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Sidney Goodman, In Memoriam

Author: John B. Ravenal, Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Date: 5/3/2013

When the Philadelphia Museum of Art hired me in 1991, Sidney Goodman’s retrospective was already on the exhibition schedule. Mark Rosenthal had initiated the idea and, after he left and Ann Temkin became head of Twentieth-Century Art, it remained on the calendar for the new person. Fortunately the new person was me, as the exhibition offered the opportunity to delve deeply into a forty-year body of work characterized by passion, vision, and mystery. It also gave me the chance to form a friendship with a gifted man who wore his great talents humbly. I sometimes thought—in querying Sidney about the sources or meanings of one motif or another— that he felt as if he were merely a vessel for the powerful images that sprung from his brush and pencil. Eventually I came to understand that his was an intuitive creative process with the capacity to access a deep reservoir of archetypal feeling.

At museums and private homes that I visited while choosing works for Sidney’s retrospective, curators and collectors across the United States expressed great admiration for his work. He was accorded the same deep respect here in his hometown, and I know that both Anne d’Harnoncourt and Ann Temkin—held him in the highest esteem. He, in turn, had sincere respect for his colleagues and students, at PAFA and around Philadelphia. During the exhibition planning process, Sidney was generous with his time and thoughts. Looking at his art with him, sifting through his source materials, studying plans together for the exhibition layout and catalogue— all of this afforded a profound learning experience in how a great artist thinks and works. At the same time, Sidney remained down to earth. He was deeply attached to his wife, Pam, and his children, Maia, Luke, and Amanda, and I know they were always foremost in his mind. He seemed almost bemused by the attention he received for his art, as if it were a nice afterthought, like frosting on the cake after the pleasure—and perhaps the necessity—of creating his images.

And what images he created! Like the great 19th-century American poet, who in his later life lived just across the Delaware River from where Sidney and Pam lived and for whom a local bridge is named, Goodman’s epic art was large. And contradictory. And contained multitudes. It spanned from serene to apocalyptic; from heroic to demonic; and from deeply empathetic to disturbingly violent. His work interwove Christian imagery, Jewish identity, historical events, and a broad repertoire of ancient and modern art—all the while entirely grounded in the objects and activities of our everyday world. His varied sources of inspiration served as the raw material that he fractured, shuffled, manipulated, and, finally, surpassed as he brought forth newly invented imagery manifesting his own unique vision. I feel blessed to have formed a friendship with Sidney, and I treasure the experience of having worked closely with him. Above all, I am thankful that and all of us have the continued opportunity to commune with his beautiful, powerful, and always thought-provoking art.

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