If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
Whenever I show the work of Brenda Goodman to a student, they become fixated. It’s something different, something they haven’t seen before. She’s great to recommend to students because she is so generous with advice. “If you’re not experimenting, why are you painting?” she is apt to say. She recommends approaching painting with a wide-open curiosity and a willingness to stretch what you know about what paint can do: breaking rules, inventing, and using a variety of tools and approaches.
As to the unique look of her work, it’s in a class of its own. There is a whiff of the 1960s to the forms (Goodman attended art school in Detroit in the early part of that decade), but there is also a startling freshness to the work. And although there are other painters working today who meld figuration with abstraction, none of them make work that looks like Goodman’s. Her paintings’ seductive, earthy forms speak of the body, and their formal eccentricity is, to me, more than a little queer. But ultimately, I’ve come to accept that her work is a puzzle I will never solve and that its formidable power lies partly in its mystery.
Brenda Goodman is now experiencing a new level of success. Her career began in the early 1960s in her native Detroit, where she was one of the few women artists in the legendary Cass Corridor movement. In 1976, she moved to New York City and in 2009 relocated with her partner to the Catskills in upstate New York. In 2019, she had her first solo show with Sikkema Jenkins & Co., who now represent her work.
Goodman’s show at the Landing Gallery earlier this year, her first in Los Angeles, presented recent paintings along with works dating back to the 1970s. Included in the exhibition were several of her self-portraits, from a series the critic John Yau has described as “one of the most powerful and disturbing achievements of portraiture in modern art.”
I first interviewed Goodman in her upstate New York studio in 2016 for Magic Praxis, a podcast I was co-hosting at the time. Then when my partner, Kate, and I moved upstate a few years ago, Brenda and her partner, Linda, were very welcoming. We’ve enjoyed many meals together, celebrated birthdays, and exchanged studio visits. For the past five years, Brenda and I have been in an ongoing conversation, as artists and as friends. I was happy to recently have the opportunity to sit down with her in her studio for this BOMB interview.
Clarity HaynesYou’ve been painting for over fifty years. You’ve done very little more than paint your whole life it seems.
Brenda GoodmanTunnel vision.
CHYou grew up in Detroit and moved to New York City in ’76, right?
CHAnd here I am. I’ve asked you before: Well, what about the feminist art movement?
CH & BG[In unison] No. (laughter)
CHYou weren’t interested in that; you were in your studio painting.
BGNo. I wasn’t an active feminist, but there was a time when I was a young artist that they were trying to pigeonhole me…
BGI did not want to be put in a box. And I decided to sign my paintings “B. Goodman” because I didn’t need to be talked about as a woman or man. It was about the painting.
CH I mean, it was a very sexist world you were in.
BG I didn’t feel I was a part of the feminist anything or the sexist anything in those days. People ask, “Were you a feminist?” And I say, “No.”
CH I wonder if, partly, you didn’t identify with the women’s movement because it was focused on a lot of concerns that didn’t apply to you. You didn’t really identify as a woman in the same way. Unlike a lot of lesbians of your generation, you didn’t start out by getting married to a man before you came out.
BG I think there was a difference between being a woman, and a feminist, in the ’60s compared to the ’70s. In the ’60s, everything was about art school for me. I just didn’t have the experiences many other women artists had. I became more conscious of feminism and feminist artists when I moved to New York in 1976.
CH Wasn’t the ethos at the time that you shouldn’t paint like a woman?
BG Sam Pucci was one of my teachers at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. One day I was doing a five-by-seven-inch oil on Masonite, and I was using the color lavender. It was a tight and sort of stylized painting, and he came up to me and said, “You’re painting like an old lady.” That statement changed the whole course of my career. I never painted like that again.
CH You and I are of different generations. I came of age in the ’90s, when identity politics reigned, and you came of age in the ’60s and ’70s. You are a lesbian. Do you think that some of that queer sensibility, your embodied experience, your desire, your love, dealing with the homophobic world, is present in your work, which is so personal?
