In conversation with BRENDA GOODMAN

Zephyr and Maize is pleased to announce an exhibition of works by Brenda Goodman. Prepared in collaboration with Sikkema Jenkins, it offers a deeper understanding of Goodman’s distinctive career and rigorous and experimental artistic practice. Through artist’s limitless inquiry, we encounter a luminous palette, delicate definition and layered quality of symbolic imagery translated into an art effortlessly humane like laughter, touch or embrace. The paintings Goodman produced balance on the verge of abstraction and figuration, and her contribution to both is truly unique; through years, she has developed a style that is bold, expressive and playful, along with an intuitive and unapologetic approach, grounded by a flair for colour and form.

The exhibition is accompanied with publication of the interview with the artist, conducted by exhibition’s curator Varia Serova, the unique conversation about artistic life, process and Goodman's extensive body of work that spans over five decades.

Varia Serova: Thank you for finding time to have this conversation, Brenda. How did it all begin? Was your family supportive of your art practice? Did you grow up in artistic family, or were you a first-generation artist?

Brenda Goodman: My family was always supportive of my desire to be an artist. My mother always did creative things—mostly craft-like things—crazy how memory works—but at this moment I remember belts my mother made with sliced seashells sown on some sort of fabric. My father was a workaholic and I hardly saw him growing up but a highlight was the day he took me to our art supply store and bought me an easel. He was in the grocery business but he loved to draw and told me he never pursued it because he was colorblind and in the 50s fathers didn’t pursue art as a career. I remember a Life magazine cover of Ike that he copied and it was so good. Then, at around 10, I was copying the Norman Rockwell Post magazine covers and he filled in a face for me which I couldn’t do myself. It is still very sad to me that he never did more with his art. My brother is also an artist.

VS: How did your experience of learning painting unravel? You’ve mentioned previously that in the 60s, “everything was about art school”.

BG: When I was 8 years old, I remember copying cartoons and a little oil painting of a black and white puppy. I have a terrible memory, but there are snap shot moments that stay with me. But it wasn’t until HS that I started drawing and painting. I submitted some work for a scholarship at a local art school in Detroit called Arts and Crafts. I received a 4-year scholarship and it was a perfect school. I would draw until the wee hours in the morning and I remember falling asleep on a stool next to my easel with a paintbrush in my hand.

VS: Let’s talk about your artistic formation and your relationship with your teachers. Sarkis Sarkisian was one of them. Was their guidance important, and in which ways? Did it influence your further development as an artist?

BG: The thing about Arts and Crafts was I learned the fundamentals there. All the basics an artist should receive (according to me). How to stretch canvas with tacks and rabbit skin glue. Still life sketches for weeks before picking up a brush. I have always been so grateful that I went to a school that taught all the basics so thoroughly. Sarkis Sarkisian and Nick Buhalis were my main teachers. Sarkis took me under his wing. One talk with him has stayed all my life. I was being very influenced by Dubuffet. I believed in being influenced by great artists and it didn’t matter if I had my own voice yet. So I said to Sarkis—“Every time I pick up a pencil a Dubuffet comes out.” He said “Become him—look like him, talk like him, paint like him.” I finally stopped resisting and it soon loosened it’s grip on me even though there is always a place in my work where you can see Dubuffet. Another great moment was with another teacher—Sam Pucci. I was working on a 5x7 inch painting in lavender and pink and it was tight and stylized and he said “you’re painting like an old lady!” That one statement changed the whole course of my life as an artist.

VS: What about the influences out of school: books, museums, shows?

BG: Dubuffet, Gorky, Ensor, DeKooning, Rembrandt, Titian, Guston, and Morandi were my strongest influences. I learned so much from all of them. Once in 1971, I put on a beard and did myself as a figure in a Titian painting. DeKooning—I tried all the ways he used techniques. I learned to really let go through DeKooning. Guston—it took a long time to have him not in my work. I deeply connected to Guston. He came to my studio in Detroit around 1973. We talked and wrote letters for awhile. When my mother died in 1972, I bought an ink drawing—it made me smile every day. But in 1980 I owed IRS taxes and penalties and the only way to pay them was to sell my Guston. It was one of the saddest moments in my life. Morandi is in my soul. His work deeply moves me. I have not many words but a very deep spiritual response to his paintings.

Making Room for Morandi, 2018. Oil on wood, 12 x 16 ins.

Magic, 2018. Oil on wood, 72 x 72 ins.

VS: What were some of the most important tools you’ve learned during these years? 

BG: I learned never to forget the fundamentals of painting. Once you know the rules, you can break them. I wouldn’t trade my early days in arts school for anything.

VS: Which alternative forms of art have been important for you? You’ve previously mentioned poetry as one of the influences. What about music? Do you have a habit of listening to something when you are in the studio, or are you accustomed to working in silence?

BG: I have always listened to the blues and jazz while I work, especially female singers like Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, and, most recently, a young singer who takes her songs to new inventive places—Cecile McLorin Salvant. But sometimes I want to hear Gregorian chants or solo violin music.

Heart Song 2, 2007. Oil on paper, 11x 8 ins.

Singing to a New Dream, 2007. Oil on paper, 10 x 14 ins.

Mountain Song, 2007. Oil on paper, 13 x 21 ins.

VS: Your career began as a member of the Cass Corridor Movement in the 70s. What was this experience like for a young artist?

BG: There were two buildings on Cass Avenue where we rented spaces. My studio was in the old Spiegal Catalog space and was $50 a month! There were about thirty of us. It was nice to have this community. Most important we all had Detroit in common which wasn’t always easy. We shared our work, had drinks together, and showed together. There was a large show of our work at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

VS: You’ve called it a “macho movement” previously...

BG: In the 70s, I was using symbols in my work like a personal diary only visually. The guys’ work—unlike mine—was raw. Barbed wire, metal, bullet holes, a very industrial feeling. Raw and aggressive—yes—but I wouldn’t say macho anymore. My work was coming from a deep place inside that was battling with my inner turmoil and coming to terms with who I was. So through the use of symbols in my work, I stood out and apart from the others in the Cass Corridor.

VS: In your previous interviews, you had spoken about stimulating encounters with other painters, including Jack Tworkov and Philip Guston. 

BG: I mention Guston primarily. Tworkov was never an influence and I never met him. The only thing worth mentioning was in 1973 I was showing at the Willis Gallery—a coop with other Cass Corridor artists—and Tworkov was showing at the Gertrude Kastle Gallery, which was showing the best NY artists. I was having my first show at the Willis and Gertrude came to see the show with Tworkov and he told her to show me—which she did in 1974.

VS: How did these experiences resonate with you as a painter making your own way in the art world?

BG: These experiences made me strong and confident. My path like the artists I respected was to be the best artist I possibly could be.

VS: You have mentioned that you paint what’s going on in your life, using symbolic imagery to represent different people and emotions. How do these symbols appear? Is this symbolic language a product of conscious mind/your subconscious?

BG: I painted and drew with symbols from 1971 until 1983. In 1971 I took a creative writing course by a poet named Faye Kicknosway. At the time I had a very tough exterior and I wanted my softer more vulnerable feelings to show. In her class I created an abstracted heart shape to represent me—then I created a symbol for everyone in my life and for years these symbols expressed my everyday life and the emotions I was experiencing. I would put notes in the upper corner to let me and the viewer know what was happening that day. I felt connected to the surrealists during that time. Artists like Leanora Carrington were very important to me. The shapes came out of the conscious and subconscious mind. I would just draw them over and over until they felt like the person or event I was wanting to express. On a deep level I knew when the shape was right.

VS: Let’s talk about the painting “The Cat Approaches” that you made in Detroit. It does include an abstracted heart shape that you are talking about. Was this painting “mirror”- like?

BG: Yes all my self-portraits are a mirror to who I am and what I want to change.

VS: Was the experience of using painting as a mirror challenging or, rather, stimulating for you? Were they made from observation, or imagined?

BG: They are always imagined except for the self-portraits which were from observation and imagination. Yes, both challenging and stimulating.

Self-Portrait 4, 2004. Oil on wood, 64 x 60 ins.

Self-Portrait 2, 2003. Oil on wood, 64 x 60 ins.

Self-Portrait 5. In the Studio, 2004. Oil on paper,16x14 ins.

VS: Your personal experiences have a profound impact on your work, with events catalysing the ways in which you break the barriers between art and the self. Did you ever draw the line when experience was too intense?

