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A Life in the Abstract

War hero. Blue-collar worker. Friend of Rothko and De Kooning. Michael Goldberg has seen and done it all. But it's his Abstract Expressionist paintings that are his lasting legacy.

March 15, 1998|Hunter Drohojowska-Philp | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Michael Goldberg has lived the life of a painter both blessed and cursed by the label "second-generation Abstract Expressionist." Now 74, he waxes philosophical, 'I don't like it and it lumps people together who are dissimilar. But at this point, there is little you can do about it, and I'm not going to waste my time trying to. Critically, there has been a need to invent 'isms,' to get people into categories they can define. The first generation was so successful, that younger people got this pejorative label. By now, it doesn't bother me a hell of a lot."

Recent abstract paintings by Goldberg, who lives in Mark Rothko's former studio in New York, are currently on view at the Manny Silverman Gallery through April 4. In addition, Edizione Primaprint has just published a monograph on the artist's work, "Goldberg Variations," with essays by Los Angeles painter and critic Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, New York poet David Shapiro and Italian art historian Elisabetta Longari.

Although Goldberg had flown in from New York an hour before meeting with a reporter at the Sunset Marquis hotel, he shows no sign of fatigue. "I'm not frail," he quips. He teaches several times a week at New York's School of Visual Arts and, with his third wife, artist Lynn Umlauf, he spends five months a year at a hilltop home in Tuscany. Proof of his unflagging energies can be seen in his canvases slathered with thick brush strokes of black, white and naturalistic color, often supporting a loopy calligraphy. They are clearly the work of a seasoned artist and, indeed, Goldberg has been considered a success in terms of both exhibitions and sales for nearly 50 years.

Sturdily built, with cropped gray hair, Goldberg has a raconteur's demeanor. He sits by the hotel pool in the late afternoon, sipping a glass of red wine, puffing on a Cuban cigar and musing about his past. Asked about the enduring popularity of abstract painting, he says, "I think it's a miracle! But there seems to be enough content in various kinds of abstraction to pursue it. There seems to be a resurgence lately, which is satisfying."

"I'm enough of an old-fashioned Modernist to think that painting can change the world. In terms of our Western society, we have faster means of communication so people don't recognize that they have the need for painting, though the need exists. As an artist, one would like to sell one's work, but to make an art that is believable, that has a presence one can't deny, that, for me, is still very challenging."

A Bronx native, at age 13 Goldberg took Saturday drawing classes at the Art Students League. "They kicked me out after three months for having a fight with the teacher about Titian. I'd seen more Titians than he had and knew more about it," he snorts.

Goldberg's father was a vaudeville dancer, but his mother's family was both wealthy and prominent. As a boy, Goldberg was taken during the summers to Europe with his grandparents. "It was like the Grand Tour. We went to Germany, France, Italy, looking at Old Master paintings," he says.

He attended the abstract painter Hans Hofmann's School of Fine Art in 1941. But, at 17, with his parents' permission, he enlisted for duty in World War II. "I wanted to make the world safe for democracy," he says, slyly. As a first sergeant in the Paratroop Infantry, stationed in North Africa and Burma, he was wounded three times before being discharged in 1946.

Only 21, Goldberg went to Venezuela for nine months to work in the demolition of oil wells. When he returned to New York, he married a dancer with the Martha Graham company.

Complications from his war wounds left him paralyzed on the right side of his body. During his recovery, a physical therapist suggested stone sculpture as a method of reconditioning and retraining his muscles. For eight months, he used a two-pound hammer to chisel at a chunk of Tennessee granite. He regained use of his hand and arm muscles, but the stone proved resistant to his efforts. "I had barely dented it, so I sold it for as much as it had cost me eight months before," he says.

In 1948, the New York art world was polarized. "The uptown camp was socially conscious but figurative and successful. The downtown camp was radical, accessible and there was a camaraderie that made you feel significant," he recalls. He resumed his studies with Hofmann, living off his disability payments. In part, he avoided figurative painting because, he says, he didn't want to deal with his war experiences. "I never thought I'd get out of the war alive."

"At that time, in Hofmann's school, one had the feeling that what one was one doing was vitally important. I couldn't understand what Hofmann was talking about, but he generated a love of art."

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