BG Show me one painting where you could pick that out.
CH A lot of your paintings have been about the body.
BG That was more about my body at the time. Right now, there are five little abstract paintings on the wall. Can you pick me being queer out of any of them?
CH But since your paintings are so personal, can you take it out of them? If a heterosexual man does a painting and it’s about his whole self, and that’s supposed to be universal, then why shouldn’t it also be the same for you that your whole self is part of a painting? It’s who you are.
BG Well, yes, in that respect you’re right. I am who I am. I’ve been gay almost or all my life. But my painting is never about that.
CH Right, you’re not trying to focus on that.
BG But it is a part of who I am, of course.
CH I’m thinking of a specific painting. It doesn’t have a title. You showed it to me a couple years ago when you had the old storage space in Margaretville. It’s a large figurative painting of you and your partner, Linda, standing next to each other, naked. And that painting is not on your website, and it’s never been exhibited. But to me, that is a very lesbian painting, and very iconic, so—
BG If there was a show that someone wanted to curate about the body, or of lesbian couples portrayed in a partnership, I would show that painting. It’s the only painting like that I ever did.
CH Given your many recent shows, do you feel like your career has reached a new level?
BG Definitely. It started with getting into the American Academy of Arts and Letters show in 2015 and winning a monetary award for exceptional accomplishment. From there, I joined Jeff Bailey’s gallery, and he asked me to have a show at NADA. I had never been in an art fair before. Sikkema Jenkins saw my work there and so did Beth DeWoody, one of the best-known collectors in the world. She became familiar with my work and bought two of my pieces. And then, a couple of years ago, Sikkema Jenkins, where I wanted a show ever since they began, asked me to join the gallery, and I had a really successful show there in January 2019.
CH In a Lighter Place was the title of that show. The colors in the works were so starkly beautiful and bright, more so perhaps than your previous work.
BG Something shifted in me internally. For most of my career, I had painted what was happening emotionally in my life at the time. My work was like a visual diary.
CH And it often seemed to be about difficult things.
BG Pain and sadness. (laughter) Those are the things I painted.
CH And what would you say the new brighter paintings were about?
BG I didn’t have the desire to go to those dark places anymore. Things had started to happen in my career. I lost seventy pounds, and that was a major shift in how I felt about myself. It wasn’t an easy change to paint more abstractly and not paint anything dark or heavy anymore. I started to worry whether anyone was going to see me in my work like they used to. You know, my self-portraits, they hit you, right? Or when my mother died, I painted all those coffins. Would these new abstract paintings hold the kind of meaning or emotion my figurative work did? But everything I am at seventy-six years old is in the paintings, and even though they’re not gut-wrenching, they’re still me, and all my life experiences are in them.
CH I think they’re still gut-wrenching. They’re human, and that humanity and the joy and the beauty of it also includes sadness; that’s just the way life is.
The way you combine form, color, and texture, even sculptural elements lately, is very specific. There is so much emotion in these abstract spaces—personal experiences like your mother’s death, or your feelings about politics. You did a whole series of oil paintings on paper about 9/11. And you did a work about Trump’s presidency, called Impending (2018). Is our political situation still driving your process? Or what are the recent themes in your work, if there are any?
BG I start with marks on the surface. That’s the beginning. And then I just look at them and start pulling out shapes until they begin talking to each other. And once they start building up a life of their own, I manipulate it until it feels right, until it feels finished. But I don’t try to respond to specific political or emotional events, except in certain situations, like Trump and now COVID-19. Just recently, I began a coronavirus series because it was hard to be in my studio and not paint my feelings about what’s going on.
With Impending, I was making marks all over, and then I saw this shape that looked like it should be black. It just came to me, “That’s Trump.”
CH There’s a very colorful part in that painting—a big blob sort of draped over the lower part, and it has little squares of color.
BG That’s me!
CH That’s you, okay. (laughter)
BG Trump can’t change that.
