Michael Goldberg (1924–2007) was BOMB’s most knowledgeable and discerning editor, one of America’s greatest painters, and one of our very dearest friends. A connoisseur of life, a walking encyclopedia of jazz and wine; a raconteur replete with the best stories of New York’s 1950s and onwards art world, and a sense of humor punctuated with a “Who gives a fuck about that incidental detail . . .”
Lucio Pozzi put it best:
“I often invited myself for dinner at his and Lynnie’s (Lynn Umlauf) home. Dinner was always exceptional and food was taken very seriously, spiced sometimes by critical exchanges between the cooks. Whether there were guests or not, the talk would be enriching. Mike would interject sometimes some outrageous judgments about certain artists or persons in our society. He couldn’t tolerate conformity and inauthenticity, especially in the arts.
“He once told me he drank so much because he was despairingly bored with all the pettiness and stuff we lose ourselves into, but he would lend a generous ear to each and every person he met. When, however, encountering a person or an event that had freshness in it, he would enjoy it without rhetoric, with a hint of a smile behind his mask, and you would know how elated he was for it. His big head held the memories of a long and varied life, of extreme darkness and extreme light, of which he didn’t talk as much as he could have, probably for fear of imposing on others.
“As he would like no weight added to the passing of life, we just keep going with a smile.”
I knew of Michael Goldberg long before we actually met because in the early ’60s I had read poems by Frank O’Hara that were dedicated to and inspired by Goldberg and his work. Consequently, I became familiar with his paintings, and years later, in the early ’70s, the then-art-dealer Klaus Kertess and the painter Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe suggested—or maybe insisted—that Goldberg and I meet. They both knew that the two of us, I a young conceptual artist, and Goldberg an abstract painter had a common interest—though decidedly different views on the relation between art and politics. On meeting, Goldberg revealed himself to be the quintessential mixture of machismo and sensitivity—the tough guy with a heart of gold, which was the signature style of artists of his generation. He also turned out to be a wonderful storyteller and sincerely introspective. Given this history, it was strange to think of interviewing him, having had so many conversations on so many subjects over the years. Yet in this interview that took many a surprising turn, new stories and views emerged, revealing the qualities and concerns that inform Michael Goldberg as a painter.
Saul Ostrow Mike, you’re literally a part of painting’s history. Your work has been located at a certain juncture between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, and never allowed to escape. What does that do to you?
Michael Goldberg Norman Bluhm, Grace Hartigan, and Joan Mitchell resented that second-generation Abstract Expressionism label. I never really gave a shit about it. Labels come and go and make no difference to what you’re trying to do. I see what I’ve been doing all these years, it’s like a slinky toy. You go around and around the spirals, sometimes you’re a little more aware, sometimes you’re not. Right now, I’m working better than I ever have, and I have more self-doubt than I’ve ever had—mainly because I take so long working on these paintings. But getting back to the idea of historicism, I have a rather long range concept of what art’s about, what it can do, and what I want to do in relation to art. When I was beginning to paint seriously, I had this urgency to get out to all the museums, all the places where I could look at art. That doesn’t seem to exist for me anymore—at least not with the same necessity.
SO This notion of doubt . . . we’ve never spoken of the day Pop and Minimal Art appeared, in the early ’60s; Stella had shown the Black Paintings in ’59 and Johns had shown the flags in ’55—there was already this “thing” in the air. How did that impact you?
MG Around that time, 1954 or 1955, everybody and his cousin was doing gestural work; a lot of wishful art was being made. People thought that if they whipped it up a lot, sooner or later they’d find something to hang a painting on, something redeeming. Those years produced some of the worst shit I’ve ever seen. Change was inevitable.
SO But what was the impact on you and your audience?
MG It impacted me thematically. I liked some of the early Pop Art stuff and I enjoyed Lichtenstein’s work. What’s his name, the guy on the West Coast who does the hamburgers—
SO Wayne Thiebaud.
