Goodman’s epic art was large. And contradictory. And contained multitudes. It spanned from serene to apocalyptic; from heroic to demonic; and from deeply empathetic to disturbingly violent.
One of the great pleasures in the arresting art of Sidney Goodman is the profound sense of emotional gravitas that is present. While art is not always an emotional enterprise, it is absolutely consumed with life and death matters for Goodman, as if he, upon a time, dedicated himself to the dangerous mantra of Eros-Thanatos, such as was represented in the famous Durer etching of the skeleton embracing the nude woman. This dramatic conjunction imbues Goodman’s art with an enthralling sense of immediacy and import.
Goodman’s work is highly theatrical, so that to apply the term “realism” is deceptive. Vivid yes, but real not at all is the imagery. Instead of an illusion of the everyday world, he suggests portentous events occurring in apparently mundane situations. This is a typical rendering of the traditional micro- to macrocosm transformation, in which a prosaic moment immediately speaks of larger issues. On the microcosmic level, Goodman’s images are often disturbing: no holds are barred and chaste decorum is anathema. We witness the human struggle to live, bear children, and watch as one’s time passes, even as a child’s time is now. If a background setting is shown, it is usually rather horrific. The urban scene, indeed modernity itself, macrocosmically speaking, is a thoroughly frightening place, full of detritus burning out of control. In this atmosphere, just holding on to another human being for dear life becomes essential to survival. Such situations are at once maudlin and life enhancing, with beneficence, even beatitude, the reward.
Much in Goodman’s work speaks of the Symbolist milieu—of dreams, visions, and bewilderment. The figures possess an inner vision, it might appear. Goya’s Sleep of Reason, wherein the world has lost its sensible bearings and is replaced by irrationality and brutality, offers one characterization of the Goodman sensibility. Night, of course. is the time when dreams, hallucinations, and imagination take flight, and darkness envelops many of Goodman’s images.
Freighted with much from art history beside Symbolism, Goodman’s imagery is permeated at times with Christian iconography, especially as depicted in Italian Baroque art where everyday reality has a spiritual dimension. Hence, there is none of the idealizing character of Renaissance art in Goodman’s work. But Baroque realism had less to do with a type of depiction that fools the eye than with the intense world of disturbing close ups—including, for instance, bloodied heads, animal hindquarters and age lines. Baroque stylization also influenced Goodman in that his art is founded on the dramatic organization of light and shadow contrasts. So thoroughly is his work an art of black and white, especially in drawing, that it explodes when pastel suddenly appears.
Figurative art has been such a third wheel in the modern tendency toward abstraction that at the turn of the millennium the Museum of Modern Art overview of the twentieth century, entitled People, Places, and Things, was something of a revelation. (Like every survey, it left out many important artists among them Sidney Goodman.) Even there, however, individuals were depicted in entirely formalist or neutral terms. Hence sections of the exhibition called “Composing the Figure” and “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” showed artists employing the figure as if it were a still-life motif for pictorial manipulation; “Actors, Dancers, Bathers” dealt with figural spectacle; and “The Language of the Body” illustrated the figure being considered as a metaphor. Never in the course of the exhibition did the viewer encounter human emotions. Moreover, the human condition was submerged altogether. In his prescient book entitled Abstraction and Empathy (1906), the German aesthetician Wilhelm Worringer hypothesized that historical periods which are fundamentally uncomfortable with their institutions and lacking confidence in the human potential for effective, even heroic action produce abstract art, by which he meant styles showing figures either as unrealistically described, or distorted. While Worringer employed the Medieval Period and Egyptian art as his prototypes, he was, coincidentally, predicting the forthcoming age of Modernism.
But a new era has dawned: we live now in a period of ubiquitous figuration. In part—and surely the result of the prevailing usage of video, photography, and the general media overload in contemporary art and life—representational imagery of all types abound in every medium. Where, however, might we locate Goodman? He has none of the hip irony of artists consumed by popular culture and its plethora of imagery. Neither is his work about image manipulation, mechanical reproduction, sociological manipulation of stereotypes, or the deadpan investigation of kitsch. Neither is hyperrealism Goodman’s territory, although it is tempting to relate his work in a limited sense to Duane Hanson, the sculptural master of the human condition who specialized in a social realist cast of characters and was similarly ignored in the mainstream art world. Still, it is useful to join Goodman to Hanson, for behind them both is found Edward Hopper, with hymns to the poetry of the everyday. But Goodman is far more brutal than Hopper and Hanson, as well as bizarre.
A taste for Goodman’s work is reminiscent of the conflicted pleasure found in watching certain films by the German filmmaker Rainer Maria Fassbinder. In the American context, an artistic commitment to problematic subject matter, even if it is life enhancing, is like consuming unpleasant medicine, and is hence not terribly appealing. Nevertheless, the human condition is wondrous to behold and experience. Notwithstanding Worringer’s analysis, there is even a heroism in Goodman’s often tawdry environments. One recalls Willem de Kooning’s ebullient embrace of the vulgar, vulgarity being the shameless expression of the unfettered human being. Goodman’s figures have the authentic humanity and dignity so lacking in any of the figurative emanations found in that Museum of Modern Art survey and it is perhaps time to revel in and celebrate the soulful reality that he so evocatively depicts.