CH A lot of your paintings juxtapose different elements: a raw, kind of ugly part, and then this window of happy, sweet colors, almost like stained glass, with little geometric pieces next to each other.
BG I used to call that the duality in my paintings: no matter how dark the feelings were, or the imagery was, there was always that little section of hope, like this bright little yellow shape somewhere in the corner.
CH When I visited your studio maybe six months ago, I saw these small huddled masses in the painting, chunky bits of paint and pastel blob-like things. You told me they were made of papier-mâché, which you affixed to the surface. “Those are my comfort shapes,” you said.
BG I said it just like that, I’m sure.
CH I love that they have a name. I’m assuming they’re related to the little windows of hope.
BG Well, in some of the paintings where I used the comfort shapes, there were more difficult elements in the painting.
CH They are comforting because they’re soft, and they’re three-dimensional. They actually rise from the picture plane.
BG Some are papier-mâché and others are oil paint to which I added pumice. I mold them with my hand, pressing them into the surface.
CH Your recent work has more and more of this built-up surface, and it looks soft, very tactile. It invites touch in a visceral way.
BG Yes, but my paintings always have done that. The only difference is the materials now.
CH Your work is known for being experimental, varied, and materials-focused. You paint with oil, but you use it in wildly divergent ways, often in the same painting. Can you describe some of the techniques you’ve used over the years?
BG You got all day? (laughter) I used to paint on canvas, but as my surfaces got thicker, I switched to wood panels, which are more stable than canvas. Recently, I’ve been carving into the wood—first with a linoleum cutter, and later with a Dremel drill. Before I begin a painting, I make marks all over the wood surface. I apply them intuitively, without a particular direction. Different tools get me different thicknesses, depths, and widths of cut line.
Experimenting with materials has always been one of my passions in painting. As an art student, I did studies with all kinds of things that I added to the paint to make it thicker or create a certain texture. I would try coffee grounds, even the detritus from the vacuum cleaner—I stopped doing that because it was really smelly, although it made an interesting surface. I was using marble dust for a while, and I really liked that surface. In 1974, I was having a solo show at the Gertrude Kasle Gallery in Detroit. John Neff, the curator of modern art at the Detroit Institute of Arts, bought a painting out of that show for the collection. It was one of the biggest thrills of my life to walk into the museum and see Brenda Goodman, American, born 1943–. And then, about six months later, they called me and said, “A couple pieces have fallen off the painting.” It was really embarrassing, since texture and surface were so important to me and I had done all these laborious experiments. How could this happen? I found out afterward that marble dust has glass in it. Since then, I tell anyone who’s trying out new materials to stay clear of marble dust. I use pumice now, which is safe.
CHHow do you apply the paint?
BGI use squeegees a lot. I get long ones and cut them down to different sizes. Also foam brushes that you get in the hardware store. I have some radiator paint brushes that you have to hold in a completely different way than you would hold a regular brush. They are shaped to paint behind a radiator. I use my metal cake decorating tools to create a certain kind of line. I work with spatulas, and for the little pieces, I use Q-tips. I also use bristle and sable brushes. I glaze a lot too. Very few schools teach that anymore. There are so many paintings I see where the color is real pasty looking. If only a person could glaze over that, it would just—
CH—brighten it up.
BGBrighten it and make it sparkle and give it that punch it needs. I don’t know what my work would look like if I hadn’t spent years learning about glazing.
CHNow that you say that, I’m looking at a few works on the wall, and indeed it appears you did some glazing over there with some of that yellow?
BGYes, the green is a glaze on the white surface. I use a low-luster, white oil enamel over the gessoed wood panel, which keeps the paint from absorbing into the surface, like it would on canvas. It makes a beautiful surface for glazing.
CHYou use the full spectrum of paint: you use its transparent qualities; you use it as an impasto; you use different materials in it.
BGSometimes all in the same painting. And making that work is not easy. I also use sand. Playground sand.