MG I was the sole juror of the Oakland Annual in 1961, and I picked one of those hamburgers out of about 2500 entries, I narrowed it down to 42, and one of them was that hamburger. I genuinely responded to something—the attitude, maybe, but not the painting. The paintings are kind of fucking boring, but the attitude interested me.
Last spring, I felt that my work was getting overly complicated. And I was determined that when I began working in Italy for the summer I would try to simplify what it is that I was going for. Instead, I made it more complicated. I find that the dictates of my vision are something I can’t control. For me, the concept of abstract painting is still the primary visual challenge of our time. It might get harder and harder to make an abstract image that’s believable, but I think that just makes the challenge greater.
SO What interests me about the show you had last year at Lennon, Weinberg Gallery, and what attracted me to Stella’s current work is that they’re both desperate; I don’t see that in younger painters’ work—this incredible desperation to get it all in there, to load up the work and cover all bases. Increasingly, what attracts me is work that is indeterminate, and undefinable in its anxiety.
MG Well that’s quite true for me. I’m not doing very much else that has any kind of meaning to me except painting. I consider myself an old-fashioned modernist in that I think painting could change the world. And the desperation is about the fact that I know it can’t.
SO You’ve loaded your paintings, the manner in which they appropriate their own history to such an extent . . .
MG One of the things that pushed me dramatically into looking again at classical paintings is that my wife and I have been living in Italy half the year. We live in the country, and yet I really don’t like the country. Every so often I get cabin fever, so I get in the car and drive to Siena, which is about 20 minutes from our house. I park someplace illegally, and look at either a painting, a church, or a palace, have a coffee, and I’m happy for a while.
I’ve always felt that art comes out of art. It doesn’t spring from Zeus’s forehead. Art requires looking, and a little bit of selective thievery, too. You take a little bit from here and a little from there without being conscious of it. But you need a big, big art vocabulary to be able to do that. In the last 15 years I’ve selectively broadened my art vocabulary. What I look at not many people would look at: I like Italian Mannerist painting a lot. It’s so goofy that it’s fun to look at.
SO In the ’50s, when you were a part of the New York School, Frank O’Hara would come to your studio and you two would converse. And now you’re talking about loading up a painting, driving to Siena by yourself to look at things. Does that leave you with a sense of isolation? That there’s nobody left to talk to but the painting?
MG I hadn’t thought about it that way, but personally I do have a lack of close friends whom I see and talk to about painting. One of the reasons I left East Hampton in 1965 was that people were only talking about money, galleries, and who they were fucking. Or how much taxes they were paying. I mean, there must be more to life than that.
SO The conversation about art had stopped.
MG Yes. You and I must have the same types of experiences. People come to your studio, they’re friendly and they spend quite a bit of time and then they leave, and you haven’t got a clue what their reaction to the work is. You want to shake them and say, “Well, what do you think?” A roundabout kind of conversation happens that doesn’t mean very much. I’m open to that sort of dialogue, but I don’t get much from it.
SO Let’s go back. In the ’50s, you’re a young artist, all of a sudden everyone is successful, and you can get anybody you want over to the studio. What was that like?
