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Affinities and Enchantments:

CAROL BROWN GOLDBERG’S DRAWINGS

by Donald Kuspit
 
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(1)Greek, Line with Light.

(2)Gothic, Line with Color.

Now, as art completes itself, each of these schools retain their separate characters, but they cease to depend on lines, and learn to represent masses instead, becoming more refined at the same time in all modes of perception and execution.

 . . . A line of absolute correctness, observe. I do not care how slowly you do it, or with how many alterations, junctions, or retouching; the one thing I ask of you is, that the line shall be right, and right by measurement, to the same minuteness which you would have to give in a Government chart to the map of a dangerous shoal.

-- John Ruskin, Lectures on Art(1)

We have in nature . . . a series of delicious hues; and it is one of the best signs that the bodily system is in a healthy state when we see these clearly in their most delicate tints, and enjoy them fully and simply.

. . . In the sweet crystalline time of color, the painters, whether on glass or canvas, employed intricate patterns in order to mix hues beautifully with each other, and to make one perfect melody of them all. But in the great naturalist school, they like their patterns to come in the Greek way, dashed dark on light -- gleaming light out of dark.

-- John Ruskin, Lectures on Art(2)

As if these colors could heal one of indecision once and for all.   

-- Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters on Cézanne(3)

Now as a first approximation the notion of life implies a certain absoluteness of self-enjoyment. This must mean a certain immediate individuality, which is a complex process of appropriating into a unity of existence the many data presented as relevant by the physical processes of nature.

-- Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought(4)

Drawing is often more immediate, experimental and private than painting, which is made for public consumption. Dürer, Rembrandt and Matisse, three of the great masters of drawing, distinguished between drawings, in which they tried and worked out their ideas and images, and which often seemed incomplete and unfinished compared to their paintings, which were the finished product. Some of their drawings seem like ends in themselves, but most were means to the end of the painting. They were, after all, studies for paintings. However consciously and carefully made, they often seem charged with unconscious import and energy. These don’t disappear in their paintings, but become subliminal. Their paintings are usually more clearly organized than their drawings. Drawing affords an opportunity for emotional expression and spontaneous handling, unlike painting, which seems more controlled, labored, calculated. In all three artists drawing becomes the underpinning of painting, and Rembrandt and Matisse seem to draw with the paintbrush, as Ruskin said the Old Masters did, but the drawings of all three tend to have a more improvisational, free spirited look than their paintings. A drawing is an exploration of possibility, both subjective and observational, while a painting is possibility actualized and fixed in place. The same canny hand has made them, but the hand that made the drawings seems more uncanny -- more experimentally edifying, one might say, and evocatively and sometimes provocatively engaging.

Carol Brown Goldberg’s hand is as deft, swift, and masterful -- quick-witted, intense and evocative -- as theirs. It has been said that a good drawing leaves as much as possible of the dead empty space of the paper untouched while making it seem luminous and infinite. The artist’s touch breathes life into it. The artist’s hand informs it, as it were, by forming images on it, transferring its energy and “feel” into the image, and the fewer the touches on the paper the more vital the image and the more radiant the surface seem. Goldberg accomplishes this feat, and she does it the way the masters always have: by dialectically uniting the simple surface and the complex form drawn on it so that they seem implicated in each other -- curiously inseparable however distinguishable. She makes two kinds of drawings, and in both kinds one clearly sees the flat space of the paper through the form drawn on it, whether it be natural or abstract.

One group of drawings -- numbers PM 1, Tryptich, PM 2,Tryptich, PM 3, PM 4, PM 5, PM 8, PM 20 and PM 21 -- belong in the tradition of romantic naturalism. Color serves as mass in 1, and colored line becomes mass in 2. In 3, 4, 5, and especially 20 and 21, colored line tends to overwhelm the blank page -- the lush image almost fills its emptiness -- but it remains clearly visible through the surface, often a linear grid organically twisting and turning. The grid seems to grow in a quasi-fractal way, small linear unit attaching to small linear unit to form a kind of web, until it erupts into floral grandeur. Goldberg is at once representing growth -- flowers, plants, vines, grapes, all lushly ripe, red leaping out of green with in-your-face boldness -- and making an intricate abstract design. These drawings owe something to the Danube School, all the more so because, like those of Wolf Huber, they have a linear clarity and pure luminosity, and are ends in themselves. All one has to do is to compare the forms of the natural growth in Albrecht Altdorfer’s St. George in a Wood (1510), to those in any of Goldberg’s nature drawings to get the point. They have a certain affinity with Van Gogh’s nature drawings, particularly his field scenes, which also have a descriptive deliberateness and expressionistic quality, but before Van Gogh there was the Danube School.

And German Romanticism, whose credo is epitomized by Friedrich Wilhelm von Schelling’s assertion that “Nature is visible Spirit, Spirit is invisible Nature.” Can one say that Goldberg’s romanticized nature makes the invisible Spirit in the flat white paper visible, giving it multi-dimensions that suggest its immeasurableness, which can be felt in the eccentric meandering of the spreading growth? Goldberg shares, however unwittingly, the German Romantic belief that nature is a compound of “a positive and a negative force,” as August Winkelmann said in a book on “dynamic physiology,” sometimes in conflict, sometimes complementary. Can one say that the negative force lurks in the negative space of Goldberg’s paper while the positive space of her forms is full of positive force, as its wild, untamable, entangled (and entangling) growth suggests? German Romanticism thought that Urphänomene -- original or primordial phenomena -- existed, and Goldberg seems to have found them, and uncovered the metamorphic process inherent to them, that is the source of their creativity and originality. Goldberg’s nature is the original nature, the nature that came into being with the creation, the prelapsarian nature that gives articulate form to pure spirit, nature before it was soiled by society -- nature as it was before time began.

Her works show us nature in the process of self-formation, seemingly unconsciously, but with a deliberateness, precision, and structure that suggests self-consciousness, as though it knows exactly what it is doing, in complete control of its development. Goldberg’s nature drawings are exacting, even as exacting and hyper-objective as those of Caspar David Friedrich, the great German Romantic landscape painter, and a close friend of Carl Gustav Carus, also a painter, and a physician, who, in his book Psyche, offered the first comprehensive theory of the unconscious. Our psyche begins in a pre-embryonic period in the womb of Mother Nature, goes through an embryonic or creative period of growth, development, and internal complication in responsive appropriation to external physical stimuli, and then becomes more or less conscious of itself, even as Mother Nature continues unconsciously to inform and shape it. Goldberg’s nature drawings celebrate Mother Nature, nature being the mother of us all, and all we finally are. I am suggesting that Goldberg’s nature drawings are a generalized metaphoric representation of psychic development from unconsciousness to consciousness however particular the physical nature she represents. She seems on such intimate terms with it; she sees it up close. Friedrich tended to panoramic views of nature, suggesting that he saw it from a distance, and was intimidated by it. The Urphänomene of nature in both Goldberg and Friedrich have a numinous specificity, but in Goldberg we can grasp them with our hand while in Friedrich they remain out of reach.

The other group of drawings – PM 9, PM 10, PM 11,PM 12, PM 13, PM 14, PM 15, PM 16, PM 17 and PM 18 -- belong in the tradition of what Markus Brüderlin calls “ornamental abstraction.”(5) There is an “elective affinity” between “ornament and abstraction,” Brüderlin and his fellow art historians argue. At its best, ornamental abstraction involves intricate patterns with linear contours and luminous colors. In Goldberg’s case, the patterns tend to be grid-like, sometimes with interlocking units, as in 9, more often with the units of a potential grid scattered, seemingly randomly, across the surface, as in 11. In that drawing, and in others, geometrical elements “interact” with amorphous forms, which seem like embryonic forms of life, although the grayness of some of them suggests they are morbid, mutant growths. As the diagonal bars that meet at the center suggest -- in other drawings they seem randomly thrown into the picture space -- they have an affinity with Malevich’s Aerodynamic Suprematism (his first Suprematist phase) -- while the use of the square connects them to his final Suprematist phase, and the use of the circle connects them to Robert Delaunay’s circular disks and cosmic abstractions.

Drawings 18 and 19 make it clear that Goldberg is struggling with opposites, the self-contained circles being positive in import, the amorphous forms being negative in import, with the diagonal vectors conveying the tension, not to say conflict between them, their unsuccessful unity of purpose, conveyed by their fundamental difference in character. However much they’re in dynamic (playful?) relationship, they never come together in a harmonious whole, even as they sometimes overlap, and echo each other -- thus the holes in the amorphous forms “reflect” the holes in the circles -- suggesting that they are permanently at odds. The misalliance is confirmed by the blackness of the circles and the grayness of the amorphous forms. The former are solid, the latter made of gray specks. This holds true in other drawings, although the specks are sometimes pink. Whatever the color -- however much the mood changes -- they seem porous. Is the labile, fickly amorphous form emblematic of the female, the inflexible geometrical form emblematic of the male? Perhaps, however facile this reading seems. Blue and red are the dominant colors in these drawings, with green, yellow, and purple making fleeting appearances in a few of them. Whether geometrically coherent or biomorphically inchoate, Goldberg’s forms are always on the move, seemingly restlessly, even when they form a pattern, but it is hard to tell whether the pattern is being disassembled or assembled in embryonic form.(6)

Goldberg’s nature imagery and ornamental abstractions cast their enchanting spell over us, for they are full of life, sometimes ripe, sometimes in abstract embryonic form, and life is always enchanting, especially when the alternative seems out of the question, however much, in some of the ornamental abstractions, it seems to cast its shadow. Goldberg is clearly enjoying herself, and her joy is contagious.


DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.

Notes

(1)John Ruskin, Lectures on Art (New York: Allworth Press, 1996), 173, 178

(2)Ibid., 31

(3)Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters on Cézanne (New York: North Point Press, 2002), 45

(4)Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1956), 205

(5)Markus Brüderlin, ed., Ornament and Abstraction (Basel: Fondation Beyeler and Cologne: Dumont, 2001)

(6)I am uncertain where to place 6, which seems anomalous in the conceptual context I am trying to establish. It seems to have more to do with the nature drawing, as its hypnotic spirals suggest -- it’s as though we’re looking at the linear rings of grain in the cross section of a different trees -- but taken together the various cross sections form an eccentric abstract pattern. Their centers are implicitly -- and in a few cases explicitly -- deep, creating a sort of womb-like effect, as though we’re being cocooned in the spiral, but the pattern and redundancy of the lines seem more to the abstract point, all the more so because the lines never spiral out of control but concentrically repeat in a self-contained structure


 



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