School of landscape painters, who in the mid-19th century painted this scenic region. It is significant that one of the greatest repositories of works by those artists is Washington, DC, Goldberg’s home. The Corcoran College of Art, the institution at which Goldberg studied, housed a major collection of that art, including works by such figures as Martin Johnson Heade, Asher B. Durand, and Frederic Edwin Church.
For the Hudson River School artists, especially Church and Heade, nature was both a scientific and a spiritual experience: a dual sensibility that is intrinsic to Goldberg’s art. These 19th-century American artists worked on the cusp of an age when biology, botany, and geology were advancing as sciences. At the same time, nature as a mystical entity was essential to the imagination of the age. The naturalist Alexander von Humboldt was a key figure in this dualistic approach.
Von Humboldt, who was born and educated in Prussia, came to America in the late 18th century in search of its natural wonders. Between 1799 and 1804, he explored South America, documenting his travels in his multi-volume treatise Cosmos (Volume I, 1845), which became a seminal book among scientists and other intelligentsia of the time. In essence, von Humboldt extrapolated his personal observations of the interactive elements of nature with detailed analyses worthy of Charles Darwin. He proposed a holistic view of the universe as a single interacting entity. But, contrary to Darwin, von Humboldt concluded that the multifaceted order of the world could only result from a “divine presence.” Thus, he combined science with a spiritual understanding of the forces of nature.
Both Church and Heade were mesmerized by von Humboldt’s treatise Cosmos, and each of them followed his journey to South America, often painting the sites described by him. Church’s immense painting Heart of the Andes (1859, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) (fig. 3) sets the giant mountain range against a profusion of foliage that dominates the foreground of the work. Though rendered with accurate detail, the plant life represents four different climatic zones that do not coexist in nature. So Church’s painting is at once science-based and an imaginative invention. Goldberg’s paintings evoke the dense, interwoven vegetation found in this work; more significantly, they participate in the synthesis of science and free artistic inspiration that motivated Church. When completed, The Heart of the Andes toured America as an inspirational lesson in the grandeur of the Americas. On a more intimate level, the less imposing works of Martin Johnson Heade, such as Hummingbird and Passionflowers (ca. 1875–85) (fig. 4), capture the detailed wonders of the biological world.
The specific impetus for Goldberg’s Entanglement series came from a 2015 exhibition in which she was invited to participate at The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. The exhibition, One on One: Carol Brown Goldberg/Henri Matisse, was curated by Klaus Ottmann, who personally chose from Goldberg’s studio collection the painting Maggie on My Mind (2015) (fig. 6) (plate 1, page 27), as well as two complementary works on paper. Together, Goldberg and Ottmann selected an older work from The Phillips Collection to be displayed beside these choices as a counterpoint. That painting was Matisse’s Interior with Egyptian Curtain (1948) (fig. 5), an extravagantly lush work painted by Matisse shortly after moving to the Mediterranean hill-town of Vence, where he would fashion his late masterwork The Chapel of the Rosary. Matisse resided next door to the chapel in the Villa Le Rêve, and his upstairs studio window looked out on the giant palm tree that features in his Interior.
Interior with Egyptian Curtain is a riot of rich colors and organic forms, and its freely executed brush marks recall the lushness of Matisse’s post-Fauve paintings of forty years earlier. The vibrant pattern of the palm fronds particularly communicates the vitality of nature. The painting melds three of Matisse’s great themes—exterior nature, still life, and decorative design (here, the Egyptian curtain)—into one sensuous experience. Goldberg has had a career-long admiration for Fauvist color and linear freedom. She has said,
“I love Matisse’s outlined flat colors, the combination of color and line. I definitely relate to the Fauves and also Japanese woodprints.”
For Entanglement, Goldberg devised her own version of one of the most radical ideas in the Modernist canon, “automatism.” In his 1924 First Manifesto of Surrealism, André Breton proposed “pure psychic automatism” as a mode for inventing a new art. Based on his interpretation of psychology, Breton intended the technique as a means of bypassing consciousness in order to tap directly into the deep creative wellsprings of the unconscious mind. In the 1920s, the technique was embraced by Max Ernst, André Masson, Roberto Matta, Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy, and other Surrealists. In her own words, Goldberg “has a deep affinity with and draws endless inspiration from the Surrealist painters and their imaginations.”
Goldberg creates the Entanglement works in automatic modes.
She has said:
My hand is not fighting my thoughts, my brain. My hand just moves, it’s not unconscious, of course. I’m still very conscious. But while I work, I’m listening to books on tape or listening to a lecture, really taking in information with one part of my brain while I’m drawing and creating with the other and making aesthetic decisions, it’s like taking my pen on a journey.
Goldberg has also called this process “spontaneous, system-less
While Goldberg’s statement makes the process sound simple, it is actually far from it. Her works are created without the usual preliminary drawings and with no conscious pre-planning. Each pictorial decision is immediate and must be made with absolute certainty; every gesture must coordinate perfectly with already executed marks, while also anticipating a wide range of future marks. To suggest unity, a continuous rhythmic balance is maintained between the outlines of forms, and repetitions which might deaden the composition are avoided. Each shape is given characteristics that will allow it to grow and morph into a series of related, but not identical, configurations.
Traditional Old Master paintings feature preliminary drawings that are laboriously corrected and adjusted. These designs are then enlarged, often by a grid measurement system, to produce a pre-conceived final work. By contrast, Goldberg relies on spontaneous, instinctive connections between brain and hand, developed intuitively over decades of painting.
Goldberg’s use of automatic techniques brings her back to Abstract Expressionism, one of her longtime passions. Beginning in the late 1940s, the Abstract Expressionist painters adopted the methods of painterly automatism pioneered by the Surrealists, many of whom were exiled in New York City by World War II. The New York abstract painters transformed automatic techniques into monumental paintings that exceeded in sheer visual power the more modest Surrealist experiments. Jackson Pollock’s groundbreaking drip paintings are intuitive and immediate, rhythmic and controlled, in a manner that Goldberg finds highly relevant to her art. Pollock created dense works full of pictorial events that have a heritage in Goldberg’s recent paintings. He also pioneered a type of composition that eliminates traditional figure/ground relationships while activating every part of the painting surface. This painterly structure, named “all over” painting by the critics, is an additional basis for Goldberg’s recent paintings.
Pollock’s great drip paintings, like Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) of 1950 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), rely much more on his responses to nature than is usually acknowledged in the literature on the artist. However, the Abstract Expressionist most closely associated with transformations of nature is Arshile Gorky. As seen in Water of the Flowery Mill (1944) (fig. 7), Gorky created an imaginative world teeming with roots that intertwine, seed pods that explode and germinate, plants that sprout, water that gushes, and hybrid insects that mate.
A powerful motivating force for Gorky’s pantheism was the memory of his native land, which he and his fellow Armenians believed to be the original site of the Garden of Eden. That sacred domain had been lost to them when the Ottoman Turks launched the Armenian genocide in 1914, but Gorky found ways of recreating his beloved homeland through his fruitful imagination. While certainly not part of the violent history that Gorky endured, Goldberg’s Eden-like paintings, which imagine a dominant and procreative nature, are envisioned in the context of a worldwide ecological crisis. Stylistically, Gorky’s holistic view of nature is developed by way of long, interwoven, fluid lines of pigment that connect all forms in his imaginary universe. Technically, Gorky accomplished this style of painting through his use of long-bristled sign painters’ brushes given to him by his closest friend, Willem de Kooning. Similarly, Goldberg’s works are defined by entwined lines made possible by her discovery of the acrylic pen—a stylus attached to a cylinder loaded with acrylic paint—which allowed her to paint in long, connected gestures.
Goldberg has had a long and intense interest in science. She is a voracious reader who listens to audio books on science and culture while painting, and she routinely mines the internet for information and images. (One that recently caught her interest was a scientific animation illustrating the elegance with which bacteria flagella assembly occurs.) From 1980 through 1995, Goldberg organized monthly discussion groups at her studio; these included artists, scientists, and intellectuals from a variety of disciplines. In 1989, she produced a sixteen-week lecture series “Voices of Our Time” that brought together such figures as John Carlson, a specialist in archaeological astronomy from the University of Maryland; Margaret Geller of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; Margaret Livingstone, Harvard Professor of Neurology and author of the book Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing; and James Yorke, who coined the term “chaos theory.” For her recent works, Goldberg has been exploring the intersection of botany and ecosystems, freely exploring images that are metaphors for her ecological concerns.
On the whole, Goldberg’s paintings and drawings suggest the botanical concept of a “Climax Community”: an intricately progressive relationship among interconnected organisms within an ecosystem, the genesis of which lies in autochthonous energy from the sun. While subsequently elaborated by generations of scientists, this notion was originally advanced by Alexander von Humboldt, who observed during his travels that plants tend to form somewhat discrete associations. They exist in communities of similarly related groups, characterized not only by species but by their occurrence in favorable climatic, edaphic, and biotic conditions.
