Monday, March 3, 2008

MICHAEL GOLDBERG (December 24, 1924-December 30, 2007)

A Memorial was held for the artist on March 1, 2008 at St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery. There were tributes by members of the family and friends:

Gerald Jay Goldberg
Lynda Benglis (read by the artist's wife, Lynn Umlauf)
Phong Bui
Janet Coleman
Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe
Klaus Kertess
Luke Matthiessen
Ellen Phelan
Lucio Pozzi
David Shapiro
Larry Osgood
Phil Schrager

In addition, a video entitled Michael Goldberg--Bowery Studio Days (1998-2000) by Bill Page Productions was played. The event was supported by The Poetry Project and Knoedler & Company.

* * *

The following remarks were made by his brother:

There were three boys in the Goldberg family. Mike was the eldest, I came next, and Alan was youngest. Every five years another one of us showed up as punctually as cicadas. We were a noisy, high-pitched, lively crew living at the top of our lungs. Spaced far enough apart to be, vis-à-vis each other, slightly exotic, and not so near that we'd step on each other's toes. Then one day at the end of 2007, December 30th to be exact at 5 A.M.--my birthday, actually--the phone rang, and I discovered I was the only one of us left.

So I thought I'd like to share with you, his friends, gathered here to celebrate Mike, a few private snaps of him--real or imagined--from the family album that I've collected over the years. The first is undated, but must be from 1925 or so. A baby carriage with a very young-looking woman in front of our first-floor apartment on Hull Avenue in the Bronx. It's hot, summer, the middle of the night, and our mom has taken her new unhappy baby outside because in that stifling apartment he was having trouble breathing. Soon she'll learn that her baby has asthma.

Next, a photo of a 4th grade class sitting on the front steps of the local elementary school. In the middle of the group, there's Mike dressed up as Uncle Sam in a wonderful red, white, and blue top hat. The costume handmade by our mom. Staring at the camera, the white-bearded 8-year-old Mike has a no-nonsense look on his thin face.

Mike was a good student. A good kid. A board-eraser monitor. Soon he had, as they picturesquely called it back then, "skipped" a grade or two and was already in high school. He attended Townsend Harris, one of those public high schools requiring an entrance exam that New York has always had for its "best and brightest." A major difference between it and the others, however, was that Townsend Harris students completed four years in three. When Mike graduated high school, he was unusually young and it was the beginning of that ominous summer of 1939 with war clouds gathering in Europe.

The transition between high school and college for Mike was not as smooth as his parents had hoped. Somehow City College didn't seem to hold much interest for him. Whether it was his gradual discovery of the attractions of Manhattan or clothes or girls or jazz or art, or all of the above, his appearances in his classes became as rare as hummingbirds. When notified , his parents were not amused. They had suspected something, and one day they caught him in flagrante. He was wearing a zoot suit. Not quite the purple sort with black polkadots that Cab Calloway used to wear at the Cotton Club in the 1940s, but the same padded shoulders, long hip-hugging jacket, draped pants pegged at the ankles, and topping it all off the wide-brimmed porkpie hat redolent of those worn in the bullring by picadors. Whatever else his new suit might have said about the jazz culture, which teenage Mike found almost as fascinating as the music, it was an attention-grabbing style, a wild statement of assertiveness in dress announcing: HEY WORLD, I'M HERE!

Mike was only eighteen when in April of 1943 he tried to enlist in the army. His mother wasn't worried. Given his asthma, she had little doubt the army would ever take her youngster. Surprisingly it did. Even more surprising to the family was that Mike was never bothered by asthma again. In fact, he seemed to flourish in the military. There were cards and pictures of Mike in camouflage fatigues from strange romantic places like Champaign, Illinois and Karachi, India.

A fragment from one of those 65-year-old letters to my parents--this one written in brown ink on ecru stationery worthy of Brideshead Revisited--surfaced for me recently, and I'd like to share the end of it with you. Mike had recently learned that a good friend of his--an Air Force bombardier--had been shot down over Germany. "Your news," the young soldier writes, "that Lenny might possibly be a prisoner of war is a very bright hope--I'll pray that he is. I can imagine the tortures his mother must be going through; but here's a thought not only for her but for you also--True we're young, but in the short years of our lives we've had a good deal of fun, seen quite a bit, and have had all the care and comfort loving parents could provide--this is a war to the death and if some of us don't come back at least we've known good things....Of course I want to return and I'll do all in my power to insure my return, but Christ!, this is war and anything can happen--God! That's morbid!

All my love..."