MG When money entered the downtown art world in New York—it was about 1955 when Bill de Kooning’s show at Janis sold before the opening. I have a feeling that from then on a lot of people considered the money more than they did the art, which was unfortunate. Galleries sprang up, art became a commodity—I myself started to sell work, and I certainly didn’t mind. In 1957 I quit my job and went on unemployment. I was living on Tenth Street between Third and Fourth Avenues. I forget what I was getting a week but it wasn’t much. But one day I was too hungover to go to sign for the week’s check—I’m laying in bed feeling miserable. And the next day Norman Bluhm brings Walter Chrysler over to the studio. I was supposed to do a show at Poindexter about a month or two later, so I had a lot of new paintings. We went through loads of new and old paintings, and he agreed to buy $10,000 worth of art—in one fell swoop. He said that he’d come back the next day and make the final selection. So he leaves and I’m thinking, He’s full of shit, he’s not going to come back. So I borrowed a couple of bucks from Norman. And the next day Walter did come back, and remembered vividly everything we’d looked at, and bought the paintings. This is where the fun starts—I had to go to his office in the Chrysler building to get the first check. He was paying me in $2,500 installments. The subway fare was a nickel, and that’s all I had left. He took me to lunch and I explained to him that I had no money and no bank account. He said “Listen, there’s a bank downstairs. I’ll call them and they’ll cash the check for you.” So I get back down to Norman’s place, on Twelfth street and Fourth Avenue. This is a Friday, it’s the middle of winter and it’s freezing cold. Ten thousand bucks at the time was a lot of money; I’m holding $2,500 of it in my pocket, and I said, “You know, I want to buy an electric blanket.” We walked to 14th Street, I bought an electric blanket and I spent the weekend in bed, under that blanket, just holding the money. On Monday, Norman took me to a bank to open an account. It was unbelievable. Then, about a week later, I hear this loud voice hollering up from the street—it’s Martha Jackson. She found out that Walter had bought my paintings, and she wanted to take a look. She’d never given me the time of day before. So she proceeds to buy $10,000 worth of art. So I rented Elaine de Kooning’s sister and brother-in-law’s house in East Hampton for that summer and took Norman out there and bought him a used Ford—or Plymouth—which often didn’t run, and we spent the summer out in East Hampton living it up. Martha gave me $1,000 monthly stipend against sales. It’s funny how these things escalate. I had a show every two years, and she’d sell most everything. I’d get $24,000 up front, so she had to sell $48,000 worth of paintings to cover the debt. That’s a lot of paintings—the prices were not very expensive. So I was always on the edge—as if I was being kept. But I liked getting the money more than I minded being kept.
SO There’s a great photo in John Gruen’s book, The Party’s over Now; it seems like everybody’s there.
MG That was at Guild Hall in East Hampton. The softball games we used to have out there! But I always had the feeling that meaning in that East Hampton world became less important than the bourgeois attitudes that surrounded it. I don’t think it became less important to the younger people like Stella or Judd, who were really creating a new attitude toward art making. And those of us who were engaged in a more traditional pursuit perceived our distance from European art, and our closeness to European art—we had a lingering attachment to traditional values, and it’s hard to shake that. In what I’m doing today, I certainly don’t get a glimpse of, say, Picasso. But in what I was doing 20 years ago, he entered into the picture. I’m really nuts about Giorgio Morandi. The depth of aestheticism in his paintings is unequaled. I find it in Mondrian, as well. Sometimes an artist hits me as those do, but not too often.
SO Young art students don’t really see themselves in dialogue with artists from previous generations.
MG I’ve always said, Saul, art making is a competitive experience. You’ve got the whole world of art history behind you to compete against. But you’ve got to be smart in who you’re competing against: I don’t want to compete against Titian or Velázquez or Rubens or Picasso. They’ll beat me every time. But I don’t mind competing against say, Rembrandt; I can do that. Only keep it to yourself. One of Schnabel’s big problems was that he was just competitive, and that’s what the paintings were finally about. That is not content, and it hampered him.
SO I don’t see any problem competing with Picasso. The problem is that art students don’t want to be Picasso; they want to be Yves Klein, or Warhol, or Damien Hirst. They don’t understand that the only way you can occupy that sort of position is as a person inhabiting a role.
In terms of your recent work, do you see yourself going into the studio and imagining yourself in dialogue with Italian Mannerist painting? In the past, did you see yourself in dialogue with Rembrandt and de Kooning?
MG No. I see less of a dialogue. Not that I drag out all my old paintings and look at them, but I’ve created enough of a background for myself—that’s the slinky toy I was talking about. I see references in some of the more recent paintings to older work of mine. I’m vain enough to think that they are more mature, and more informed, although that may not actually be true. I think I’m more daring, now that the stakes are higher. If it’s a good day I think, Yeah, these are good; if it’s a mediocre day, I’m no great fan; if it’s a black day—the morning you wake up in a half-daze, and your life in art goes past you and you say, My god, it was all shit. I’ve been painting for 50 years or more. That’s a long time.