BGBecause it’s super fine. I also use the ash from our woodstove, when I’m not using pumice—if I want it to be just slightly coarser. I take the ash and sift it to get all the bumps out, and then mix it into the paint. That’s another beautiful surface, and it won’t slip off the painting like the marble dust. The key is to use all those textures while making it work visually.
CH I was looking through your website, which goes way, way back and I saw those 3D boxes. They’re like dioramas. They’re sculptural, but more than anything, they represent a space. There are small objects inside.
BG Yes, that’s when I was working with symbols.
CH They’re very surreal looking.
BG I worked with symbols for a long time. I had symbols for everyone in my life and for myself, and they constituted my first painted self-portraits. And then in 1977, I started making them three-dimensional little boxes, with a scenario going on in each one.
CH They look like paintings that have come alive; the space is real, but it’s still a composition. Space is always key in your work, whether you are representing actual spaces, like your studio, or an abstract one. Sometimes shallow, sometimes like a puzzle.
BG Oftentimes people say my works are like stage sets.
CH As you’re working, are you trying to create a sense of space?
BG I try not to think of anything when I’m painting. I’m a blank and just let the shapes create themselves, create whatever needs to be created at that time. Sometimes I’ll see some spatial thing happening and want to pull it out, make something come forward or go back, but I don’t generally control it too much. I just trust my whole being to make whatever I’m making until it feels right, and space is one component of that. The thing I’m conscious of more than ever—and this has to do with aging—is the rightness of a painting.
CH You did a painting called Possibility of Age (2018), which is very large.
BG One of the largest paintings I’ve ever done, 80 by 144 inches.
CH Why did you title it that?
BG (laughter) If you really want to know, because it was sitting on a ledge, and getting up on a ladder to reach the top is not easy anymore because I need knee replacements. Then there was also a long black shape right at the bottom of the painting that I had to get down on the floor to paint. It had to be a very clean, sharp shape that went for eight feet or so. And that was difficult.
CH You couldn’t lift it up?
BG Well, it was in two parts. It had to be painted across both panels in one movement. Lying down on my side was really painful. I had to keep getting up and down, which made my hip and my knees hurt. I never thought about these things when I was twenty, thirty, forty years younger. It’s just different when you’re older. You have to watch every single step you’re taking, so you don’t fall.
CH One thing I’m impressed and inspired by is that you have always been very prolific. You are no less prolific now than you’ve ever been.
BG Probably more so.
CH You not only continue to make a huge amount of work—and I know there’s a demand for your work now—but you also grow and change with every season. You’re always pushing it, trying new things. And to my eye, you’re always improving.
BG What does that mean, though? Sometimes someone will leave a comment on Facebook or Instagram saying my paintings “get better and better.” How do they know? Wouldn’t I be the one who knows that?
CH Well, what do you think?
BG The paintings are the best I can do in this moment in time, but “better” means that what you did before wasn’t quite as good. So what do you mean?
CH Well, sometimes when an artist reaches a certain age, their work enters this sort of late period, right? And often due to physical limitations, maybe it doesn’t have quite as much oomph as it once did. Or it doesn’t have the ambition and the realization that the earlier work had. When I look at your work, it has every ounce of energy it ever had, and it’s no less ambitious. These don’t look like late paintings to me at all. They don’t look like watered down versions of your earlier work.
BG One word I would use for my paintings now that I never used before is clarity. Your name.
CH Why, thank you. (laughter)
BG You’re welcome. If I had to pick one aspect of what I feel is different in my work, it’s that there’s more clarity and focus than I’ve ever experienced before. And that’s where its strength and its power comes from, and that just happens with every cycle my work has gone through for fifty years. I’m not at the beginning of my career anymore, and I think it all shows up. Or I would say, I’ve allowed it all to show up. I think I’ve always felt confident, but there’s a new confidence in the work that’s just clear to me.
CH That makes sense. With every day you know yourself better. And you know painting so well.