One day at the end of 1943, which just happened to coincide with my fourteenth birthday, Mike suddenly appeared in our Bronx doorway blooming in full paratrooper fig, his khaki trousers tucked into his boots, his boots gleaming like mirrors, his overseas cap cocked at a jaunty angle, a crooked smile on his lips. He had a present for me. The Jazz Record Book by Charles Edward Smith, New York, 1943. The inscription read, "On your fourteenth birthday, from your everloving brother." I was thrilled. At fourteen, I was a clarinet player in love with Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw. Mike wanted me to check out what was available in Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds, Barney Bigard, and Pee Wee Russell. Cool, but there were two things that troubled me about the inscription. It was addressed "To Gerald," with a formality I found hard to recognize, and the second was that it was signed by someone named "Micky."

That was the first time I had ever heard of Micky. My brother's name was Sylvan. Perhaps a parental longing for the pastoral in an urban setting. As in "The mossy fountains and the sylvan shades/The dreams of Pindus, and Aonian maids." Whatever it was, my brother apparently had made the same discovery that Samuel Clemens and Pablo Ruiz Blasco and Yitroch Loiza Grossberg had made. His parents, in labeling him Sylvan Irwin, had given him the wrong name. But I didn't realize until then that he was seriously looking around for a new one. Or even that you could.

Following a brief period after he returned from the war when he flirted with the Waspy name Michael Stuart, he decided that Michael worked well with Goldberg too. It was also a trochee, so the downbeat was strong, and he could live with it. In fact he did, all the rest of his a jazz beat.

Mike's Bowery studio was filled with jazz. The picture of Charlie Parker signed "Prez" near the stairs, his huge record collection against the walls. Whether in his style working improvisationally against painterly conventions, which Ken Johnson in a review nicely likens to a young jazz musician's approach to an old standard, or in his subject matter in the paintings he did born out of his enthusiasm for such stride pianists as Fats Waller, Art Tatum, and James P. Johnson, jazz music was close to the bone of Mike's art. On that Friday, July 17th, 1959, "The Day Lady Died," when he had been grieving all day over Billy's death, Mike told his friend Frank O'Hara, "I've been playing her records all afternoon."

On Mike's 83rd birthday, December 24th, 2007, Nancy and I arrived with an armful of flowers for what turned out to be the most bittersweet birthday party that I've ever been to. Lynda Benglis had brought flowers, too, but she had to leave. We were the only guests. Mike was sitting in a wheelchair, his head shaved to the scalp. I kept telling myself Yul Brynner, Telly Sevales, Patrick Stewart, but I couldn't feel it. He seemed so different from the rosy feisty way he had looked in the hospital a few weeks earlier, even after they had chopped off his toes. Even while in intensive care I could hear him thinking: "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger."

But here, too, the flame was still burning and Mike quickly began to cheer up. John Coltrane and tight-lipped Miles were grooving "So What?" in the background to a cool easy beat. There was no room for self-pity. Mike was making plans. He was telling us how he was going to handle his teaching from a wheelchair at SVA, how he had already gotten started on a new painting. Covering his work table were the oil sticks he was now using, big as the cigars he once smoked and thicker than a handful of robustos. Full of life. And Mike was pouring champagne. A bottle of Bollingers that had been highly recommended by his dealer. We toasted him on his birthday.
"Should you be drinking that?" I asked
"Only a sip." He swirled it around in his mouth professionally as if that made it okay. He looked worried. "I don't know. I think it's a little off. What do you think?"
A tad, I thought, though I wasn't about to make a fuss. But the truth is Mike enjoyed making a fuss, one way or the other, about the things he felt mattered. "I'm going to call him," he abruptly announced, wheeling around his chair and picking up the phone. Lynn said, "He's not going to be there at this hour, Mike. They're closed by now."

As it turned out, they were closed. Mike felt much better when Lynn took the lobsters out of the bag and held them aloft. Armor-plated crustaceans, they were enormous and irrepressibly frisky. I could see them getting loose and rumbling across the studio floor trying to make a break for it. Reminded of Annie Hall, we all laughed. It was a great dinner...but Mike couldn't stay to the end. I knew he was in trouble because Mike would never leave a party early--especially when it was for him. Lynn helped him upstairs (patient, dependable, and rock steady as she had been throughout the recent bad patches) and Mike went up bitching all the way.

When Lynn came back down, she smiled as if she had just remembered something. "You know, sometimes..." she said, pointing to the table full of oil sticks, "sometimes when Mike was down here working with those I could hear him from upstairs, and it sounded like he was playing the drums." Nancy and I thought that was just right. Mike had always longed to play an instrument. And whether he painted with a brush or a stick, in the end he did play...and brilliantly.


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