I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Michael Goldberg was our hero. Larger than life, he sauntered up to the plate and took on the mantle as our all-American myth because we needed a hero. And when I say we, I mean those of us in the New York art world lucky enough to be his friends. We wanted to believe that mavericks still made their own rules, ones based on reverence—for their craft, their art, for humanity, for the individual, the dreamer, the fighter. All-American because Michael Goldberg had those values and he lived by them. In another language it’s called caritas, the love of community. Mike represented the bravery, the inventiveness, the kind humor, and the tolerance we all wish were still national traits. I pray this has not been lost to us.
Michael Goldberg was first and foremost a painter; dubbed a second-generation abstract expressionist, he certainly personified the ethos. Mike lived large and well and when he didn’t have the means, or the history, he made his world up. It was in making his myth that Mike lived his dream, and in so doing gave us something to believe in. I considered Mike family; that’s how he treated his friends. He was also a sage and worldly contributing editor to BOMB, full of curiosity and vibrant conversation, a great lover of jazz. His interviews would last for hours; and when I’d ask, “But Mike, why?”, he’d always respond, “Because it was all so interesting.” Indeed, they were that and more, because that’s how he felt about life.
The following are excerpts from some of the many wonderful eulogies spoken at Michael Goldberg’s memorial at Saint Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery this past spring, not far from the place where Mike and his wife, the sculptor Lynn Umlauf, lived and worked—Mark Rothko’s old studio. I have included those given by family members and editors and trustees of BOMB.
Frank O’Hara wrote a poem in 1958 “Ode to Michael Goldberg (’s Birth and Other Births).” These are its final lines:
a fleece of pure intention sailing like
a pinto in a barque of slaves
who soon will turn upon their captors
lower anchor, found a city riding there
of poverty and sweetness paralleled among the races without time,
and one alone will speak of being
born in pain
and he will be the wings of an extraordinary liberty.O’Hara’s poem from Frank O’Hara: Selected Poems, Knopf, 2008.
I’m going to speak primarily from a child’s perspective today, because those are my most powerful memories. When Mike first came into our lives 50 years ago, I was only about four and my sister was perhaps two or three. Of course he was courting our mother, and we did not exactly welcome him with open arms. So the story goes. Apparently, we’d run into their bedroom every morning, jump on top of Mike, and start pounding him with our little fists. After all, he was threatening to take our mom away, usurp the role of our father … a double-barreled threat. Now, a lot of men would have gotten very angry or withdrawn. But Mike pulled us aside and said, “I’m going to make a deal with you. I’m going to get you boxing gloves. If you take the time to put on the gloves, you can come in and beat me all you want. But your hard little knuckles kinda hurt.” We’d lace up, and then we’d go inside and BANG, BANG, BANG. Of course, we fell in love with him, even though we didn’t quite give up on our cause. Mike in those days had a lot of very fancy, beautiful cars. One was an old Bugatti; another, an old English Riley. It was absolutely beautiful: royal blue, terrific oak paneling that smelled wonderful, and it had this great canvas roof. One day my sister and I decided that perhaps, if we jumped out of the second-story window of our East Hampton house, through the roof of this car, Mike would get the point and take off. We did it and, amazingly, were unharmed. Mike’s response was to become a permanent part of our lives.
My mother loved to tell the story of how when we were all very young she wanted to take us to a friend’s swimming pool for the afternoon. For whatever reason, she was somewhat trepidatious about approaching Mike with this idea. But, when she asked him if this would be okay, his response was, “Have a ball.” This was an entirely new concept to all of us. Having a ball had never been a priority. But it clearly was to Mike. Mike was so full of joy, energy, and enthusiasm. He was so vibrant, and life excited him so much. He conveyed that to everyone around him. Sometimes that could get a little out of hand. As others have mentioned, his predilection for good food and drink in part was what killed him, but it was also what made him so interesting, exciting, and enthusiastic. It could get away from him a little bit, this energy and enthusiasm. We all know that Mike could embellish upon the truth, shall we say? And that’s partly why we loved him, because he made it all so very interesting.
