by Jack Rasmussen
Carol Brown Goldberg is a highly educated, knowledgeable, and original artist. She graduated from the Corcoran School of Art in 1975, and by the end of the decade she had already earned a place at the center of the Washington, DC, art world. She showed regularly in DC’s commercial and alternative galleries, while her restless, inquisitive mind feasted on the artistic, scientific, and cultural treasures to be found in Washington’s great museums. I grew familiar with Carol’s work in the 70s and 80s, first as a young dealer and then as a curator. Even then, I always knew where I could find Carol. She was, and is today, most likely at work in her studio.
Carol is deeply and tirelessly engaged in the pursuit of her muse. She is busy painting, sculpting, drawing, printing, photographing, filming, videotaping, and writing. Her art spans the legacy of the Washington Color School and the figurative tradition of American University, where she taught for many years. She has the hand of a Victorian engraver, the wit and pathos of Dada, and the physical gesture of Post-Impressionists and Abstract Expressionists. Throw in some Pop and Op and you still have not satisfactorily described her gifts or her influences, for she is as influenced by physicists, astronomers, neuroscientists, neurobiologists as she is by artists or movements.
I wrote about Carol’s art ten years ago, and my opinion hasn’t changed:
I used to think it was the job of an artist to impose order on the chaos around us, but watching Carol’s work evolve over the years, I now think the artist may be discovering order in what to us only appears to be chaotic. The job of the artist would seem to require equal parts faith and science. Carol Brown Goldberg possesses both of these gifts , and the sensitivity and skill to construct visual metaphors suggesting our place in a beautiful and mysterious universe.
Since then, Carol’s work has only gotten better, stronger. It has travelled to many countries around the world, including France, Spain, and Mexico. Despite her persistent success over the years, I am confident in saying she is making her best art right now. I eagerly anticipate bringing much of this exhibition, Carol Brown Goldberg: Tangled Nature, back from the Frost Museum to the American University Museum in Washington, DC, next year. It will be cause for celebration.
Jack Rasmussen, PhD, Director and Curator,
American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center,
The Incarnation of Line
by Christopher Addison
The line is preeminent in every one of Carol Brown Goldberg’s paintings assembled for this exhibition, stitched across canvas and paper with a determined strength that invites, surrounds, ducks and weaves through space. It charts the artist’s open, questing mind acknowledging her interest in physics, music and civics, winds under itself, activates the pure unmarked space in which she begins and seems to have neither beginning nor end. It finds space for quiet, often in the corners and edges of her compositions, and as easily embraces color as it does lie unencumbered by it. Further, it allows the artist’s hand to track her questing mind.
Drawing is such a basic artistic technique used by parietal artists as many as 35,000 years ago in Indonesia, in Europe at Lascaux and Pech Merle and Altimira during the Paeolithic period and in Africa and Australia 5,000 to10,000 years ago. Drawing evokes a powerful, deep and direct connection that is no less potent today than it was for the community of peoples from which these parietal artists emerged. In this artist’s drawing is her personal mythology, family history and inspired discovery with a consistent style and easy flow. Seared into her line is an inexorable quest for meaning, for connection, for a creative legacy.
William Butler Yeats and his wife indulged in automatic writing in an attempt to tap into the spirit realm chronicled in “A Vision”. Vincent Van Gogh augmented his letters to his brother with humble subjects and compositions evoked by staccato lines. The Running Grass script of the Japanese Zen calligraphers made highly individuated art from otherwise stiff, pictographic characters. In each case these lines were stylized vehicles for a higher expression that moved beyond verbal utterances. So too, with Goldberg’s line. It is indeed an expression by the artist of a transcendent inner experience, styled by her hand and professional training and seeking more than to be random marks on a durable surface. The eye follows where the line leads, as in a mandala, seeking beginning and end, creation and annihilation. It is thus fitting that these paintings, even those devoid of color, are highly suggestive of gardens. Gardens are typically where mankind seeks to impose order onto nature. This artist creates vast, natural spaces in which she works in markings suggestive of tendrils and vines, pods and flowers, trunks and roots intertwined in a riotous complexity, echoing the Butterfly Effect of Chaos Theory whereby a single small change, a line in this case, has a cumulative and enlarging effect on a system: weather, biology or a painting. These paintings hold, for a long moment, chaos at bay. The artist’s gardens seek order too while granting nature its sovereignty.
