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Carol Brown Goldberg

AT THE CENTER

by Donald Kuspit
 
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A center, in the dynamic sense of the term, acts as a focus from which energy radiates into the environment. The forces issuing from the center are distributed around it in what we shall call the center’s visual field. In the simplest case the energy is evenly distributed in all directions; the field of forces is centrically symmetrical. Constraints can narrow the field to particular directions, as in the case of a floodlight . . .

Speaking generally one can assert that every visual field comprises a number of centers, each of which tries to draw the others into subservience. The self of the viewer is just one of those centers. The overall balance of all those competing aspirations determines the structure of the whole, and that total structure is organized around what I will call the balancing center.  

-- Rudolf Arnheim, The Power of the Center(1)

The data for any one pulsation of actuality consist of the full content of the antecedent universe as it exists in relevance to that pulsation.

 -- Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought(2)

“Painting is only interesting in virtue of line and color,” Baudelaire wrote in 1846, preparing the way for “works abstracted from nature,” as George Heard Hamilton noted. But the idea of a “new abstract art” wasn’t complete until George Santayana, taking his cue from Walter Pater’s 1877 statement that “all art constantly aspires to the condition of music,” argued, in the 1890s, that abstract art “should deal with colors as music does with sound.”(3) Wassily Kandinsky, the first abstract painter, was a synesthete, more particularly, a chromesthete: for him, “individual musical notes have their own hues” -- a “cross-modal association” of the senses of hearing and seeing that research has shown is universal.(4) In traditional representational art beauty was found in objects, or imposed on them; in the new abstract art it arose from the complexity and “duplicity” of sense experience. The more one sense seemed bound to another -- the more one sense evoked and seemed correlate with another, paradoxically integrated -- the more beautiful the work. And the more creative the artist who made them seem to do so.

Thus, as Bernard Berenson suggested, without haptic appeal -- appeal to the sense of touch by way of surface texture -- a painting that relied exclusively on the visual appeal of color, however rich and subtle, seemed aesthetically incomplete, however engrossing and admirable. We are all naturally born synesthetes -- “hypersensitive,” as it were. Children are in fact the greatest synesthetes -- all their senses seem to cross-reference each other, freely and creatively associate and relate, until they are forced to separate by the practical need to focus on one thing at a time -- which is why Kandinsky called them “the greatest imaginers.”

Baudelaire wrote that modern art should afford a “sensation of the new,” a sense of the novel immediacy of the world he thought children had, because of their responsive openness to all kinds of stimuli. For them the world was perpetually “modern,” he argued. The world became “traditional” when it was no longer freely sensed, when sense experience was no longer enjoyable in itself, especially when all the senses creatively unite in common pleasurable cause, making for a sense of extraordinary beauty.  When our senses are used to find our way through the painful world, when they become cautious and controlled, they no longer become intoxicated by what they experience, as children do, Baudelaire thought. Art should intoxicate our senses, he argued, so that we can see the beauty in the world, even, as he said, in the modern world, which lacked the noble ideals of the ancient world, on display in its sculptures and temples. The music the profane senses made when they played together, as they do in children, rather than alone, as they usually do in adults, was for Kandinsky the sacred music of the spheres. For him abstract painting existed to serve “cosmic feeling,” as Roger Fry called it, by making us aware of the cosmos of colors, and by way of it of the grandeur of the cosmos as such. Intoxicated by color by way of synesthesiac art -- synesthesia is sensuous intoxication -- we become aware of its abstract beauty, and with that the innate beauty of the cosmos as a whole.

As Carol Brown Goldberg’s I Paint with Music (2008) makes conspicuously clear, her abstract paintings belong to this grand tradition of chromesthetic musical painting. She paints not just to music, but with color “notes.” She is intoxicated by music and color, but the question is what kind of music and color.  She’s intoxicated like a child -- Tess, Stefan and Lucas Love Each Other (2009), shows her love for her grandchildren as well as conveys their love for each other, love being a form of intoxication, and intoxication involves identification with the intoxicating object (Oh Baby, Baby, Baby [2008], suggests a similar intoxication with innocence) -- but music is not just child’s play, certainly not the sophisticated music that Kandinsky turned to for inspiration.

His first musical abstractions, painted before World War I began in 1914, have been called “apocalyptic landscapes,” as though premonitions of the war. But they were inspired by Wagner’s leitmotifs, as he acknowledged. Colors were emotionally charged leitmotifs arranged in dramatic disorder, a sort of improvised patchwork of colors leading back to Manet’s Concert in the Tuileries (1862), for French art historians the first modernist painting by virtue of its “flat color patches.” Immediately after the war, Kandinsky, with his “expressionistic” taste for the dramatic, and his awareness of the chaotic absurdity of the postwar world, along with his sense that all values had been leveled into equivalence in it -- the traditional hierarchy that distinguished between material and spiritual values had collapsed -- turned to Schoenberg’s atonal music for inspiration, admiring its dissonance as well as the equivalent value it accorded each note, for Kandinsky, each color.

In short, the new abstract musical painting was born in troubling times, and had to reflect their turbulence, even as it seemed a refuge from them -- a sort of abstract ostrich hole in which to hide from reality, however much it may inform the abstract painting with its “negative” music. It had to be dissonant and full of conflicts, resolved in a “dynamic equilibrium” but still fraught with Sturm und Drang (storm and stress). Clearly the equilibrium is far from stable -- Kandinsky’s early abstractions seem precarious, arhythmic, and jerry-built, in “deconstructive” rather than constructive process -- rather than a “composed” and self-contained harmony of color notes, predestined to be integrated: Kandinsky is regarded as the first abstract expressionist painter.

At least the early patchy “gestural” pessimistic Kandinsky; the later “geometrical” Kandinsky -- the “organized” Kandinsky of the Bauhaus -- has been understood to be optimistically “non-objective” and “constructivist,” an advocate of the brave, new, industrial society the Bauhaus served and helped build. It is the difference between a dystopian vision of a dysfunctional society and self and a utopian vision of a seamlessly integrated society and self. Hamilton sharply distinguishes between abstract art and non-objective art, noting that the term “non-objective” was “first widely used with reference to the early works of the Russian Constructivists,” which had an “architectural character” by reason of being “geometrically constructed.”(5) Thus colorful musical abstraction, which begins in a kind of social alienation, and idealistic architectural abstraction, in which the harmonious new society is geometrically projected in geometrical “outline” -- conceived as a universal possibility because it is conceived in universal geometrical terms. On the one hand, a bleak epiphany of chaos and disorder; on the other hand, a luminous epiphany of architectural order. On the one hand, an abstraction from nature and society; on the other hand, a non-objective fantasy of an ideal, perfect world -- an abstract heaven, as it were, that is, heaven seen in its true non-objective form, once it is stripped of the earthly disguise that objectified it in representational sacred paintings. The perfectly ideal is realizable and knowable only in the nonobjective terms of eternal geometry, because while it can be intellectually conceived it is objectively inconceivable, unrealistic, and cannot be seen -- however much the cross-referencing of the senses in chromesthetic musical painting can give us a sense of its complex beauty, make us believe we hear the heavenly music of the spheres, imagine we see the sublime architecture of the cosmos.

Goldberg’s glorious, color-saturated paintings make us feel heavenly -- they’re in the tradition of sacred abstract painting inaugurated by Kandinsky -- even as their center is often black, however streaked with lines of light, as in NT 1 and NT 2, both 2011. (Arnheim reminds us that “a line is a single extended center.”) Her paintings are musically abstract and architecturally nonobjective simultaneously -- a compelling synthesis of opposites. The “reconciliation of incompatibles” -- what Alfred Barr called the geometrical and non-geometrical extremes -- has been the final goal of abstract painting since its beginning. The first hesitant attempts to reach it were made in Robert Delaunay’s First Disk and Frantisek Kupka’s Disks of Newton, both 1912 -- one year after Kandinsky made the first official abstract work (a watercolor) and the same year in which he published On the Spiritual in Art, still the basic explanation and defense of abstraction and non-objectivity.

From its raw beginning, abstraction sought to correlate and integrate the architectural structure of music and the cosmic spectrum of colors. Whether hierarchically ordered in tonal music or non-hierarchically arranged in atonal music, the particular notes and colors always belong to an abstract system. They form a continuum of petites perceptions seemingly infinite in extent yet precisely definable and measurable in mathematical terms. Lawrence Alloway thought abstract painting was inevitably what he called “systemic painting,” suggesting that general systems theory, with its distinction between closed and open systems, was useful for understanding it. There was the non-objective architectural or geometrical closed system and the abstract expressionist or gestural open system.  Both are self-evident in Goldberg’s paintings. Ingeniously, they converge in her dots -- the data of pure sensation, confirming that she’s working in the modernist tradition that begins with Cézanne’s attempt to capture the “vibrating sensations” of nature, as he called them, refined by the early abstract painters into vibrating sensations of pure color -- color so intense and immediate it seemed uncontainable by any impure object, but only by geometry as pure and immediate as it, as Malevich’s non-objective Suprematist Square paintings first made clear. Mondrian followed Malevich, and Albers’ formulaic “Homage to the Square”series, begun in 1950, and announcing that expressionist “Angst is dead,” as he said, followed Mondrian, and Ad Reinhardt’s colorless five-foot square Abstract Painting (1960-66), followed and negated both Mondrian and Albers. But color was restored to geometry by Frank Stella and Gene Davis, and more broadly by so-called Color Field Painting, from Ellsworth Kelly to Morris Louis to Kenneth Noland, however different their geometry and colors.

It is to Albers we must turn to understand the “difference” Goldberg has made in the development of colorful geometrical abstraction. It is first worth noting that before he came to the United States Albers was the glass master at the Bauhaus, and that Goldberg uses pulverized glass as luminous texture. Albers worked in a stained glass workshop, and Goldberg’s paintings have the look of stained glass. As H. H. Arnason tells us, Albers sandblasted and painted thin layers of opaque glass, baking them in a kiln to give them a radiant, hard surface. Goldberg’s surface seemed to be softened by the light, which intensifies the colors, but it is firm and hard. And -- here’s a crucial difference -- it has its impulsive moments, some more sweeping and elaborated than others, all idiosyncratic, spontaneous, linear. Like Ariadne’s thread, they weave into and out of the geometry, suggesting it’s an intricate labyrinth however simple it looks. Sometimes Goldberg uses the Malevich-Albers Suprematist square, as in After Vallodolid, 2009, more often a rectangle, as in Flickering Bulbs in the Studio of Nostalgia, 2010. Both are more richly informed, not to say dense with color than the iconically avant-garde square. It looks anemic in comparison to Goldberg’s full-bodied -- viscerally colorful -- geometry. 

Goldberg’s use of modular units of “sensation,” quantum particles of sensation, as it were, united in a cosmic grid, resulting in an all-over geometrical painting, makes her painting very different from the less “sensational” Malevich-Albers type of geometrical painting. Each takes its interchangeable place in the grid, fitting together -- if not altogether seamlessly or neatly, for there are rippling gaps between some of the lines they form and inform, suggesting a sort of principle of uncertainty in their relationship. The grid is what Whitehead calls the “antecedent universe” that gives each its “relevance,” suggesting that it would not be meaningful or even exist apart from the grid in which it “occurs.” Each leads to the next one, as though spontaneously generating it, a parthenogenesis of cosmic particles suggesting the so-called “big bang,” just as the tense interlocking of light and darkness in her paintings seems to allusively foreshadow the biblical moment when they were separated, also a parthenogenetic moment, if one triggered by an artist’s divining eye.

Goldberg has streamlined Cézanne’s natural vibrant sensations, reducing them to hyper-rational data, impersonal bits of information, abstract particles, each unit a sort of simple Morse code for a sensation, no longer any particular sensation but sensation as such. But incompletely, for Goldberg’s units -- spots or dots of sensation, if you want -- remain “touchy gestures.” Goldberg paints them by hand -- she could have used a stencil, confirming their mechanical, static look -- which is why they seem to pulse and vibrate “naturally,” as though charged with organic life. The sensations form a steady, consistent beat; they are as musically personal as Cézanne’s, however impersonal and metronome-like they seem at first glance. Where Cézanne’s sensations are diffuse and atmospheric and impressionistic, Goldberg’s sensations concentrate and pinpoint energy. They fix it in place, even as their repetition spreads it through space, while in Cézanne energy “impressionistically” dissolves in space.   

However important this transformation of sensation -- Goldberg has in effect modernized it, that is, made it more immediate and focused -- the more fundamental reason her abstract paintings are an “advance” on systemic painting has to do with their treatment of the center. After Avila, After Vallodolid, and Monterrey on My Mind, all 2009, A Nostalgic Radical in Florence and NT 7, both 2010, among many other paintings, all use the center redundantly in the same painting, as Albers does. Both he and Goldberg “amplify” the center by repeating it seemingly ad infinitum, no doubt to generate Fry’s “cosmic feeling.” In both Albers and Goldberg the “microcosmic” center seems to become “macrocosmic” as it enlarges and expands into the space of the canvas, until it is more or less equivalent to it, both in paradoxical flatness and geometrical clarity. The different centers, each emerging from and an enlargement of the other -- its proportions remain the same even as it changes in size -- are like Chinese boxes, with the canvas as a whole the overall, grandest cosmic container.

All this is innovative, but more important and crucially art historically, Albers was a Minimalist -- so were Malevich and Mondrian, Minimalism being the inevitable outcome of an art based on Braque’s famous 1917 dictum that “limitation of means determines style . . . . Extension, on the contrary, leads the arts to decadence,”(6) that is, excess, especially emotional excess, as he says, results in bad art -- while Goldberg is a post-Minimalist, more pointedly, what Robert Pincus-Witten called a Maximalist. A Maximalist doesn’t think “less is more,” as the Minimalist architect Mies van der Rohe said, but “less is a bore,” as the post-Minimalist Maximalist architect Robert Venturi said.

Albers gives us simple geometry, a flat monochromatic plane, stripped of all signs of the hand -- smooth almost to the point of slickness -- in the shape of a square that could have been mass-produced in a Bauhaus-designed factory. (As Carl Andre’s officially Minimalist squares were.) Albers’ central square is matter-of-factly given, a tidy form, simplistically self-contained -- there’s not much self or color to contain, and in fact it seems empty (emptiness enhanced with a monochromatic filter) -- its sides all the same, confirming its limited, undifferentiated, “minimal” character. It is merely given, rather than imaginatively, let alone sensuously “maximalized” with color and texture, as Goldberg’s centers are, whether tightly contained or almost canvas-sized. (Their edges are symmetrical with those of the canvas, “finessing” them as modernist painting is supposed to do.) Their ingrained light as well as their rich colors and ingenious texture -- all the more painterly because of the pulverized glass embedded in it -- gives the centers numinous presence. Goldberg’s use of pulverized glass intensifies her colors by informing them with light, even as it gives them haptic appeal, so that they seem intimate, a synesthetic delight, rather than remote, as Albers colors do, all the more so because they lack the texture that would give them haptic and projective power. Goldberg’s use of pulverized glass adds to the Venetian look of her paintings -- Titian apparently inserted crushed glass into his surface to make his colors more lustrous (Greenberg admired his paintings, and rich Venetian color in general, regarding Titian as a sort of modernist color field painter manqué, “manqué” because he was a representational rather than abstract painter). Venetian color has always been thought of as “excessive” and emotionally exciting compared to sober Florentine line, but line is only half the means available to painting, suggesting that a painted form that depends on line rather than color for its existence -- as Albers’ square does -- is creatively inconsequential as well as aesthetically inadequate. 

Goldberg’s “excess” overcomes the limitations of geometry. It seems all the more eternal because of the sensuous excess that elaborates it -- the opulence with which it is given. Her geometrical centers draw us to and into them, rather than stand apart and move away from us as Albers’ centers do. They are merely empirically present rather than glorious presences. One might say that Goldberg has given us a baroque center -- let us recall that “baroque” means irregular in shape, like the baroque pearls that are Goldberg’s particles, and that Baroque art is exuberantly decorative, full of movement, and dramatic, suggesting that Goldberg’s paintings are a kind of Baroque Abstraction -- in contrast to Albers’ reductive center and “classical” abstraction. Let us note that Baroque art is more empathically engaging than Minimalist abstraction, suggesting that Goldberg has reconciled empathy and abstraction, to refer to Wilhelm Worringer’s famous distinction, by way of her sensuously intoxicating “excess,” that is, her imaginative defiance of the limits of geometry while acknowledging their inescapability. It involves mnemonic meteoric traces of expressionistic Sturm und Drang, as its gestural lyricism and swift mood changes suggest -- recall that Kandinsky regarded mood as all important in abstract painting (its subject matter, as it were) -- but they never detract from what Plato and Whitehead called the eternal objects of geometry.

The illusionistic space and surging energy of her paintings are characteristically Baroque, along with the sense of being unconfined while being self-contained. The contradiction of this is conveyed by the “contradiction” between the length and width of the rectangle she tends to use. It has four sides, like the square, but the two sides of the length and the two sides of the width are of unequal size, while the sides of the square are all of equal size. That is, the rectangle is peculiarly irregular from the point of view of the “perfectly” regular square, which is why Goldberg’s rectangle lends itself to baroque usage as Albers’ square does not. This suggests the dialectical flexibility of Goldberg’s center -- and cosmos -- in contrast to Albers’ undialectical, inflexible, not to say rigidly “definitive” center. Her center, cosmic space, and paintings, are much more uncanny and unfathomable than those of Albers, which is why they are more radically abstract and authentically non-objective.   

“Carol Brown Goldberg: Abstract Universe,” Gabarron Foundation-Carriage House Center for the Arts, 149 East 38th Street, New York, N.Y. 10016.


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)Rudolf Arnheim, The Power of the Center (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1982), 4-5

(2)Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1956), 121

(3)Quoted in George Heard Hamilton, “Abstract and Non-Objective Art,” Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1880-1940 (Baltimore: Penguin, 1967), 192

(4)”Synaesthesia,” “Smells Like Beethoven: Using the Word ‘Note’ to Describe an Odour May Be More Than Just Metaphor,” The Economist, 402/8770 (February 4-10, 2012):82

(5)Hamilton, 192

(6)Quoted in Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1968), 262