I can remember sitting around with him in the studio one day. He was going on and on about how the Sheik of Yemen was buying all these paintings and flying him all over the place in his private jet and putting him up in four-star hotels. Very Mike. Finally after about ten minutes of this, I said, “Look, Mike, what the hell is the Sheik of Yemen doing buying all these paintings from a guy named Goldberg?” That famous impish grin began to play across his face, and he said, “I told them my name was O’Goldberg.”
I really did love that man. As a parent he was so giving, so genuine, so supportive. He could be challenging, when necessary, but never in a disparaging way. He didn’t tolerate bullshit, as others have said. He let you know it in a way that didn’t cut you down but that encouraged you to get the best out of whatever it was you were trying to do. Mike made it okay to be me. He had that quality. I am forever grateful to him for that.
I had my last Thanksgiving in the hospital with Mike. It was a small assembly; Lynn, me, and a few other friends. We all brought something and had this little meal. Mike was in his wheelchair. We were in this wonderful I. M. Pei atrium up there at Mount Sinai. Toward the end of the meal, Mike turned to us and said, “This is the best Thanksgiving I’ve ever had.” We all agreed. It was absolutely perfect. Mike was really being Mike, eating a lot, enthusiastic, and excited, just full of life.
I am forever grateful to him. I will love him forever. I will miss him forever. As you probably would say to us, Mike, if you could, toodle-loo.
Michael was a huge human being. He certainly had his demons but he had his angels, too. He played the high notes. He played the low notes. He played all over that keyboard. I first met Michael… (church bells ring) Oh! (bells ring again) In the spring of 1973, I was the oldest graduate student at Wayne State University in the Fine Art department. The department secretaries I knew all referred to me as “our resident hippie.” I also had a vehicle, a Dodge Dart. So I was delegated to go out to the airport and pick up our new visiting faculty member whose name was Michael Goldberg. I’m standing there with the bit of cardboard that says “Goldberg” on it, and suddenly here is this person with a full-attention, military bearing, a little in-your-face, in your space—a cool act. We get in the car—it’s about an hour’s drive into the city, and Michael tells me that he’s had four martinis on the airplane. It’s now 10:30 in the morning. I’m thinking, Who is this wild man? He knows he has to give a slide talk but maybe he thinks it’s just going to be in the classroom. But no, they had booked the Community Arts auditorium that is large and full of people. I’m quite worried about how Michael is going to handle this.
He put up a slide, looked at it and said slowly, “Oh yeah, I remember that one. Maybe it was 1960? 80 × 78? Slightly off-square?” He stood there looking at it for some time, and then said, “Looking at it now, I can see that it’s a total piece of shit.” Well, total silence in the room; you could hear a pin drop. Another long pause and then he turned back to the microphone and sort of bellowed, “But the Albright Knox owns it, baby!” This was just completely horrifying but also so for real. Made an indelible impression, for sure.
Michael taught for that semester—we hung out and became very good friends. When Michael was back in New York he wrote me, “I’ve been thinking you’re somebody who should really be in New York. Why don’t you take my loft for the summer when Lynnie and I go to Italy?” And so I did. That’s how I came to New York and I’ll never not be grateful to Michael for his gentle but spectacular generosity. I want to add that in teaching art there really is no text. In many ways the teacher is the text and we end up teaching a lot by embodiment and example. Michael was a great teacher and we have all learned so much from him.
Mike was a good student. In elementary school, he “skipped” a grade or two as they picturesquely called it back then. He attended Townsend Harris, one of those public high schools requiring an entrance exam that New York has always had for its “best and brightest.” Townsend Harris students completed four years in three. When Mike graduated from high school, he was unusually young and it was the beginning of that ominous summer of 1939 with war clouds gathering in Europe.