BG Exactly. I’ve painted for so long that when I come into the studio I know all the things I shouldn’t do. I put that whole show for LA together in nine months, and that’s a huge space. The show at Sikkema Jenkins was done in eight or nine months. How did I do that? Well, I’m fortunate and grateful to be able to paint all day.
Given the circumstances of my life, where I haven’t had a nine-to-five job for most of it, or any of it, for that matter, I’ve been able to focus on painting and experimenting. So I’ve made mistakes, a lot of them, and I’ve learned that each work has its difficulties and obstacles, and I just work through them. If a painting’s turning bad, I know what to do. When I step into my studio, I don’t have to go through a slew of unsuccessful
paintings in order to come up with
a good one.
CH Starting out in Detroit, you were part of the Cass Corridor, which was a kind of macho movement, as you’ve yourself said.
BG Well, there were only like three women.
CH And you were doing these surreal works—paintings and sculptures—that were different from everyone else’s.
BG Yes, I was unlike all the other guys who were using barbed wire and things like that. Detroit was a pretty tough city, and their work reflected that. I was doing my symbol paintings, and they were very personal. They had nothing to do with living in Detroit at the time.
CH But your work is tough, I would say.
BG Not when I was doing my symbol paintings; they weren’t tough.
CH No, but now your work is tough. I’m just wondering if the Detroit experience was formative. You were very young at the time.
BG When living in Detroit, while I was doing symbols, I wore blue work shirts with a white t-shirt underneath and Levi’s and a bunch of keys. I don’t know where I got all those keys; I had no reason to have them. I looked tough, and it protected me. Sometimes, walking in the city, I’d see someone who seemed threatening, and I’d just put on my Detroit look, and no one would bother me.
CHYou’re very open about your heroes from the twentieth century—Guston, Dubuffet, Morandi, Ensor, Gorky… Do you feel a part of a community of current painters? Or whose work do you feel you are in conversation with?
BGThat question is always so hard. Because as soon as it’s asked, my mind goes blank.
CH Let’s talk about your self-portraits, which you painted over many years. Some of them were of just the torso, showing the back or the front, and at some point you started abstracting the torso into this blocky shape. I myself have spent a lot of time painting torsos, so I wonder why you focused on that part of the body.
BG There were two series of self-portraits. When I weighed almost 200 pounds, I decided that it was time to, you know, deal with my eating issues—gaining weight, losing weight.
CH These paintings incorporated the full figure. Were they from observation, or were they made up?
BG Sometimes Linda would take a Polaroid of me so I could see the shape, the movement of the flesh. And then I would just let it go from there.
CH In the torso series, why did you leave out the head?
BG The head wasn’t part of the story. I didn’t want to get into making my face because then I would try to make it look like me. That was so not important. I started making myself more abstract.
CH Like a block shape.
BG I loved painting my body when I was heavy. I mean, there was a repulsion, and yet there was something you could really dig into.
CH Do you think your comfort shapes could be related to body shapes? Because there is a comfort to the flesh.
BG They could be. People say, “Oh, those self-portraits, they were something. Why don’t you keep doing those?”
BG And I’m like, you know, screw you. And then I think, Oh, maybe I should. I’ve thought about it, but I have no desire to paint myself as a thin, old person. And I have no desire to go backward.
For over fifty years, I have never, never quit. I’ve had short periods when I couldn’t paint, like when I quit smoking and had to take a nine-month break. But I always picked up again and just kept going, continuing to experiment and take risks.
Clarity Haynes is a visual artist and writer based in New York City. Her work has been widely exhibited and can be found in the permanent collections of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Leslie-Lohman Museum, the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art, Wilson College, the Rena Rowan Breast Center at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, and the Brooklyn Museum’s Feminist Art Base.
Originally published in
Our summer issue includes interviews with Amoako Boafo, Nicolas Party, Brenda Goodman, Odili Donald Odita, Jenny Offill, Craig Taborn, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, and Jibz Cameron; poetry by Safia Elhillo and Nathaniel Mackey; prose by Lydia Davis, Marie-Helene Bertino, and Saidiya Hartman; and more.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.