BG: Only twice—once in 1986 when I quit a heavy smoking addiction. I had to leave my studio for 11 months because smoking was so connected to my being in the studio. The second time was when our 15 year-old dog died in 2010. She was my soul dog. When someone died in my life or there were other tragedies or things I needed to paint (like the series after 9/11) I would go in my studio and paint. But when Pookie died I couldn’t paint it. I just couldn’t do it so I didn’t paint for 9 months.

VS: You talked about losing a lot of weight when you painted a series of self-portraits. Could you say that painting makes you more aware or critical of yourself? Urges you to change?

BG: The self-portraits are always a mirror for me, mostly to change something in myself. At 200 lbs my self-portraits were angry, grotesque, and full of self loathing. They were hard to look at. But they helped me reflect on my weight and they were painted in a way that went beyond my weight. People felt them in their gut and so they were resonating on a deep level in a universal way—far beyond a specific issue.

Self-Portrait 13, 1994. Oil on wood, 48 x 40 ins.

Self-Portrait 61, 2007. Oil on wood, 52 x 48 ins.

VS: What were some of the personal highlights you could recall from the Detroit period of your career?

BG: In 1973 I had my first one-person show and it got a rave review—a Powerhouse of a Show was the headline. That was very memorable. In 1974 I had my show with Gertrude Kastle. A young new curator, John Neff, came to the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) and saw my show. He bought one painting for himself and one—'The Cat Approaches'—for the DIA. I remember walking in the museum some months later and seeing my painting on the wall. But what thrilled me to no end was the label next to it—“Brenda Goodman, American, born 1943.” My years showing with Gertrude Kastle and the Ferguson Gallery in Detroit were wonderful gallery experiences. Major collectors there owned my work and in 2015 I had a retrospect at Arts and Crafts now called The Center for Creative Studies and many of those collectors were at the opening telling me how much they still love the paintings they bought in the 80s.

VS: You explore reality through the figure (in self-portraits) and color, texture and form (in your abstract works). What defines the direction your work takes you?

BG: It depends where I am in my life, that will define the turn my work will take. My preference is when the work is both figurative and abstract. Of late, the figurative part is less figurative but always there is some allusion to it being a figure. The freedom of my unconscious in the abstract and the personal in the figure is very satisfying.

Self-Portrait 20, 2005. Oil on wood, 48 x 64 ins.

Self-Portrait 11, 2005. Oil on canvas, 12x16 ins.

Somehow, Somewhere, 2018. Oil on wood, 36 x 43.5 ins.

VS: Let’s talk about the series of sculptural three-dimensional works you began working on in 1977. Which possibilities did this direction offer, and how did it affect your painting?

BG: Sometimes when I got stuck in my painting I would turn to sculpture because it stretched and opened me to different ways of seeing and expressing. So sculpture was a transitional point until I painted again. But now in 2020 the paintings themselves have become quite sculptural in themselves.

VS: What were the most significant changes to your painting method through time? 

BG: That’s a hard question. My work has changed and still changes immensely according to whatever I’m painting at the time and I use different tools to express myself in specific paintings. So they go small, large, thin, thick, figurative, abstract, or both. I’m a firm believer in learning to use many tools to convey a particular feeling you want to express.

VS: Let’s talk about the move from Detroit to NYC and later to Upstate New York. Was it challenging to move the studio space, what was the experience like? 

BG: The move to NY was hard, having lived my whole life in Detroit. But my loft was 1800 sq ft—much bigger than any studio I had in Detroit. In 2009 we moved to Pine Hill in the Catskills. We bought the house there in 1991 and converted the garage to a studio. It was the perfect summer studio. From July to Labor Day I worked there and then took everything back to the city. But when we moved in fulltime in 2009 I realized I had no storage space and I had a lot of paintings in my NYC studio. So I had to rent a space 8 miles from our home to store the work. A few years ago we had a new studio built onto my old one, which became my storage space, and the new one is the grandest best studio I ever had. Big—with a high ceiling and room to move in. A door separates the storage studio and the main studio. It’s a very special, sacred place for me.

VS: Did you have favourite places in New York City that affected your painting? You’ve mentioned going to FOOD and doing scribbles, practice that later gave birth to a new body of work.

BG: The restaurant FOOD was a special place for sure. When I quit smoking in 1983 I would go there and do automatic writing on 5x7 cards. Then I would pull out shapes and eventually with ink develop them into paintings. When I quite smoking and stayed out of the studio my work was very tight, symbolic, and wasn’t giving me any pleasure. So when I sat in Food and did those loose free drawings I knew it was the beginning of a whole new chapter in my work. Central Park was also a special place.