The transition between high school and college for Mike was not as smooth as his parents had hoped. Somehow City College didn’t seem to hold much interest for him. Whether it was his gradual discovery of the attractions of Manhattan or clothes or girls or jazz or art, or all of the above, his appearances in his classes became as rare as hummingbirds. When notified, his parents were not amused. One day they caught him in flagrante. He was wearing a zoot suit. Not quite the purple sort with black polka dots that Cab Calloway used to wear at the Cotton Club, but the same padded shoulders, long hip-hugging jacket, draped pants pegged at the ankles, and topping it all off, the wide-brimmed porkpie hat. Whatever else his new suit might have said about the jazz culture, which teenage Mike found almost as fascinating as the music, it was an attention-grabbing style, a wild statement of assertiveness announcing, “Hey world, I’m here!”
Mike was only 18 when in April of 1943 he tried to enlist in the army. His mother wasn’t worried. Given his asthma, she had little doubt the army would ever take her youngster. Surprisingly, it did. Even more surprising to the family was that Mike was never bothered by asthma again. In fact, he seemed to flourish in the military. There were cards and pictures of Mike in camouflage fatigues from strange romantic places like Champaign, Illinois, and Karachi, India.
A fragment from one of those 65-year-old letters to my parents surfaced for me recently, and I’d like to share the end of it with you. Mike had just learned that a good friend of his—an Air Force bombardier—had been shot down over Germany and the family had no idea whether he was alive or dead:
I can imagine the tortures his mother must be going through; but here’s a thought not only for her but for you also—True we’re young, but in the short years of our lives we’ve had a good deal of fun, seen quite a bit, and have had all the care and comfort loving parents could provide—this is war to the death and if some of us don’t come back at least we’ve known good things … .
One day at the end of 1943, which just happened to coincide with my 14th birthday, Mike suddenly appeared in our Bronx doorway blooming in full paratrooper fig, his khaki trousers tucked into his boots, his boots gleaming like mirrors, his overseas cap cocked at a jaunty angle, a crooked smile on his lips. He had a present for me: The Jazz Record Book by Charles Edward Smith, New York, 1943. The inscription read, “On your fourteenth birthday, from your everloving brother.” I was thrilled. At 14, I was a clarinet player in love with Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw. Mike wanted me to check out what was available in Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds, Barney Bigard, and Pee Wee Russell. Cool, but there were two things that troubled me about the inscription. It was addressed “To Gerald,” with a formality I found hard to recognize, and the second was that it was signed by someone named “Micky.”
That was the first time I had ever heard of Micky. My brother’s name was Sylvan, perhaps a parental longing for the pastoral in an urban setting. Whatever it was, my brother apparently had made the same discovery that Samuel Clemens and Pablo Ruiz Blasco and his friend Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg had made. His parents, in labeling him Sylvan Irwin, had given him the wrong name. But I didn’t realize until then that he was seriously looking around for a new one. Or even that you could.
Following a brief period after he returned from the war when he flirted with the waspy name Michael Stuart, he decided that Michael worked well with Goldberg, too. It was also a trochee, so the downbeat was strong, and he could live with it. In fact he did, all the rest of his life … to a jazz beat.
—Gerald Jay Goldberg
Gerald Jay Goldberg’s full text is available on his blog: www.gjgtalksback.blogspot.com.
What I liked most about Mike was that he had a sense of humor. He was as capable of laughing at himself as at anything else. He was also pretty tolerant of everyone else’s faults. I have never been able to take people who didn’t like Mike seriously. I suspect them of having been unable to take a joke somewhere or of being jealous in some wholly inappropriate way—a rage reserved for the humorless.
Mike’s generosity was most apparent in his attitude to other artists and their work. He was as harsh a judge of art as anyone, but, at the same time, was very good at seeing what all sorts of artists were trying to do and wasn’t ever reluctant to accept work on its own terms. He lived to paint and to go out and look at art, and when he went out to look he wasn’t just looking for confirmation. He was, on the contrary, just as excited by work that was different from his own as by work done by people who shared his interests.
Everybody knows that Mike was quite hedonistic in matters of food and drink. Along with his attachment to jazz, this went with his extreme need to be lively and to actually want to be alive. These were things he was keen on that should not be seen as continuous with his work but rather as provisionally necessary to it. Mike felt a need to keep the body open to sensation and also to feel that he was on some kind of edge. I gave up drinking more than 20 years ago and he was very supportive, assuring me that it would be all right as long as I didn’t stop smoking as well.
