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Worldly art critic's work resurfaces

Amy Goldin always insisted on the bigger picture. And it changed people's lives.

September 19, 2003|MaLin Wilson-Powell | Special to The Times

If she is remembered at all, art critic and writer Amy Goldin is remembered as the most important theorist of the Pattern and Decoration movement. Golden died of cancer in 1978 at 52. Had she lived longer, she may have been recognized for all of her other passionate and nuanced insights. For many art writers, she's an "ace in the hole" -- someone to read if you want an attitude adjustment, if you want to read a grown-up who isn't writing just about the art world but about the world.

On the occasion of Kim MacConnel's retrospective at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, along with concurrent Los Angeles P&D and New York P&D group exhibitions, Goldin's provocative writings are surfacing again. Three pertinent Goldin essays are included in the MacConnel catalog, along with a bibliography of her P&D-related articles and a finely wrought remembrance by artist Robert Kushner.

Kushner describes their meeting in 1969 at UC San Diego as a "collision." Goldin was a visiting professor whose art history classes mixed the likes of Renaissance court masques with color in Oriental rugs. She always insisted on the bigger picture. All of it. Kushner and MacConnel were in her first seminar, and it forever changed their art.

"I wrote her off as a weirdo," Kushner writes. That was until he read her article on the work of Morris Louis "comparing him in all seriousness to a butterfly. It was witty and to the point. It identified his remarkable strengths as a sensual painter. I was stunned to have found Louis' previously dismissed paintings reinvigorated me."

Goldin's writings snap ephemeral ideas into focus. The overall effect is to give the reader courage to exercise independent thinking.

By all accounts, Goldin had no interest in advancing either herself or her power, or, for that matter, in advancing anyone else. Her blunt and fearless criticism was usually droll and sometimes funny. Her intelligence had bite. In the realm of art writers, she was undomesticated -- of the junkyard dog rather than the lap dog variety. Perhaps she had the luxury of being able to speak her mind freely because she had the cushion of a modest inheritance.

Although she never curried favor in an art world that trades in favors, Goldin wore a T-shirt that read "Critic of the Year" after she received the College Arts Assn.'s 1976 Mather Award for distinguished art criticism. From her first published essay, "The Dada Legacy," in the September 1965 Arts Magazine, to her last, "Manny Farber: Reforming Formalism," published posthumously in the May/June 1978 Art in America, she plainly wrote intellectually ambitious, highly crafted articles. A contributing editor for Arts Magazine, Art News and Art in America, she also had major essays published in Artforum, the leading journal of that period. Yet in 2000 in Artforum's collection of art criticism from 1962 to 1974, not a single one of Goldin's challenging essays was deemed fit to print.

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An education in art

Born in 1924, Goldin was raised in Detroit, then studied art at Wayne State University for two years and then transferred to the University of Chicago, where she concentrated on philosophy. She entered the art world as a painter and studied at the Arts Student League, Black Mountain College, and finally with Hans Hoffmann. She exhibited her work in Detroit, Chicago and in New York City as a member of the Brata Gallery cooperative until she stopped painting in the early 1960s. Besides UCSD, Goldin guest-taught her experimental courses at Northwestern, Virginia Polytechnic and Queens College. Fascinated by Islamic art, she studied at Harvard with the great art historian Oleg Grabar, who wrote her a letter of introduction for an extended trip Goldin made to Afghanistan, Iran and Egypt.

In an unpublished article printed in the MacConnel catalog, Goldin opens with the observation that "If you have more than 30 seconds for aesthetic contemplation, it's got to be rugs. Anything else is too uncomfortable. Contemporary art makes no compromise with the contours of the human mind." She further asserts: "Truly modern art calls for the muscular tautness and nervous rigidity of an ice skater.... It looks pretty funny on people who go to dentists and podiatrists. Rugs are for people sunk in the flesh."

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