These Extravagant Edens, large and small, are birthing places, as the titles suggest, for the artist’s visual worlds. See parallels in the jungles of Henri Rousseau and the compositions of Wassily Kandinsky, in the wall drawings of Sol Lewitt and in the patterned paintings of Yayoi Kusama. Are these paintings of Carol Brown Goldberg’s obsessive or pensive, tightly careful or spontaneous, abstract or pictorial? The fact that they can straddle these conceptual realms is part of their immense appeal. The suggestion of the infinite variety of nature gives them an implied as well as an illusionistic depth.
Sir Kenneth Clark seemed to be speaking directly to the roots of Goldberg’s inspiration when he wrote: “The difference between what we see and a sheet of white paper with a few thin lines on it is very great. Yet this abstraction is one which we seem to have adopted almost instinctively at an early stage in our development, not only in Neolithic graffiti but in early Egyptian drawings. And in spite of its abstract character, the outline is responsive to the least tremor of sensibility.” For an artist who is constantly in motion, a brush or a pen in her hand much of the time, this one has found a conduit, a hand, eye, mind linkage that knits together several decades of patient and constant exploration, from her highly stylized, figurative painting of the 1970s and 1980s, through her later, muscular three dimensional abstractions, to the heavily layered patterned, pure abstractions of just several years ago, to cull and distill elements of each into the Edens of this body of work.
While splendid, even playful, fantasies on one level, Carol Brown Goldberg’s compositions register as serious, finely crafted and deliberate explorations that are at their most risky and, therefore, most satisfying when rendered solely in black and white. It takes incredible courage for an artist as creative as Goldberg to limit her palette in this way. It takes discipline and tireless application to present these monochromatic compositions as whole and complete. And when, having mastered that minimal, precise rendering, she reintroduces color in washes and saturated outlines and shapes, then she has used all of the tools of her craft to lift a veil from occluded eyes.
Carol Brown Goldberg joins the rare circle of artists who demonstrate the ability to inspire her audience to forever see their world differently. Here, in these paintings and drawings, it begins in black and white, with a line and proceeds through a full panoply of color, in works modest and grand. Sarah Thornton reminded us of that powerful, worldview changing gift in her recent assessment of contemporary artists and their contributions in “33 Artists in 3 Acts” very recently: “Artists don’t just make art. They create and preserve myths… In a sphere where anything can be art, there is no objective measurement of quality, so ambitious artists must establish their own standards of excellence.” Goldberg has established hers, here in these Edens.
by Jordana Pomeroy
Carol Brown Goldberg ushers us into her studio. Modest to a fault, she searches our faces for our response to her latest body of work, which is literally still on the drawing board. “Do you like it?” Carol asks us less imploringly than to inspire conversation, or perhaps a spontaneous critique. Carol has been experimenting with the Surrealist device of automatic drawing, wherein the hand moves across the paper or canvas driven by the subconscious. Her working process recalls the Zen masters who empty their minds of thought—working with an empty mind—which is quite a different thing from working without thought, in order to make room for the new.
Carol’s is an insightful mind coupled with a discerning eye. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves line her walls with titles ranging from monographs on Modernist art masters to history and literature, which she reads voraciously. Skilled in the fading art of intellectual conversation, Carol throws out questions for exploration and to ignite new ideas that may begin in her studio, leading well into dinnertime, dessert, and subsequently in emails.
I imagine Extravagant Edens to be a constant flow of the artist’s psychological associations, revealed through the subconscious. Not an exact representation of content or the myriad philosophies she consumes, Extravagant Edens suggests one neuron flowing to another neuron while her hand merely transcribes the results. Cerebral as it is, Carol’s art possesses magic, whimsy, and bold color. She genuinely enjoys the process of creation as well as the creation of new processes. She experiments with techniques and materials as simple as sparkles, which she will tell you with glee, as if to challenge your stolid ideas that use of glitter ends with kindergarten and has no place in a working artist’s studio.
Each time I see Carol, she reminds me that creativity, innovation, and energy propel the artistic enterprise. In Tangled Nature critical thinking and problem solving opens up paths to our own extravagant Edens, full of sinewy lines infused with color. We just need to empty our minds to allow new thoughts to penetrate and free ourselves from convention.
Jordana Pomeroy, Ph.D.
Director, Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum, FIU
Interview between Carol Brown Goldberg and Klaudio Rodriquez, Curator.
Q: Who are some of your favorite artists, historical and/or contemporary?
A: Fernand Léger, by far my favorite artist, all roads lead to Léger. As for a contemporary artist, the one I used to follow was Matthew Ritchie. There’s no one else, who I feel I really connect with, but that’s always been the case since I started working as an artist. I jumped in during the minimal period, which was the antithesis to my baroqueness. My tastes often run counter. There’s a Brazilian artist, Beatriz Milhazes, I love her work, very colorful and complex. To be honest, few contemporary artists excite me, I have always liked the heat and vitality that I saw in art from Latin America; I’ve always liked the energy. When I got into art, it was Minimalism, Land art, post-Pop, I found them kind of flat and uninteresting, and it wasn’t fiery to me. I was looking for a form of German Expressionism that wasn’t German Expressionism, and thinking that Latin America had it. When I saw Beatriz’s work, I just couldn’t stop looking at it.
Q: Looking at some of your organic paintings, their compositions, saturated colors, the flatness created by their compressed depth. Also, their expressiveness and the way in which you seemingly connect emotionally with the nature that you paint, all seem to draw inspiration from Fauvist work. Is Fauvism something that’s interested you or informed your work?
A: Absolutely, there is a connection with the Fauvists, and more specifically Henri Matisse, he is another one of my major influences. I love Matisse’s outlined flat colors, the combination of color and line. I definitely relate to the Fauves and also Japanese woodprints. I just like solid, unmodulated colors. The fauves had a bit of modulation that I may not completely draw from, but Matisse may be more like Léger or Stuart Davis in that many of their works are formed by solid, unbroken colors. I find the sensation of color as inspiration for my eyes.
Q: Is this idea of automatic drawing, or Automatism that is drawn from the Surrealists, present in your work? You were telling me that you approached and executed these series of paintings (the “organic series”) in a loose and extemporaneous fashion. You allowed your subconscious mind to take charge and to have some sway in the way that your hand moves across the canvas. Accurate?
A: Yes, absolutely. Actually you inspired the big paintings, from the discussion we had here when you visited my studio, about how the hand moves and spontaneity and of letting go of your consciousness. Actually, someone once told me about how fish are able to, in essence shut down half their brain while they sleep, while the other half remains conscious and aware. I feel like that’s how it is with my line drawings. 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 the brain while I’m drawing and creating with the other and making aesthetic decisions, it’s like taking my pen on a journey. I’m really into acrylic markers now. I feel like the material of the marker has really changed my work. After I finished the painting that was exhibited at the Phillips Collection, the thought of doing more painting in color was exhausting; to unscrew the tube and scoop the paint and mix the colors, I just needed to get right to this repetition with my hand and free up my brain without the interruptions of mixing colors. Also it’s been an age of anxiety this past year, so a lot of this use of black and white allowed for clarity, and I guess that echoed the outside world.
Q: What was the last art exhibition you really enjoyed?
A: I was at the National Gallery of Art recently. They have one room that’s just color school, while I love Picasso, Van Gogh, and all the greats, Rothko and Barnett Newman and twentieth-century art, there’s nothing like walking into a room and be surrounded by my teachers, my mentors. There was Gene Davis and Leon Berkowitz, Tom Downing, Howard Mehring and Sam Gilliam; I look at the work and I still get the chills, the clarity against the color. It was exciting to be in that room. The East Building of the National Gallery just reopened after being closed for a couple of years. The whole experience is magnificent, for such a huge gallery with such a rich collection, the experience is so intimate. It’s very much like the Phillips Collection except on a bigger scale. I also have to mention the Phillips; the last great show I saw there, which I’ve always loved was the Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence. He was one of my early inspiration artists. I really connected to his art. When I jumped into art academically in the early seventies, artists for me, artists who seem to have been really in touch with their soul were William H. Johnson, Bob Thompson, and Jacob Lawrence. I felt like they had something to say, I felt like their voice was honest. They were coming out of a history that I thought was inspiring. I liked the social message of their work and I liked that it had come from an experience of living in the United States during that period.
Q: You are a voracious reader. What are you reading now?
A: I listen to books on tape and the most exciting book, which I’m listening to now when I’m working in my studio and when I go to sleep, is titled 1177 BC. It’s about the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age. Eric Cline, the writer, who’s an archaeologist, makes a fascinating case that nothing is new under the sun. He posits that that period, 1177 BC, the end of the Bronze Age, could be compared to out time now. But there’s another one, which is the last great book that I’ve read. I even named a sculpture after it. The Hare with the Amber Eyes, by a renowned ceramicist, Edmund de Waal. This book had everything in it, it was a book with a true story and a history. If I had to recommend a book I would recommend that one. There’s another book that I find very interesting by David Damrosch, who teaches at Harvard, it’s called The Buried Book. It tells the story of how they discovered the plate from 4000 BC that tells the myth of Gilgamesh.