VS: Your work shifted significantly in 1985.

BG: The new abstract paintings that were the result of not being in my studio for all those months were significant. It was a great time after painting so carefully and tightly to let myself go and I painted that way until I began the self-portrait series in 1993.

VS: Let’s talk more about the process in relation to your recent works. Which tools do you use, do you have your favourites?

BG: I have many tools I use. Brushes and palette knives of course. Then squeegees, cake decorators, Q tips, foam brushes and rollers, and more. In the newest work, I am using a lot of paper mache and building the surfaces quite thickly.

VS: Glazing is an important part of your process.

BG: Glazing is very important to me. It makes the paintings fuller and richer. It always saddens me that schools don’t teach this to students very often. It makes color alive, translucent, and filled with light. Sometimes I’ll see a painting that looks very pasty and I just want to put a glaze on it to bring it back to life.

VS: You've mentioned that you use sand and ash, mixed into paint, to create texture.

BG: Through the years I experimented with many additives to create textures—coffee grounds, vacuum cleaner dust, and sawdust. But the two I’ve used for years now are pumice and ash from our wood stove.

Pushing Through, 2018. Oil on wood, 14 x 18 ins.

Hats Off, 2019. Oil on wood, 12 x 16 ins.

VS: Do you work through the day or at night? What is your ritual?

BG: Cappuccino in the morning with my partner of 32 years then 1 hour on my stationary bike—then the studio and time taking breaks to work on a puzzle during this time of quarantine.

VS: Do you make any kind of sketches or preliminary drawings?

BG: In the 80s, I worked from drawings but stopped doing that, because the freshness and spontaneity were in the drawing, and the painting was just copying. So I have never worked like that again. I start with many marks on the surface—find a shape I connect with—put color on it—then the painting begins. The shape speaks to another shape and on it goes until it’s done—until it’s right! It’s all from my intuition. Nothing is planned—each painting is a surprise.

VS: You have previously mentioned experimenting with materials as one of your passions in painting. Exploring surfaces, adding on thickness to paint, creating texture. You’ve made preliminary marks on wood with a linoleum cutter, later with Dremel drill. Can you talk about some of the techniques you’ve experimented with?

BG: For many years before cutting into the surface with drills and linoleum cutters I would make gestural black marks all over the surface and find my shapes and the painting has begun.

Pink, 2018. Diptych, Oil on wood, 50 x 72 ins.

Impending, 2018. Oil on wood, 80 x 72 ins.

VS: The painting 'Fresh Start' (2019), does it signify the new stage in life or a new way of working per se? Did it happen to be the first painting in this series of work?

BG: No. In my last body of work that was shown at The Landing in Los Angeles in January 2020, I did the large paintings first—then the small painting like 'Fresh Start', then the 6x8 inch oil on paper pieces.

VS: In 2019, I am seeing the increasing complexity of architectural constructs in your paintings. There is a definite architectonic harmony to this body of work. Do the constructs form intuitively? Does any pre-planning take place in terms of compositional structure?

BG: There have been architectural elements for several years in my work but it intensified when I started using the linoleum cuter, probably because the cut lines tend to be straight more than curved. The only pre-planning that goes into my painting is the preparation of the surface on the wood panels—everything else is totally intuitive.

VS: Multiple paintings have depictions of grids in them (makes me think of cage grid or iron bars). Going back to the meaning of symbolic imagery, what is the significance of it? Does it relate it any way to the Cass Corridor being part of your personal history? I am mainly relating to the roughness of it, its "aggressive" quality. Am I reading it correct?

BG: I never use a grid as a starting place for a painting. I tried it once and was paralyzed and I felt stuck before I began. The grid appears in different works because it appears and seems necessary for a particular work. It’s only after I complete a painting that I can sometimes see what the bars/grids mean.

VS: In recent years, did you experience major life events that have affected or shifted the focus of the course of your work?