SO In 1951 how old were you?
MG I’m 75 now. I was 21 in ’46 when I got out of the service, so 26.
SO You’re 26 years old, you go over to Betty Parsons Gallery and she’s showing one of the big boys. What’s that like?
MG A girl who worked for Betty was going away for the weekend and she asked if I would baby-sit the gallery on a Saturday. They were doing a Clyfford Still show, and I didn’t like Still’s work at that point. I’ve grown to like some of it very much since then, but at that point I didn’t, and I really pissed off a couple of people who asked me what one of the paintings cost. I said, “Well, if I turn my back you can take it.” That got back to Betty, and she was very pissed off at me. But I saw almost all the shows that Betty was doing at that point; she showed Mark Rothko, Pollock, Still and Barnett Newman. Newman talked to Betty about what artists she should be interested in. I had seen Pollock’s work when he was still on Eighth Street. I had a studio on Eighth Street and I would visit him from time to time. The difficulty was when he began his drip paintings in 1951, 1952, as an artist you could admire them, but you’d also look for things you could lift from them for yourself. And you couldn’t do it. I’ve said before that I lifted pictorial ideas from Pollock, and so did Frankenthaler. But a lot of people lifted the process directly and produced little Pollocks. They used the same technique, the same materials, but you could tell the difference, which is rather important to my mind. How could you tell the difference? What did he have that the others didn’t? I was a big admirer of Pollock’s but when I gave up that need to lift from him, or from other artists, I could freely react to paintings much more directly. One of the reasons I was stimulated by de Kooning’s work was that you could take from it and you were still in a European tradition—with a different application and different values—but a European tradition. You couldn’t do that with Pollock.
SO That generation that immediately preceded you ended painting, in a certain way!
MG Yeah, I would say that Franz Kline, who was more minimal than any of the Minimalists, with a little added caché, was the end of heroic painting. People try to keep that myth going, but it’s impossible to continue emotionally. I’ve had glimpses of that myself—I just don’t let it get the better of me.
SO Have you seen Caroline Jones’s book Machine in the Studio? It’s about postwar American artists, and includes a chapter on the documentary films made in the ’50s and ’60s on those artists. You get this record of Pollock on film making a painting as performance and it gives you an idea of the isolation of the studio. And by the time you get to Painters on Painting, you have Ken Noland or Larry Poons saying to a studio assistant, “Can you move the tape in a little bit more to the left?” The studio was no longer an isolated place, it was a factory. How did that shift affect the transition period you lived through? Does the studio radically change for you and does that impact the work?
MG Well, it hasn’t changed for me; I still have to be alone. I require music when I’m working, and that’s about it. I like to play the music loud so I can drown the world out. I have an assistant who comes in once or twice a week to do the chores I don’t want to do. I certainly don’t ask for advice or help in making the work, and I don’t need somebody to tell me when it’s finished. I had this really sweet student who asked me how I know when a work is finished. I answered, “When I’m totally bored.” She broke down in tears and said, “What a cheap answer that is.” But it’s the truth. I wasn’t trying to be flippant. There’s a point where I can’t look at the work any longer and I know, inadvertently, that it’s finished, and that I’ve exhausted the possibilities of what I can do with the work. I can only decide that if I’m alone. And to begin a new one requires devices. Unless your momentum is really high, you don’t want to look at a bloody canvas or a blank piece of paper. So, you pick your nose, you put on some different music, read a book, write a letter.
SO The aesthetics of your work have remained consistent, from one painting to the next. Where in that process that you just described do you make those decisions—this configuration and not that configuration, etcetera?
