‘Still’ the one: Athena Society to buy Goldberg painting

Photo: Kaila Jones          The Athena Society at the Vero Beach Museum of Art has voted. On April 12, the group, 95 member households strong, met over an elegant dinner at the museum to decide on which one of four paintings – vetted by the museum’s director, curator and collections committee – to purchase for the VBMA permanent collection.

The winner was “Still Life with Onion Rolls,” a 1956 abstract expressionist painting by Michael Goldberg offered by the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York, currently on display in the museum’s main hallway. When you see it, don’t fret if you can’t find the onion rolls in the over 6-foot tall, 6-foot wide oil on canvas. The title is a red herring.

As executive director Brady Roberts explains, “You can see it’s a nature-based abstraction, like a Willem de Kooning or a Joan Mitchell. It’s got a little Arshile Gorky in the drippy, thinner parts, but then he’s got that area (in the composition’s right side) of bubble gum pink. When I look at that color, it makes me think of later Phillip Guston. That’s just painting about painting. That’s not a reference to anything other than bubble gum. That’s just a pure painting color.”

In other words, nothing you might think you see in this painting is what it is about. The subject of the painting, hidden in plain sight, is painting itself.

A didactic label next to it advises that the work’s “outbursts of paint strokes and colors indicate Goldberg’s interest in the physicality of the act of painting.”

In 1958 the artist described the act of painting as “a life and death proposition.” He refers to a phenomenon well known by painters determined to break ground, rather than merely cover it. Those artists will tell you that at a certain point in its development, a painting can take on a life – or rather, a will of its own. After that, painting and the painter engage in a battle over the artistic outcome. When it is a large painting, a major work, the contest looks like something between an Apache dance and a prizefight. The match ends in a draw (not good), a crash and burn (not good), or, as “Still Life with Onion Rolls” attests, a masterpiece.

“It’s a great gesture painting,” says Roberts.

Goldberg learned from the best. Based in New York City, he studied under esteemed abstract painter Hans Hofmann, and talked art with Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline; he was a generational peer of Joan Mitchell, Alfred Leslie and Sam Francis.

Roberts notes that while the style of “Still Life with Onion Rolls” may put you in mind of some of those names, Goldberg’s work is ultimately nobody’s but his own.

Three other paintings, all by Americans, were also considered for purchase this year. They can hardly be considered losers; any one of them would be a significant addition to the collection.

Says Roberts, “You never know when some patron saint is going to swoop in and say, ‘I was totally disappointed with the result of the vote, and I think this (or that) painting needs to stay here.’”

Two of those paintings, Doris Lee’s 1942 “Family Reunion,” a Rockwellesque depiction of a family dinner honoring a soldier home on leave, and Sam Gilliam’s 1980 “King of Prussia,” a large, aggressively textural abstract painting, were on offer from Robert Boos of New York. “Desert Towers” of 1937, a haunting depiction of solitude by American surrealist George Copeland Ault, was offered by Debra Force Fine Art, also in New York.

“You’ve got two big, powerful abstract statements and two representational statements of very different nature,” says Roberts.

Alas, this year the Athena Society had only enough funds to purchase one of the works. To understand what kind of spending power was available for the 2019 selection, consider that the society’s 95 member households paid $5,000 each – a grand total of $625,000 – for the privilege of selecting this year’s purchase.

This year the cost of any one of the proffered paintings precluded a second purchase; the Goldberg, however, emptied the account for this year and will dip into the funds allotted for next year’s selection.

A label displayed next to “Still Life with Onion Rolls” explained to the society’s members that, if that painting won the vote, the addition funds needed to purchase it, “approximately $150,000,” would come from part of the funds the Athena Society would raise for 2020.

Is this a major acquisition for the museum?

“Yes,” says Roberts. “What we are looking for, what I would like to see come out of this process, are cornerstone pieces” for the collection.

For a small museum, buying art is “part chess game. (Art) has emotional impact; you can’t help but feel that. But you have to be analytical and strategic about the whole thing too,” he says, adding that how best to employ the museum’s finite resources is the question.

It is “almost impossible” for the museum to afford to buy a great abstract painting by a first-generation abstract artist, Roberts says.

A look at recent auction records for major mid-century works backs up that assertion.

In November 2018, an iconic de Kooning, “Woman as Landscape” (c. 1954-1955), sold at Christie’s New York for a tad less than $69 million. In the same month, that auction house sold a modestly sized (36 5/8 inches x 25 5/8 inches) Jackson Pollack drip painting, “Composition with Red Strokes” (1950) for almost $55.5 million. The last time a significant Kline sold at Christie’s was in 2012, when an untitled 1957 painting sold for $4.5 million. And those were public sales. Information about private sales of valuable paintings is, well, private. It is safe to say, however, that rare paintings by top tier artists are bought and sold for many millions on the q.t. between willing buyers and sellers.

With the Athena Society’s help, the VBMA might be able to acquire, say, an early de Kooning or Motherwell, but those artists’ pre-World War II efforts look nothing like the paintings for which they are known, says Roberts. He notes that Goldberg’s “Still Life with Onion Rolls,” on the other hand, is a major painting by a celebrated second-generation abstract expressionist. He calls the painting “a rare thing to see”: a large painting executed “right in the heart of” the Abstract Expressionist era, with a sterling exhibition history. The latter includes its display in the “Young America 1957: Thirty American Painters and Sculptors under thirty-five” exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Goldberg died in 2007 at the age of 83 after a long career as an abstract painter and teacher. In addition to the Vero Beach Museum of Art, his work has been collected by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., the Walker Art Center in Minnesota, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Whitney Museum of American Art.

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