Abstract Thinking

Springing forth in the post-World War II era, abstract expressionism referred to an art movement growing primarily in New York City. Artists like Aeshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, seeking new directions in art, created a genre focused on the process of creating art while valuing a balance between spontaneity and improvisation. The first wave of abstract expressionists tapered off in the mid-1950s.

Then came the second generation. Many of the artists involved were young men who had fought in the war and were influenced by the raw, provoking work from the likes of Pollock and de Kooning, but were determined to establish their own marks on the style. One such artist was Michael Goldberg.

Goldberg began taking art classes at age 14. In the early ’40s, he studied under Hans Hofmann, an avant-garde artist from Germany considered to be a catalyst for the abstract expressionist movement. Goldberg then volunteered for the Army in World War II, serving until 1946. He returned to New York and to painting, studying at the New York School, an institution closely intertwined with abstract expressionism. Poet Frank O’Hara was greatly inspired by Goldberg, as well as other New York School artists, and his admiration and observations are evident in several of his poems.

O’Hara gives insight into Goldberg’s artistic process in his poem, “Why I Am Not a Painter.” He writes of wandering into Goldberg’s studio one day to find the word “SARDINES” in the painting only to return a few days later to scrambled letters, “‘Where’s SARDINES?’/All that’s left is just letters, ‘It was too much,’ Mike says.”

In the next stanza, O’Hara’s explanation of his own writing process echoes Goldberg’s painting process. The poet finishes with a series of poems, titled “Orange,” without mentioning the word orange once, while Goldberg names the piece “Sardines” despite the removal of the word from the painting. The symbiotic relationship was beneficial to both poet and artist and gives valuable insight into their creative processes.

Though Goldberg discussed art and studied with Pollock, Franz Kline and other “first generation” abstract expressionists, he was labeled “second generation,” a lackluster tag that suggests the later artists could not compete with the mastery of the earlier artists. Goldberg, however, was not limited by the categorization.

“Norman Bluhm, Grace Hartigan and Joan Mitchell resented that second-generation abstract expressionism label,” Goldberg said to curator Saul Ostrow in a 2001 interview for BOMB Magazine. “I never really gave a shit about it. Labels come and go and make no difference to what you’re trying to do.”

Producing art for six decades, Goldberg worked through many transformations and trends. His commitment to abstract expressionism is well known, but his innovation has been overlooked. An exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville is the first retrospective exhibit to encompass the entire span of Goldberg’s career.

“He was actually more of a risk-taker and much more of a pioneer and reinventor,” MOCA Director Marcelle Polednik said. “He experimented with processes and aesthetics, and all of that played into how abstraction continued to be both a vital language for him as an artist and the scope of contemporary art as a whole.”

The exhibit features 38 pieces collected from all over the country, including works that have never been shown and an assortment of others from museums and private collections. In addition to the art, the museum will distribute a publication with illustrations of the exhibit’s works and essays on Goldberg by scholars including Polednik, Klaus Kertess and Karen Wilkin. Polednik said that while an exhibit is shown for only a certain period of time, the publication is the lasting legacy of the project.

“He is an artist who, in his lifetime, definitely had a tremendous impact, and it’s an impact that unfortunately hasn’t been explored up until our exhibition in terms of critical literature and the museum appreciation of his work,” Polednik said.

In his 2001 interview with BOMB Magazine, Goldberg lamented the “roundabout kind of conversation” that he frequently encountered when people viewed his art. Goldberg wanted to invoke a reaction and he wanted to know how people felt.

“You want to shake them and say, ‘Well, what do you think?’ ” Goldberg said, referring to visitors in his gallery.

MOCA’s exhibit gives people the chance to answer Goldberg’s question.