I don’t know whether it was ever right to call what Mike did in the ’50s “abstract impressionism”—the term doesn’t do it for me. I do think that it is right to dwell on his works’ insistence on making one feel better, on being very full of action and stuff rather than being stingy and nominally critical. Hegel said that the difference between art and criticism is that art puts something into the world while criticism takes something out, and Mike grasped that difference fully.
The only thing he was afraid of was being bored, and he got bored when people began to sound authoritative. He knew that the one thing you ought not to be if you want to talk about art is confident that you know what you’re talking about. That and dullness were the only things that really seemed to set him off. I was once at a party where Mike asked a couple who struck him as not interesting whether they fucked. It was his perhaps rather abstract expressionist way of saying that their conversation indicated that they were insufficiently vibrant. Liveliness was important to him and the alternative was the only thing that caused him real irritability.
Mike was one of those artists who didn’t actually seem to care that much about changing art history. He was more interested in making paintings that would be exciting. Of course, that makes him much more important than anyone trying to fit into a received version of art history—and, in part, more important because of being by definition an at least potential threat to historicist fundamentalists. It also underscores the extent to which not caring about anything except affect was an important aspect of his practice. My own feeling is that his paintings concentrate our attention on what’s happening when we look at them because they preserve very traditional ideas about composition in order to get at the uncontainable.
This afternoon, as I was walking here, an image of Michael from about 25–30 years ago popped into my head. I had gone to the railroad station in East Hampton to pick Lynn and Michael up. They were to spend the weekend with Billy and me. The train arrived, countless people got off. All of a sudden, there was Michael’s big smile. He was carrying a Bloomingdale’s shopping bag. As he got closer, I could see, sticking out of the bag, the head of a suckling pig. Michael knew how to make an entrance. He liked to live large and when it wasn’t large enough for him, he made it up. The things that have always impressed me about Michael were his amazing commitment to his art and his incredible support of his friends. When I left my gallery Michael was there to give me comfort and support. I was changing my life fairly radically and Michael had no trouble dealing with that. Two years later, when the person who had been the backer of my gallery and a deeply close friend stepped out a window, I went to Florence to bury his memories. Michael and Lynn came to let me know that there was still life in New York and that they still cared. I’m not the only one who has received this kind of critical support. I’ve seen Michael give it on a regular basis. He was one of the first to take me seriously in my new role as a writer, for which I was deeply grateful. It’s hard to believe that he could be gone. I went to see him before Christmas and to bring him a book for his birthday. Michael looked frail. He was thin. He was in quite a bit of pain. Things weren’t healing as quickly as they were meant to, but his spirit was right there. He was pissed off at what was going on but he was full of life. He was happy to sit there and talk. He was happy to give as he’d always given—a man of deep beauty.
I asked Lynn if I could wear this cardigan that belongs to Mike. I would sometimes invite myself for dinner at their studio, or he invited me with common friends; I would come in and this is what he would be wearing when he was preparing a roast and Lynnie was preparing some vegetables. There was great care about how much salt would be added to the roast and whether the vegetables were properly cooked. There would also be bickering between the two of them. “Lynnie, come on, you know better.” “No, Michael, this is the way you should do it.” The conversation would go on while I was looking at Mike’s paintings; I would go upstairs to see Lynn’s sculptures and then come down and the question about how to cook the roast continued. Just the right amount of parsley, pepper, and garlic was put in the roast, maybe with a touch of wine at the end, with great attention and consideration. And then we would sit at the table. I would eat a lot of it. There would be mashed potatoes and salad, and some fantastic cheeses at the end. Mike would not touch too much of this food he had cooked with such consideration and attention. Basically, consideration is what characterized Mike’s attitude towards just about everything he did and everyone he met. There was this respect, even when he would bullshit someone or say some other words that should not be repeated in a church, but he would always be considerate, and in a certain way, self-deprecatory. Even when he would look at your work and make you feel that you had not demanded from yourself everything that you should or could have.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee