Whitehot Magazine

Donald Kuspit on Surreal Nature: Carol Brown Goldberg’s Entanglement Series

Carol Brown Goldberg, Beverlys Garden


Indeed, the essential discovery of surrealism is that, without preconceived intention, the pen that flows in order to write and the pencil that runs in order to draw spin an infinitely precious substance which, even if not always possessing an exchange value, none the less appears charged with all the emotional intensity stored up within the poet or painter at a given moment….  

Without prejudice to the deep individual tensions that graphic and verbal automatism brings to the surface and is to some extent able to resolve, I maintain that it is the only mode of expression which gives full satisfaction to both eye and ear by achieving rhythmic unity…the only structure that corresponds to the by now widely acknowledged non-differentiation between sympathetic and formal qualities, to the by now widely acknowledged non-differentiation between sensory and intellectual functions….   - André Breton, “Artistic Genesis and Perspective of Surrealism” (1)

Is it diurnal or nocturnal? Is it favorable to love? Is it fit for metamorphosis?  - Salvador Dali, “Psycho-atmospheric-anamorphic objects” (2) 

            Carol Brown Goldberg picks up a color marker and begins to draw, moving her hand effortlessly and swiftly, spontaneously and ceaselessly, seemingly purposelessly yet peculiarly purposeful, as though driven by some unconscious current.  The result looks like writing and drawing simultaneously—the kind of unscripted writing and unforeseen drawing typical of what Breton called automatist experiments, more pointedly psychic experiments.  Pierre Janet’s L’Automatisme psychologique, the fruit of half a dozen years of experimental psychological research with psychiatric patients, was published, to great acclaim, in 1888.  In 1924, in the First Surrealist Manifesto, Janet’s hard-won analysis of the phenomenon of psychological automatism was appropriated, without acknowledgement, by Breton:  defining Surrealism as “psychic automatism in its pure state,” he noted that mesmerists were exemplary surrealists, for they were capable of hypnotizing themselves, and with that lose everyday consciousness and contact and “automatically” express their unconscious.  Goldberg seems to be in a mesmerized state, hypnotized by the movement of her hand, suggesting she is in a state of pure psychic automatism when she makes art.  “My hand is not fighting my thoughts…my hand just moves,” Goldberg writes, acknowledging the automatist impulsiveness that informs her images “after nature,” for all her works are strangely eccentric, not to say bizarre, fantasies of nature.  If Surrealism involves the “resolution of dream and reality,” as Breton writes,(3) then Goldberg’s nature is an absurdly realistic dream.

Carol Brown Goldberg, Magental Moonlight

            Goldberg rationalizes her surreally proliferating nature—unstoppable, seemingly chaotic (dare one say “crazy,” recalling Breton’s view that the Surrealist is peculiarly “mad”)—by arguing that it exemplifies chaos theory.  Each instance of natural growth is supposedly a fractal, one fractal growing out of and entangled in another, each implicated in and inseparable from the other, as though in a rhizome.  For Goldberg nature flourishes with fractal enthusiasm, but her intense colors flood nature’s fractals, adding emotional resonance to their linear form.  According to Janet, the person in an automatist state—a state, one might say, in which reason sleeps and one has irrational dreams, to allude to Goya’s “The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters,” ca. 1799, the seminal work of modern romanticism, with its elevation of feeling over reason, and celebration of feeling as the be-all and end-all of art—is fixated on some idea or vision.  In Goldberg’s Entanglement Series, it is the visionary idea of nature as a relentless, uncontainable growth in perpetually metamorphosing creative flux, emblematic of the creative flux of feeling.  For the romantic, feelings are inherently creative:  creativity begins with feeling and ends with its expression, aesthetically enjoyable art being the most emotionally satisfying  expression of feeling.     

Carol Brown Goldberg, Miami Blush 

            Deep feeling for nature—a natural feeling, as it were—informs English landscape painting, particularly Turner’s; French landscape painting from the Fontainebleau Forest School to Impressionism; German landscape painting, particularly Caspar David Friedrich’s; Swiss landscape painting, particularly Alexandre Calame’s and Ferdinand Hodler’s; America’s Hudson River School painting, particularly the works of Cole and Church; Bierstadt’s paintings of the Rocky Mountains.  Goldberg’s Entanglement paintings are very different:  they’re not landscapes, but portraits, that is, they show us nature close up rather than from a distance, as the other nature painters do.  They tend to offer a sweeping, holistic picture of nature in a grand vista—even in the Fontainebleau Forest School, where the forest is shown in all its sweeping grandeur—while Goldberg establishes an intimate relationship with it.  Both are attentive to details, but the all-inclusive whole seems to matter more for the 19th century landscape painters than the details, while Goldberg relishes and emphasizes—even seems to exaggerate--the particular details, each one uniquely individual, even a rarity.  Their worshipful pictures of the wonders of nature convey its universality, while Goldberg’s wondrous close-ups of bountiful plant life convey its idiosyncrasy.    

