Conversation with Eileen Goodman
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Conversation with Eileen Goodman
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Elizabeth Johnson: The Woodmere Art Museum catalogue, “The Weight of Watercolor: The Art of Eileen Goodman,” includes an early oil painting called Woman (1963-64) that uses dark shadows to model the figure and simplify the background as a mystery. Peter Paone asks, “Why did you decide to shift to painting still lifes”? As your answer you mention being at home with your daughter as a factor, and later, selecting objects for drama and relishing shadows in still life. Is it possible that the mystery of shadow replaced the figure in your case? And could you have been paving your own path against the trend of figure painting dominated by male painters in that era?
Eileen Goodman: Woman was probably influenced by my love of Diebenkorn’s figurative work, which included objects as well. I still think it’s one of my best paintings, and I did do some other figures for maybe a decade or so. I always did a lot of figure drawing. As for male figure painters, the art world in general was dominated by male artists. I began to paint what was around me, things on hand, and it wasn’t for the sake of still life as a genre, but more for how objects were seen and felt.
EJ: Do you feel empathy with domestic objects because they indirectly trigger associations or stories, as compared to identification with figures?
EG: Not in any conscious sense. In the beginning, the objects or subject matter is just that: their arrangement, colors, light, shadow. Any sense of meaning seems to reveal itself after the painting is done.
EJ: Your use of shadow to produce drama intersects with another question: why did you gravitate away from oils and toward watercolor? Does its transparent layering up of pigment give you a more evocative darkness than oils? Does preserving the white in the right places of a watercolor mean something more than applying them at the end, as in oil painting?
EG: I had been doing small-ish watercolors along with oil paintings, almost as an extension of the oils, as another exploration. Then by the late ’80s, I started doing larger watercolors, many were 40 x 60 inches, and there were a few diptychs too. I felt I was getting at something I wanted without having to smell turpentine. And I fell in love with Arches heavy cold pressed paper. Watercolor has its own demands, and the search continued. I liked the idea of accident, but also control. Unlike oils, you don’t apply heavy layers, but rather try to keep a freshness to the paint and paper. I don’t use any opaque paint, including white. So, the paintings are transparent, even in dark areas.
EJ: Was this “something you wanted” the pleasure for controlling light and dark, absorptiveness of heavy paper, and fluidity of watercolor? Is it a tactile thing or something you can almost taste when it happens?
EG: All of this, yes. But with watercolor, I don’t want total control. It’s the tension between accident and purpose that makes them feel like little dramas or tableaux, but their meaning is not spelled out.
EJ: As a watercolorist who works with shadow, what skills or processes do you recognize in the work, say, of Janet Fish who focuses on representing light?
EG: I think my sensibility is more like Joe Raffael. Janet Fish’s work seems cooler overall and patterned more by shape and line.
EJ: Regarding subject matter, you say, in the Woodmere catalogue, “For me, all the works are as much about the painting as they are about the objects’ identities . . . I’m drawn to certain kinds of objects, surfaces, or textures and the way light falls across the object . . . After I finish a painting, the shadows seem to hold meaning.”...
EJ: ...This is so interesting to me that the subjects you paint serve to make shadows or emptier areas of abstract darkness more meaningful.
Have you ever tried abstract painting? Just painting darkness? Would that lack the necessary tension?
EG: The shadows are everything, imbuing unexpected meaning. They are unplanned, undefined, but dependent upon the viewer emotionally or psychologically. Shadows hide and reveal, form emerges and disappears.
I did do abstract painting In school, Abstract Expressionism was in full swing, and although the Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts) had not yet begun offering a major in fine arts degrees and I was an Illustration major, we did have painting and drawing studio classes with wonderful painters like Larry Day, Jane Piper, Morris Berd, and printmaking with Jerry Kaplan and Jacob Landau.
I began to understand that one could actually have a career as a painter.
EJ: Georgia O’Keeffe was a big deal in the ’70s. Did her work resonate with you then? Georgia, Jane, and Morris are abstract. Why did it seem natural for you to pursue realism?
EG: Probably because I started out as an illustrator, and because I loved drawing. But why the choice of that path? That’s the question.
EJ: In the catalogue, you describe your process as: taking your own photos of a set-up, drawing from and integrating a composition from the different photos, and loosely gridding out a preliminary image on the big watercolor paper. Has this process changed?
EG: No, I still almost always take photos. In the beginning I took black and white Polaroids, later using 35-millimeter film printed at 4 x 6 inches. I don’t require bigger images, but often take many of the same set-up, with different views or distances. I crop them, combine several, or alter them. When painting food or flowers, the photos keep the subjects from rotting or dying, and preserve the light.
EJ: Does the surface of the photo influence your painting? Do you feel that photography influences your aesthetic through flattening design, simplifying texture, or selecting blurriness?
EG: I don’t consider the surface, but I do study the photos. Sometimes they’re useless, sometimes they offer more than I expected. What an artist chooses to paint, what path is taken, is mysterious and means everything.
EJ: Does choosing simple domestic subjects feel philosophical to you?
Are you pursuing an unknown that’s always felt, invisible, but right under your nose? If deep focus via watercolor is the means of “getting at something I wanted,” how would you describe that “something” to yourself when things are going right while painting?
EG: When I’m working, I don’t know the outcome or the meaning. It’s only later that I may see them hinted at, or not at all.
EJ: In this same section of the catalogue, you say, regarding shadows, “I might like the way something looks, but I think in retrospect you feel a sense of time passing or mystery.” Does taking time in your process put you physically in step with feeling mystery, and with shadows that are both empty and full of potential?
EG: Yes, that all seems true.
EJ: What artists do you like?
EG: I love so many from different times and genres, everyone from Piero della Francesca to Caravaggio. Leonardo’s drawings. Vermeer is my No. 1 artist/hero. The great watercolors of Sargent, Cezanne, Turner. George de La Tour’s paintings. Morandi’s inexplicable, hypnotic late still lives. De Kooning. Guston. Joan Mitchell. The list is endless.
My other artist/heroine is Mother Nature. She continually amazes me with endless beauty and perfect composition––when untouched by humans––from the biggest view to the smallest detail.
EJ: Quoting again from the catalogue, on watercolor painting and using accidents, you say, “There’s a conversation of sorts, a balance that interests me, and contradictions and oppositions.” In your work I feel a balance of three parts: precise drawing, photographic imagery and accretion of layers of transparent color. If a photographic image speaks to you, yet the watercolor leads in another direction, which do you favor?
EG: The photographs are the launching pad, but the watercolor takes on its own life and shows me what it wants or needs.
EJ: Ornaments seems to repeatedly catch your small, elongated refection. Are shiny things or distortion a new interest?
EG: The ornaments might be the shiniest things I’ve painted. The shadows did look elongated like that, but shapes can change along the way.
EJ: Many of your pictures feature red giving way to black. Blooms and Leaves, Carnations with Baby Eggplants, Geraniums and Leafy Greens, and Pomegranates, Ribbon, and Plums are good examples. Why do you enjoy showing red seeping into or emerging from darkness? It centers warmth in the paintings and is moodier than flowers against lighter backgrounds.
Blue seeps into black in Still Life with Delft, yet it makes a less dramatic statement. Is the distinction just a matter of hot or cool colors working differently with black?
EG: I’m not sure why. Partly it is because I’m attracted to color, surface, pattern (eggplants have it all!). Often the still life in a photo becomes so different when cropped, zoomed in upon, or enlarged, it becomes more dramatic, curious, or inviting.