Q: Tell me about a work of art you wish you owned.
A: It would have to be by the artist Al Held. I love his art. I met him in Italy once. He and I were interested in the same things at the same time. We even had read many of the same books. I was very excited to meet him, and I loved his work before I knew who he was. It was one of the great moments of my life and I wish I had one of his works.
Q: What is your favorite place to be, geographically?
A: Like my mother-in-law used to say, “Bloom where you are planted.” So wherever I find myself, it is my favorite place to be. I always cry whenever I leave wherever I am at, because I don’t like leaving, even if I’m going somewhere else that’s great. Apart from that, my favorite place to be is someplace alone reading or working when I know there will be a party or meeting or group of friends in a few hours. I like to be alone when I’m looking forward to something else.
Q: Do you have any memorable or interesting responses to your work either positive or negative?
A: I can tell you the first comment to me by an art critic after she saw my work in an exhibition. She worked for a major newspaper and wanted to meet me for lunch to get to know who I was. It was 1982 and the first time I had shown in a gallery. It was a group show and it included works by Robert Indiana and Andy Warhol among others. Up to that point, I had already received some attention from my days at the Corcoran Gallery and from winning several awards, so I felt confident as an artist and I always felt like I could compete. She asked me while having lunch, “Do you think your handicaps will keep you from moving forward?” I thought to myself, what handicaps was she talking about? I see now that her prism on me was one in which she was reflecting her own experiences as a female newspaper reporter in the early eighties, fighting to gain recognition as a woman in a male-dominated field. Perhaps there was a certain degree of naiveté, but I never felt that way. I never thought of those things as being handicaps. I’m really good at what I do. And I don’t even mean painting, I mean once I know what to do, that’s what I do. I’m also naïve in that I don’t know a lot about how culture looks at contemporary art, or artists or women. In the history of art there may not be one male artist that talks about how being a father changed his life and made him who he was, and there’s no female artist who ever says that.
Q: How do you critique your own work?
A: I like the color, and at times, what I don’t like about my work is color. Which is why I turned to black and white. It’s a combination of labor and visual thing, I’ve always worked with color, but when I started making small pen and ink works, the purity of black line on white was so elegant to me that the color began to scream off the canvas. What I like about my work is exactly what I don’t like about it. I like that it’s labor-intensive, I’ve never trusted an artwork of mine that I could produce quickly. And what I also don’t like is that it’s labor intensive. I think I live in that state of ambiguity all the time.
Q: What is your view on the contemporary art world?
A: I like the people but I think the world of contemporary art has lost its way. Very personally, I think art lost its connection to emotion. I think about what Rothko said when asked, “what do you expect people to see when they look at your artwork?” and he said “I expect them to see my sadness, which connects with their sadness, and therefore makes us less alone.” I thought that was pretty interesting, who would think of that. You’re not looking at art expecting to see sadness, even though sadness is part of human emotion. I feel like art isn’t introspective enough; I think it needs to
Q: When I view these series of works, I find something enigmatic and biological about them. They’re mysterious and complex; they could be flowers, plants or even microscopic organisms. They could be underwater, or even alien. There are many different ways to read them. At first glance, they may be understood as landscapes but there’s much more to them.
A: I would like my paintings to be read as poetry. Not really what you see is what you get, but as a metaphor. I used to write poetry a lot, and I think in metaphors. I am not a Surrealist in that way, but the works are metaphoric and they are underground, under the world, in our skin, in our molecules. It’s the interconnection of one body with millions of bodies, with planet earth. And I think the series I did before with circles which was more cosmic, was another version of that where the circles were molecules like electrons in space. And I think this is below space and is exactly how we are interconnected and surrounded by nature that grows and follows the sun; how nature is wild and interacts with the plant next to it. It grows and develops and takes shape and form. It’s true as human beings that we have no choice but to do that too. I think my work has always been autobiographical. It’s just the process of getting older and understanding, there is no sunshine all the time, or maybe any of the time. Also that we live in a state of ambiguity. Where what is growing could quickly be strangled. In the same way that we live a happy great life knowing that someday we’re going to die, so that these two opposites are always side by side. And I think that’s always been my thinking. It comes down to my hands touching a tool and taking a trip on a canvas. The line is a road map. I’m so completely in love with line, form, and color, keeping solid blocks of color.
Q: What keeps you making art?
A: I become edgy and irritated when I am not in the studio and without art I am incomplete. Everything would bother me. It’s such a good question, because how would I ever express anxiety? I would have to make art, or write. One of the two. I need to do something to relieve the stress of being a human being.