Carol Brown Goldberg, Multiple Loves

            Goldberg’s nature is a more personal, humanized nature than their sublime, “inhuman” nature:  if art is a mirror of nature, then the nature art mirrors is human nature, for art is made by and for human beings.  It is a revelation of the nature of the artist who makes it—of the feelings she inevitably projects into it in the act of making it.  The “above it all” nature—impersonally present and heroically grand--of the 19th century painters suggests that they thought they were as sublime and superior as the nature they painted, indeed, God-like, like the God who created nature, as they unconsciously thought they did when they re-created it in art.  In contrast, Goldberg’s close-ups of it, entangling and immersing us in it, force us to commune with it.  Goldberg seems to have no perspective on it—immersed in nature, one is unable to have a perspective on it, stand apart from it and view it in perspective, as the 19th century landscape painters did—which is why her manic nature is more compelling and engrossing, seems to entrap us in its tendrils, absorb us into its matrix.  19th century landscape painting and Goldberg’s nature painting are opposed to the extent of being irreconcilable.  Their different approach to nature bespeaks their emotional difference.  The mood in 19th century is more or less consistently elated, while Goldberg’s oscillation between “nocturnal” and “diurnal” nature—to allude to the Dali epigraph—shows her in perpetual emotional conflict, torn between melancholy and joie de vivre, more pointedly between a premonition of death and a clinging to life. 

Carol Brown Goldberg, She is the Gold and Glittering Moon

In the Extravagant Eden Series and PM Series, both pen and ink drawings on paper, nature is “nocturnal”—black with death, as it were (the sun begins to set in the PM half of the day)—in contrast to the “diurnal” nature in the Garden Series, where the sun shines brightly and seemingly inextinguishably, where all is “morning glory” (whatever patch of depressing black appears in the distance).  Life is boldly and blatantly—unashamedly and insistently—asserted in Beverly’s Garden, Garden Behind the White Picket Fence, The Garden of Enkidu, The Garden of Sumer, The Garden of the Moon-God, The Garden of Uruk, all 2015.  Goldberg’s garden is a hortus conclusus, a sanctuary from the world, where nature flourishes, unrestrained, and one is unencumbered by mundane concerns and at peace with oneself.    

Carol Brown Goldberg, The Biology of Wonder

In the Extravagant Eden works there are wide open white spaces—the empty space of the luminous paper, as much a vacuum as the dense black spaces in the Garden works.  Bringing such vacuous—“dead”—spaces to life by filling them with emotional meaning, as Goldberg does, so that all the areas of the surface—marked by the artist’s hand and unmarked--do expressive work, is the sign of a drawing master.  In The Biology of Wonder, 2017, color—the yellow of the rising sun, the red of the setting sun, and the green of living nature--inform the tangled matrix of organic shapes and tendril-like growths, suggesting a grand reconciliation of art and nature, indicative of their inseparability, both being driven by instinct, both emotionally evocative.  The intricate interplay of black and white in the drawings and of colors in the paintings, and of lines and shapes in both, show Goldberg at her technical best, even as her romantic vision of nature show her at her imaginative best. 

Carol Brown Goldberg, The Garden of Enkidu 

“It is very strange!”, Edmond and Jules Goncourt wrote in their review of the Salon of 1855.  “It is when nature is condemned to death, when industry dismembers it, when iron roads plow it, when it is violated from one pole to another, when the city invades the field, when industry pens man in, when, at last, man remakes the earth like a bed, that the human spirit hastens towards nature, looks at it as it never has before, sees this eternal mother for the first time, conquers her through study, surprises her, ravishes her, transports her living and flagrante delicto on pages and canvases with an unequaled veracity.”(4)  Goldberg’s drawings and paintings of nature show that art can still be true to nature, however fantastic nature has become and unnatural the world has become—much more so than it was when the Goncourt Brothers wrote.  It is an unnaturalness reflected in the bizarreness of Goldberg’s ravishing, bewitching, nourishing, hypnotic, maze-like nature—her weird dream of nature. 