As a group, Goldberg’s paintings and drawings suggest the opulence and richness of tropical vegetation. In her painting The Fragrance of Entanglements (fig. 9) (plate 9, page 43), imaginary organisms sprout from a densely packed, nutrient-laden floor. Their rigid lower stems give way at higher levels to more undulating forms, as they strive upwards toward open areas at the top of the canvas. While Goldberg regards these upper expanses as governed by aesthetic decisions (as to the terminus point for her drawing), they also have botanical implications: in tropical forests, vegetation exhibits ordered strata that vary across the expansive height of the canopy. Where upper clearings exist, sunlight can penetrate to support the growth of specimens below, enabling them to thrive.
Goldberg’s invented biota range from simple to complex, and depict
the gradient of microscopic to monumental scales, all gathered together in her unitary biosphere. In Thank you Franz (plate 5, page 35)
(a reference to the black-and-white paintings of Franz Kline), the left side of the canvas exhibits the redolent stem and leaf configurations of vascular plants. At the center of the composition, vertical tubular forms resemble flower spikes with inflorescences crowded along fleshy axes, the very symbol of procreative energy. Other cone-shaped forms resemble fungi interspersed as in nature—where they enable decomposition processes that transform energy and enable nutrient cycling. While upper tendrils appear similar to vines, they also seem reflective of microscopic flagella, those fine hair-like plant cellular projections that are in reality only about 0.2 microns in diameter.
Additionally, Goldberg’s forms seem layered, attaching themselves one to another in patterns that suggest epiphytes, those organisms that grow on plant surfaces without being parasitic. Epiphytes can include mosses, lichens, algae, ferns, and orchids, and derive their nutrients from air, rain, and organic debris that accumulates in their vicinities. Thus, they exist in a symbiotic relationship with the plant; such interdependence is a central theme in Goldberg’s art. The perspective in this particular work places the viewer at the base of an impressive array of living organisms that towers over our sensibilities and elevates nature to a greater significance.
Goldberg’s black-and-white paintings are accompanied by others of opulent color. While some appear to be terrestrial (land-based) organisms, others suggest the freely floating character of aquatic plants like bladderwort: plants whose innate buoyancy permits them to drift in response to water currents. This reference becomes particularly relevant in the washed blue tones of works like Passive Resistance (plate 3, page 31). The Day After (plate 8, page 41) is the pendant in red for that work. Seen together, these two paintings allude to minuscule blue-green and red algae.
At the same time, Goldberg’s paintings have social/political implications. The Day After (plate 8, page 41) was painted immediately following the surprise Republican victory in the 2016 American presidential election, and Passive Resistance (plate 3, page 31) was painted shortly afterwards. The current administration’s denial of the present-day global, ecological crisis is among its many policy positions that profoundly concern Goldberg.
Many of the most vibrantly colored works by Goldberg, such as The Garden of the Moon-god (fig. 10) (plate 18, page 61), occupy the beginning of her Entanglement series. They are filled with the diverse hues found in formal contemporary horticultural planting, but their forms are more primal, suggesting the ancient microscopic shapes typical of cellular membranes and plane epidermal tissues. And Goldberg’s work is not immune to the influences of popular culture; these bountiful color-rich paintings bring to mind the riot of propagating abstractions popularized in the famous “Rite of Spring” sequence of Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940).
The life cycle itself is symbolized throughout Entanglement, as realized in works like What We Cannot Touch (fig. 11) (plate 11, page 47). Goldberg’s imaginary botanical organisms drop seeds and discharge spores. They germinate, pollinate, swell, and grow. Fantasy plants, vines, and grasses reach toward nourishing sunlight in order to mature and disperse seeds for the next generation. The succession of growth seems not only fruitful but inexhaustible. The fecundity of the natural world permeates each piece individually as well as collectively.
Goldberg’s Entanglement series is named after a key term developed by the physicist John Stewart Bell (1928–1990). In 1964, Bell set forth his “Bell’s Theorem,” which proposed that quantum physics be defined as an “entangled system” in which quantum states cannot be described as a product of their local constituents; that is, they are not explained by individual particles but are an inseparable whole. In essence, Bell argued for an intelligent universe in which all elements are related and interdependent. A common expression goes, “As is above, so it is below.” In the Entanglement series, Goldberg envisions the natural world as a symbiotic and mutually dependent system of the highest order. Finally, Goldberg does not depict nature so much as cultivate a style of unhampered and pantheistic profusion that is a metaphor for both the interrelated abundance of nature and the profusion of human creativity. In our age, which grapples with increasingly urgent environmental threats and social/political/ethnic fracture, these works give us reason for hope.