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The dark night of Sidney Goodman’s soul

Sidney Goodman at Pennsylvania Academy

5 minute read
‘Head With Red’ (1988): The terror of nightmares.
‘Head With Red’ (1988): The terror of nightmares.
It's rare to see an exhibition of an artist's drawings that are not simply sketches or studies for a subsequent work, but which rather stand alone, as a final form of artistic expression. Such is the case with the current exhibition of Philadelphia artist Sidney Goodman's unique drawings at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Yet it's not the rarity but the power and complexity of Goodman's drawings that make this a must-see exhibition.

Goodman's drawings are so intense in their emotional evocation and execution that it is difficult to turn away from one and move to another. Their intensity derives from the combination of Goodman's dramatic artistic vision with his masterful use of drawing media. He boldly expresses the inner conflicts and anxieties of the human psyche and personal relationships, using techniques that create forceful images that, at times, seem to burst from the paper on which they have been drawn. In these respects, the combination of Goodman's dark, artistic vision with his brilliant technique is reminiscent of the works of Francis Bacon, Goya and Edvard Munch.

Goodman's drawings are fraught with anxiety and conflict. At times, this struggle is portrayed directly and obviously in images of tormented, suffering figures. These function literally and also metaphorically. For example, Luke's Dream and Night Vision are powerful, surreal representations of the fear and terror of nightmares. The large, decapitated head of a man in Head With Red twists in despair from a box constricting his neck.

Twisted bodies, twisted trees

Goodman uses the twisted image of the Laocoon in many of his drawings, in the natural forms of trees, twisted bodies and as backgrounds. It's used symbolically, to great effect, to convey psychic struggles in Man Entwined, where the serpent engulfs the entire body of an unknown man, and in the twisted, snake-like tree that serves as the background for the aged, standing woman who holds onto her wheelchair for support in Artist's Mother II.

Goodman is also a genius in producing ambiguous scenes that are more complex and subtle. His imagery can be mysterious, its meaning uncertain. Through his use of ambiguity, he shifts the tension from the image portrayed to the mind of the observer. These drawings are powerful because they are unsettling, especially in his disquieting domestic portraits. It is impossible to discern if the naked child in The Birthday is happy or panicked, secure or about to fall over the low wall he clutches, into an abyss beyond.

Child Near Source depicts a child dwarfed by a giant tree with a sinister, gaping hole, portending danger.

The portrait of Pam is somewhat reminiscent of Munch's women. She is set against a blood-red background. Her hair spreads out around her powerful face, Medusa-like. Since her eyes are closed, we cannot tell if she is merely dreaming or in pain. In Goodman's work, ambiguity evokes as strong an emotional response as the obvious.

Bacon submits, Goodman confronts

By coincidence, the Met is currently mounting a Francis Bacon retrospective. Goodman and Bacon share common artistic themes of anxiety and personal struggle, but philosophically they're diametrically opposed. Bacon's amorphous forms convey a sense of self-destruction, annihilation and debauchery— the end result of grappling with one's demons. But while Bacon submits to his torments, Goodman confronts them, determined and combative.

Unlike Bacon, Goodman isn't fatalistic. On the Ball, an astonishing self-portrait, shows the artist with fists raised, legs spread in a fighter's stance and standing on a globe. He's ready and determined to take on whatever is presented to him. This engaged and assertive posture is echoed in Goodman's violent drawings of all manner of physical contact— even lovemaking and birthing.

This violent aggressiveness is reminiscent of Goya's etchings reflecting on the brutality of war. Like Goya, Goodman depicts the savagery of struggle, with bloodied, maimed and tortured figures. The difference between the two artists, in this regard, is that for Goya the struggle was political, generated by external events in Spain. With Goodman the conflict is personal: the external expression of an internal, psychic struggle.

Also like Goya, Goodman appreciates the grotesque. Goodman uses caricatures of cartoon figures, such as Mickey Mouse, juxtaposed with scenes of violence or mystery to produce an unsettling effect of horror and absurdity. Goya's etchings of grostequeries were acceptable and a recognizable art form in Spanish culture. But Goodman's deployment of comic book characters out of their cultural context conflicts with popular visual norms— and this dissonance renders his images all the more powerful.

The sparing use of color

The forceful content of Goodman's drawings is matched by their superb artistic technique. The drawings have been executed on large swaths of paper. Some are more than five feet square. The strokes of charcoal, pencil and pastels that have filled the boundaries of the paper were made with as much vigor and force as the images they portray.

Remarkably, Goodman uses drawing media as if they were paint. Charcoal and pastel are used not only to draw lines and light and shadow, but also to saturate sections of the paper, which creates a painterly effect. Color is used sparingly in most of the drawings, but red is clearly Goodman's predominant choice. Goodman's red backgrounds are emotionally expressive, a technique reminiscent of Munch's drawings. When Goodman applies red pastel, he uses it to emphasize an image, to underscore turmoil or to evoke a mysterious atmosphere.

As with Bacon, Munch and Goya, Goodman's emotionally evocative work is "soulful" and, at times, wrenching. Like these three artists, he bears witness to the "dark night of the soul." After this show, there can be no doubt that he belongs in their pantheon.




What, When, Where

“Sidney Goodman: Man in the Mirror.†Through September 20, 2009 at Hamilton Building, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Broad and Cherry St. (215) 972-7600 or www.pafa.org/Museum/Exhibitions/35/.

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