MG The less iconic work, the work that’s got me from point A to point B, I’ve usually destroyed. Work that in retrospect looks tentative but led me to something much more complete I can destroy. It’s a great relief, as a matter of fact. Either you find that you’re behind the times or ahead of them. It doesn’t matter. What matters is your own times. And looking back at what I’ve done, I find I am pretty consistent. But I had an experience—I’m sure a lot of people share this—where I was in Chicago with Lynn [Umlauf] and we went to Bud Holland’s gallery. He had an earlier painting of mine and it was a good painting. I really liked it. He said, “You know, I have another one.” So he took me into a room and there on a little pedestal was a smaller painting and I said, “That’s not mine, it’s a piece of shit.” He turned it around and on the back was my signature, big as life. I didn’t want to remember, that’s what it comes down to. How did that thing get into the marketplace? A total embarrassment—and you can’t cover it up, either.
SO To get back to this whole process, going into the studio, starting over . . . what do you end up getting out of it? Where do the changes come from?
MG I begin to see certain possibilities in the last work that pushes me into the next one. Things I didn’t resolve. There’s a pink painting of mine called Diaphanous Pink. I picked up a gallon of that color about a year and a half ago. I opened the can, looked at the pink and thought, Gee that’s a great color but I can’t use it—it looks like Baskin Robbins’s ice cream. But I opened the can again recently and thought, That looks like a lousy, obscene color—I can really use it. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe was spending the week at my place, and he didn’t see that pink as obscene. He didn’t see it as “it makes my teeth hurt.” He liked it.
SO Yeah, it’s a pink that he’s used. (laughter)
MG That’s exactly what it came down to. He felt at home with it. And I certainly didn’t. He said, “You know the bottom of the painting—you ought to leave it like that and look at it for a while.” So me, of course, I fucked it up. I had to.
SO So how do you get to the next one?
MG I use drawings for that. I like paper a lot. There’s a bigger investment emotionally on canvas. It takes more time. I can approach paper as a flippant exercise, very quick, da da da. If you don’t like it, rip it up, go on to the next one. That speed and energy are vital components of my art making. In that sense, I really like working with a hangover because I feel vulnerable.
SO (laughter) Not just romantic?
MG You know what I mean. Art making is like being badly sunburned: you’re peeling, you’re trying to get the layers of the world off you to get to yourself. Well, being hungover does that, too.
SO What was the biggest thing you ever had to give up, in terms of having an emotional stake in a painting?
MG I understand what you’re saying. Usually in a painting, you throw out images to yourself that you almost rush to get rid of because you can’t live with them. They feel awkward and out of tune with your psyche. I have learned to keep those images because they are the things that my unconscious is throwing out. But then to understand that rationalization of the process, and get rid of them when necessary—it’s a cyclical thing. I have a feeling that I lie to myself, visually, often. One of the reasons I sit with a work for a long time is to give myself a chance to recognize my own visual lies. All these paintings have a quasi-grid in them. It may be a farcical grid, but it allows me to convince myself that there is an underlying structure to the work. I’m half-kidding myself. But the half that’s not kidding myself, I use.
SO How do you feel about Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, who painted endless series with variations and repetitions, as opposed to somebody like yourself or Joan Mitchell who had a pictorial syntax but didn’t necessarily want to know where it was going?
MG I didn’t like either Noland’s or Louis’s work. It took me a while to get even a glimmer of appreciation for them. I had the feeling that their work had a built-in self-destruct in the sense that it was topical and that when the topicality ended, there would be nothing there. But I don’t know how true that is anymore. There was a show of Noland’s not so long before Emmerich closed. A couple of the paintings, which were recycled statements of earlier work, looked pretty good, but I didn’t like them. They’re like historical artifacts. Louis’s things I find antihistorical. I’m talking about the furls; they’re like theater curtains opening up onto an empty stage. And I think that’s a bit greedy. They seem terribly shallow to me. I understand that kind of lapsed, romantic beauty, but to quote from Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe’s new book [Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime], “They’re certainly not sublime.” I mean, they didn’t even touch on transcendentalism. I’m American enough to feel a terrific adulation for people like Emerson, Wordsworth and Thoreau. Transcendentalism is an important yearning in the American psyche. And I thought that both Noland and Louis were falsifying that. Think about Rothko’s paintings—I still like Rothko enormously—they invite contemplation. You feel you have to sit down and look at them.
SO The gap between serialization and what you yourself bring to the act of painting, problem solving on one side, and on the other, an attempt at what?—recuperation, redemption, resurrection?
MG That’s the Kierkegaard approach, isn’t it? That whole idea of either/or. Let me say this: One of the great jazz soloists of his time, Lester Young, would riff on the chorus, and he’d play endless variations on it. The whole point was, “Hey, how about this? Oh, take this; Oh, look at this.” The changes were remarkable. The variations he offered seemed endless.
SO Caroline Jones proposes that Warhol and company picked up an industrial aesthetic because they couldn’t find any way over, under or around Pollock and company. Her proposal is that, given that Abstract Expressionism was the territory of the unconscious, and a pathetic heroism—which takes us back to your paintings.
MG Or misplaced heroism. I’m still concerned with that ephemeral idea of quality. I couldn’t begin to describe it, but you can smell it. I tell my students, I don’t have to like what you do, but I don’t want to be able to deny it. I don’t want to be able to turn my back on it. It has to have some kind of presence.
SO The same aspiration for your own work?
MG Yes. I’m much more critical about my own work than I am about other people’s. And I change my mind often—who doesn’t? I don’t have a fixed ideology. Sometimes I wish I did. If I had an accepted formula for making work, it would make life a lot easier. I’d become a producer, and that would be it.
SO Stella says that artists misuse other artists and misread them intentionally.
MG Thank God. And I hate to say this, but the Marxist art critics are the worst offenders. Almost without exception, when they discuss a painting, you have the feeling that they haven’t looked at the fucking thing. And if they have looked at it, they’ve looked at it for their own needs. But they don’t really see the painting. Some of the few art critics and art historians who really respond to what they are looking at are Meyer Schapiro and Leo Steinberg. They create an equivalent in words. That’s rare.
SO The methodologies of criticism and art history don’t deal well with the visual. Therefore they either have to deal with the visual iconically or on a conceptual level, which ultimately becomes, in a funny way, like a script.
MG That abuses the art. I got that new book of T. J. Clark’s, Farewell to an Idea. It made me feel like dirt. Painters don’t look at paintings as social documents. We look at what we respond to, what we can steal, how a painting makes us feel.
SO In terms of making the paintings, at what point is it about your taste or is it a challenge to your taste? One day the painting is the most ugly, gruesome thing—you can’t stand it—and the next day you realize how wonderful your art is.
MG You’re always going two steps forward, one step back, or one step forward and two steps back. And within the context of a body of work, your individual taste will be reflected, you can see it. I can glimpse where I’m trying to take my work, although admittedly it’s sort of cloudy. I like the physicality of what I’m doing. I like the feeling of applying material to a surface. I push the paint around hard. I like that resistance. These things enter into what I’m doing. Do they inform what I’m doing? I don’t think that way.
SO So what is uppermost in your mind?
MG The burning condition of our world. Also, the irresponsibility of political writers.
SO So in relationship to those things, you enter into this arena that is indeterminate, unquantifiable, and all about quality? (laughter)
MG Exactly. It’s an antidote. Think about it. What really bothers me, Saul, is the political climate that we live in in this country. We’re going to have a choice between two of the most inept men I’ve ever read about for president. It has to do with how much money can be raised and how other people do not want to be president and all those other quantifiable things.
SO Well, the inverse of that is the notion of art as either an escape or—
MG A protest. That classical notion of the artist living outside of society, commenting on the society, has disappeared. Even political cartoonists are meager today. I mean, I’ve learned to control my rage, I suppose, at the political power in this country. I can see what I’m doing as commenting on that. But to acknowledge the ineffectualness of that gesture, to taint the art, is to cut your own throat. Then again, you’d like to think that your art is effective in some way.
—Saul Ostrow is a curator and critic. He is presently Director of the Center for Visual Art and Culture as well as an associate professor at the University of Connecticut. Since 1995 he has been the editor of the book series Critical Voices in Art, Theory and Culture published by G+B Arts International. He is art editor for BOMB and coeditor of Lusitania Press, which publishes anthologies on contemporary cultural issues.