Author: John A. Parks
IN THE POWERFUL CHARCOAL DRAWING Child Near Source, Sidney Goodman depicts a small child standing next to a tree. Shadows play over the boy’s face and the tree trunk, giving the image an almost portentous heaviness. The face of the boy is turned toward us with a curious expression of intensity and innocence. The tree trunk features a dark, coiled hole at its base. It is an image that seems heavily suggestive of meaning. Does the tree represent the source of life, the dark warmth of the womb? Does the child’s isolation and indeterminate expression suggest alienation? Does the image’s seriousness and gravity imply his coming adulthood? Or does it all mean something entirely different? This past summer viewers had the opportunity to decide for themselves when the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia, mounted a major retrospective of Goodman’s works on paper. Covering more than 40, years of work by this internationally famous artist, the show provided a golden opportunity to enjoy and assess his artwork. As for the meaning of the aforementioned drawing, the artist himself is only partially helpful. “I did it from a photograph I took of my son in Rittenhouse Square, in Philadelphia,” says Goodman, who has lived his whole life in the city. “I saw him standing there like that, and it interested me. It started off as an ordinary drawing, but then it began to get very heavy and dark.”
In general, this is Goodman’s strategy. He will often take a photograph of something that is happening near him, when a chance pose, gesture, or grouping becomes suggestive in a way that excites his imagination. “Sometimes I really intervene,” he says. “When my children were small I’d see them playing, and they’d do something that I thought was interesting, and I’d say ‘Stop! Wait!’ and I’d run and get my camera. I always kept this Polaroid around. Then I’d make them do it again. Then I’m orchestrating, adjusting, intervening.” Clearly the artist is interested in moments when occurrences in daily life give rise to visual images that are suggestive of deeper meanings. Such was the case with Boy Holding Batman. “That was also my son,” says Goodman. “He was playing with this toy figure, leaning over a chair, and I just had to photograph it.” Once again the image seems edited and composed in a way that invites interpretation. The composition is decidedly symmetrical—with the boy’s head forming the top of a pyramid—giving the entire picture an iconic presence. A somewhat religious reference might be inferred from the child’s decision to hold the Batman figure in a posture of crucifixion. Or does Batman stand for the strength and power of the future adult version of the boy? Does the toy simply represent the boy locked in his childhood, standing as it does on the soft cushion of the chair? The artist does not seem interested in actually telling us. Rather, he is content to allow the picture to suggest, to ask questions that lead us into new territory.
Similar issues arise in the drawings Girl With String and Maia Holding Cloth. Both pieces show the artist’s daughter taking on a somewhat curious pose, and both arose from chance actions of the girl that were rephotographed by the artist. In Girl With String, the child lies in bed with her eyes closed, her arms out straight as she stretches a single piece of string from one hand to another. Once again the geometric insistence of the composition creates a kind of frontal hierarchy that we often associate with religious art. And once again the meaning eludes us.