By CORI HUTCHINSON, April 2019
Caroline Goe - works from the collection of Lynne Tillman
March 16 - May 4, 2019
On one misty spring evening White Columns gathered flock to celebrate and crowdsource on the occasion of their modest showing of the works of sibylline artist Caroline Goe from the personal collection of Lynne Tillman. Tillman opened the evening with a reading from her newest novel, Men and Apparitions. The passage she presented was a meditation on the sublime, garbology, and the “bad” image by Instagram-crazed cultural anthropologist Zeke, the book’s narrator. There are several compelling parallels coaxed to light by the juxtaposition of Tillman’s sharp novel and the budding investigation into Caroline Goe.
According to the press release penned by Tillman, Caroline Goe (previously thought to be Caroline Gee before an Instagram comment correction) haunted a patch of sidewalk outside the St. Marks Bookstore in the mid 1980s East Village. She was blondish, a “bag lady” (notice the bags in her paintings), not particularly stylish nor chatty, as Tillman recalls, but definitively sold her paintings for a dollar or two (so cheap given their spirit that Tillman and other buyers felt that they were almost stealing) until the 90s when she, without word, ceased to occupy her post. Others reported—sort of wistfully—that they remember her in a loose woolen coat blowing one way, her dress blowing another. It is striking that the precise cost of the work is universally the most memorable effort of these transactions, that which remains steely facing the moths of memory.
If an artist is actively self-selling her work during her lifetime, is she still considered outsider? Would there be the same spark of interest in Goe’s work if she were readily available to speak on its behalf? These are questions that mingle within the space. It is especially in the absence of companion text (such as with Henry Darger’s weather journals and epic story) that the outsider artist’s biography holds a privileged position. In the case of Goe, there exist only these belated oral histories by several Lower Manhattan artists of the late 1980s scene (Chris Martin, Robin Winters, and Carol Squiers, among others gradually cropping up) and the work itself to speak for her. Tillman has become almost an ambassador for this Goe club. Director and Chief Curator Matthew Higgs remarked at the event that this situation is conceptually opposite of Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist is Present.” Here, the art and the collector are present, but the artist is disappeared, creating a vacuum for speculation and whimsy. Without delay the foundation for mythology is fortified.
There is for the most part a Caroline Goe shaped hole in art research portals and on the general web. However, some impassioned digging leads one to piecemeal proof of Goe’s existence: a press release featuring Caroline Goe in a 1990 show at The Tartt Gallery in D.C., a bite-sized encyclopedia entry in a 2016 edition of Self-Taught, Outsider, and Folk Art compiled by Betty-Carol Sellen, and a 2017 listing of a painting by Goe titled “The Prophet” on folkartisans.com found using the Wayback Machine which archives ephemeral webpages as they existed in the past. If only there was a comparably useful tool for unearthing items of the mind—something short of hypnosis. Then again, perhaps it’s best to preserve a little shroud.
Sellen’s listing describes Goe as a “classic New York bag lady” lost in 1989 with no telephone. She arranged meetings with buyer and art therapist Barry Cohen by letter. Cohen’s robust collection of folk art was sold when he died, likely with Goe’s work among it. Folk Artisans categorizes Goe within the eclectic section “Religious and Fraternal Folk Art.” Her painting dangles beneath a bottle whimsy with crosses and metal shrine, to the left of a framed crucifix, and above a 19th century carving of the Virgin Mary. The painting’s dimensions (8 1/2” by 12 1/2”) and description (“painted prior to 1986” by “a street person in New York City who works mainly with scrounged materials”) are consistent with Tillman’s account. It is priced at $225.00.
The piece once on Folk Artisans is stylistically compatible with the unframed selection hung with clips at White Columns—even the presentation style maintains ferality. In this painting, a bearded prophet figure hunches over two phallic scrolls in profile. There is a stream of yellow paint spouting from the upper corner bathing the scene in thick, urinary light. The initials “CG” are clearly present amidst the muddiness of color. Goe’s thematics incorporate both Christian and Judaic symbols—a ploy of a salesperson or one representation of utopian divinity?
Among the information offered during the gallery conversation was that Goe claimed to have visions, routing the work from vernacular to spiritual. Goe, after all, is so close to God. Her scenes are fitting of a fabulous mystic. In one painting rendered on gauzy silk, a smiling woman dressed handsomely in cranberry—from umbrella to patented Mary Janes—passes by a church. A gust of wind rendered by slight flicks of color flips her umbrella inside out; the scene lurches toward the cross, even if the figure has moved beyond it.
In another on scrappy canvas, a Snow White-like figure bends beside a pond, feeding four ducks as the sun sets behind. Great care is taken to detail the costumes worn by these figures—the stringiness of Goe’s canvases and stray thread on the fabric scraps are texturally resonant in this way. The concentrated coloring of the garment is scattered throughout the scene: in water-logged leaves, the duck bills, and a transcendent path of white leading from the horizon to the pond.
When Lynne Tillman said with an affect that teetered between jest and sincerity that this showing is “like one searching for their real mother” it was clear that Tillman had really lived with this work. If we can learn anything from Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw (2019), it’s that found art, sundered from its creator, might be cursed. And that curse is only activated when one’s investments in the art fail to pay awe and also actual capital to the artist themselves. I don’t detect any shadowy opacity here, only some penance maybe for the price paid at the get-go. So rest easy. This strange, winsome show is worth seeing for its great unknown, its many nuns and sunny palette, and the very much ongoing conversations in its orbit. It remains on view at White Columns (NYC) through May 4. WM
Cori Hutchinson is a poet, watercolorist, and library assistant living in Brooklyn.view all articles from this author