BG: It was in 2015 that there was a shift in my work. I had lost 70 lbs and I felt confident and good about myself. I was invited into the American Academy of Arts and Letters invitational and received an Arts and Letters Award in Art, which was a cash award. And I felt that I no longer had a need to paint only dark, painful, sad events in my life. The work became much more abstract and I feared the viewer wouldn’t respond as strongly without the figurative elements. But a painting pal of mine said “that immediate gut response to the work is gone but what’s there is your humanness.” I felt like a weight was lifted! All of who I am and my 77 years of living is in the painting even when they are abstract. And lastly is my newish studio built a few years ago—a large space with lots of room to move and to hang more than one painting at a time. I love walking in and saying to myself—“Yes! After all these years, a great studio that I actually deserve.”

VS: How do you come up with such original titles for your paintings? Some are very peculiar: 'Hot Diggity Dog', 'Foot Loose Fancy', 'Surrender's Surprise', 'Cat's Cradle'...Do you title the paintings after the completion, or during the creation, or both?

BG: The titles always come after the paintings are done. I just sit and look at it until the title comes. For most of my career everything was 'Untitled'. When a dealer would call and say: “you sold 'Untitled 2B',” I had no idea which one it was. So now I title everything and I know immediately which one it is.

VS: In 'Calm' (2019) there is a dominance of brick red color and sharp edges. 'Cat's Cradle' (2019) mentions the use of mixed media.

BG: As I’ve said before, nothing is pre-planned. In ‘Calm', the shapes and colors were how I felt they should be for that painting. In each show, all the paintings are different from each other—because the marks on the surface I begin with are different in each one. In some of the works in The Landing show I used some paper mache and plaster gauze and pumice to make small 3-dimentional shapes.

VS: When I'm looking at paintings 'Facing the Day' (2019), 'The Sun Does Shine' (2019) and 'Calm' (2019), I'm seeing three different moods, three profound messages. When trying to determine whether there is hope or despair I'm left with, I have found myself at the intersection, moving through counterpoints with the emotions that are fleeting, interchangeable, but always honest, humane, manifesting the sense of balance and harmony about being human. In 2019, would you describe yourself as an optimist, a pessimist, or a realist, both in life and your work?

BG: The way you describe your various responses to different paintings is what I hope the viewer will be able to receive from the different pieces. They reflect the complexity of life and of the world around me. I don’t label myself as anything because I’m a bunch of different things even in a single day.

Facing the Day, 2019. Oil on wood, 30 x 36 ins.

The Sun Does Shine, 2019. Oil on wood, 70 x 62 ins.

Calm, 2019. Oil on wood, 36 x 50 ins.

VS: Was it difficult to shift away from the intersection of schemes you've explored in 2019, into the coronavirus that became your main theme since spring 2020, as you were bearing witness to the times with the Corona series of paintings (2020)?

BG: Life happens—and this time it’s the Corona virus. I could only do what I always do—paint how it’s affecting me—and so far there are 6 completed works. My darkest paintings always have a place in them where hope exists—or light. Even if it’s small, it’s always there.

VS: Architectural shapes from your compositions of 2019 have given way to softer, amorphous forms with certain sculptural qualities.

BG: It would not have worked to use architecture in the Corona series. Even looking at microscopic images, they would be amorphous, and since I don’t have set rules of how to work, I just follow my feelings. For these paintings, I am using a lot more paper mache and they have become quite sculptural. "Corona 6" weighs about 125 lbs.

VS: What is the significance of each painting, and the series altogether? 

BG: It just seemed a given that I would do the Corona series. It is such a scary, painful, terrifying time. I needed to paint it. It helps to put it out there and not hold it all inside.

VS: A concept of series has made its appearance multiple times in the course of your career.

BG: I can’t explain that. I begin with some topic I’m troubled by or happy about or fearful of and I do as many paintings as needed until I feel I’ve completed what I needed to express. Then another series happens. Right now I am on my 7th Corona painting.

Corona 1, 2020. Oil, mixed media on wood, 36 x 45 ins.

Corona 4, 2020. Oil, mixed media on wood, 40 x 47,5 ins.

Corona 6, 2020. Oil, mixed media on wood, 48 x 40 ins.

VS: Did something change in your approach to painting during the creation of these series and other most recent works?

BG: What’s changed is my age—77—and the 50 years I’ve been painting. My paintings now have a clarity I never experienced as much as I do now. I always knew when they were finished but now I feel more the rightness of them. How do we know when they are Right? Living long and painting long is partly the answer. The other part is magic—just knowing.

July 25, 2020

© Brenda Goodman for Zephyr and Maize, in collaboration with Sikkema Jenkins

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