Carol Brown Goldberg, The Garden of Sumer

All of the works in the Entanglement Series have a personal meaning, most poignantly the painting She is the Gold in Glittering Moon, 2018, a “Painting in Honor of Dear Friend, Trish Vradenburg, whom we lost in Spring 2017.”  Less mournful is the painting Thank You Franz, 2016, although the black and white matrix, creating a bleakly gray atmosphere, gives it a melancholy cast, however much the pure white area at the top seems inextinguishably luminous, even as it may be a void—hollow with loss.   Miami Blush and The Sky Has Fallen Asleep, both 2017, and both acrylic on canvas with polymer particles, which catch the light, so that the surface seems inherently luminous, show Goldberg’s use of red and blue.  Like all of Goldberg’s works, they have the look of all-over process paintings—her sinuous lines read as insidious gestures, enticingly erotic yet entrapping, deliriously sensual yet coolly calculated—but unlike the typical all-over painting they are realistic, however strangely, as well as abstract, however subliminally.  The natural forms are abstractly expressive—unmistakably organic yet purely aesthetic.  Goldberg’s is an ideal as well as realistic nature. 

Carol Brown Goldberg, The Garden of the Moon God 

The task of avant-garde painting since Kandinsky, who in his (increasingly dubious) Solomonic wisdom, separated “external necessity” from “internal necessity”—depiction of “not-me” objects and the expression of “me” feelings, to use the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott’s distinction between public reality and private reality—has been to reintegrate them, seamlessly as Goldberg has convincingly done, while underscoring their difference.  The white moon that punctuates Miami Blush and the blue moon that punctuates The Sky Has Fallen Asleep—each moon is a small perfect circle in a grandly empty space, the difference between them seemingly unbridgeable, the tension between them seemingly unmanageable—conveys the irony of her achievement.  Contradiction—incommensurateness—is overcome by a leap of aesthetic faith.

Blue and red infiltrate the surface of many of Goldberg’s paintings, sometimes overlaying and merging with black—fatalistic with death--as red does in Magental Moonlight, 2017, and as blue does in Multiple Loves, 2018.  Red and blue are profoundly opposed symbols.  “Blue is the typically heavenly color,” and as such “tranquil,” Kandinsky writes,(5) while red “is like a steadily burning passion…but can be extinguished by blue, as a red-hot iron by water.”(6)  More elaborately, the scholars Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant write that “blue is the most insubstantial of colors; it seldom occurs in the natural world except as a translucency, that is to say as an accumulation of emptiness, the void of the Heavens….Emptiness is austere, pure and frosty.  Blue is the coldest of colors and, in its absolute quality, the purest, apart from the total void of matt white.”(7)  “Red, the color of fire and of blood and regarded universally as the basic symbol of the life-principle, with its dazzling strength and power, nevertheless possesses their same symbolic ambivalence….Bright, dazzling, centrifugal red is diurnal, male, tonic….Dark red is its complete opposite.  It is nocturnal, female, secret and, ultimately, centripetal and stands for…the mystery of life.” (8) 

Carol Brown Goldberg, The Sky Has Fallen Asleep

This suggests that Goldberg is caught between purity (cold blue) and passion (red hot), and her diurnal male and nocturnal female sides—“psychic bisexuality…a universal human mental disposition…comprising unconscious male and female identifications.”(9)  The dramatic tension and unresolved dialectic between blue and red is played out on the field of nature in her works, each a ritualistic working out and endless rehearsal of the dialectic in an attempt to resolve the difference between them—the difference between artistic heaven (blue) and emotional hell (red).  The drama is enacted on the stage of nature, at once black signaling the inevitability of death and loss and white signaling the possibility of transcendence and salvation—the salvation or survival that eternal art hopefully promises.  However one reads them, Goldberg’s paintings are tense with suffering and energy, the death drive and libido tied together in a Gordian knot, as they are in her nature, which seems to be flourishing and decaying at once.  


            (1) André Breton, ”Artistic Genesis and Perspective of Surrealism,” Surrealism and Painting (New York and London:  Harper & Row, 1972), 68, 70

(2) Quoted in Marcel Jean, ed., The Autobiography of Surrealism (New York:  Viking, 1980), 298

(3) Quoted in Lucy R. Lippard, ed., Surrealists on Art (Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice-Hall, 1970),  15

(4) Quoted in Elizabeth Gilmore Holt, ed., The Art of All Nations 1850-1873:  The Emerging Role of Exhibitions and Critics (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1982), 136

(5) Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, eds. Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (New York:  Da Capo Press, 1994), 182

(6) Ibid., 187

(7) Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, Dictionary of Symbols (London and New York:  Penguin, 1996), 102

(8) Ibid., 792

(9) Psychoanalytic Terms and Concepts, eds. Elizabeth L. Auchincloss and Eslee Samburg (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012), 26   

Carol Brown Goldberg’s Entanglement Drawings and Paintings are on exhibition in Washington, D. C. at the American  University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center from April 5 through May 27, 2018 WM


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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