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Robert Goodnough, at 92; his paintings evolved from abstract expressionism

(Eric Pollitzer/New York Times)
By William Grimes
New York Times / October 15, 2010

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NEW YORK — Robert Goodnough, a painter whose stylistic evolution from vibrant, cubist-inspired abstractions to color field canvases made him one of the least definable members of the second-generation abstract expressionists, died on Oct. 2 in White Plains, N.Y. He was 92 and lived in Thornwood, N.Y.

The cause was complications of pneumonia, said Eric Brown, a partner at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery.

In a career that lasted more than half a century, Mr. Goodnough eluded the neat categories that art critics relied on to codify the work of the abstract expressionists. He moved among the second-generation members of the school but at the same time stood apart, and his work — kinetic, calligraphic dashes of primary colors in his early career, and subtle pastels beginning in the 1970s — often flirted with figuration.

“I like to work freely, to slash with the brush and let loose,’’ he once told an interviewer. He then added, confoundingly, “I also like to work carefully and with discipline.’’

Allergic to self-promotion and stylistically mercurial, he never achieved a success commensurate with his talent, although he exhibited at the blue-chip galleries Tibor de Nagy and Andre Emmerich for most of his career. Instead he achieved the ambiguous fame of being known as one of the most underrated artists of his generation.

Robert Arthur Goodnough was born in Cortland, N.Y., and grew up nearby in Moravia, in the Finger Lakes region. After earning a fine-arts degree from Syracuse University in 1940, he was drafted into the Army and served in the field artillery, painting portraits and murals at military installations.

In 1946 he moved to Manhattan. He studied at the Ozenfant School of Fine Arts and attended Hans Hofmann’s celebrated summer school in Provincetown, where he met the artists Alfred Leslie and Larry Rivers and the critic Clement Greenberg. At meetings of the Club, a famous downtown discussion group made up mostly of abstract painters, he became friends with Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko.

Greenberg and the art historian Meyer Schapiro selected him to exhibit in a group show of emerging artists at the Kootz Gallery in 1950, and two years later he had his first important one-man show, at Tibor de Nagy. He also contributed to Art News, and wrote “Pollock Paints a Picture,’’ one of the most celebrated of the magazine’s artist-at-work articles, with now-legendary photographs of Jackson Pollock in his studio by Hans Namuth.

After receiving a master’s degree in art education from New York University in 1950, he taught carpentry at the Fieldston School in the Bronx until 1960, when he began making a living from his art.

Mr. Goodnough’s earlier work, influenced by Mondrian, Matisse, and synthetic cubism, deployed patches and strokes of paint that suggested tumult and frenetic activity.

In violation of abstractionist orthodoxy, he sometimes embedded images in the complex mesh of what he liked to call “color shapes.’’

In the early 1970s, Mr. Goodnough began shifting toward color field painting, usually executed in acrylic and oil, to which he added his own idiosyncrasies.

In the 1980s, Mr. Goodnough returned to a style not unlike his earliest work.

Although he never received a retrospective at a major museum, in 1969 Mr. Goodnough was given a one-man show at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo to showcase his series of serigraph prints “One, Two, Three (An Homage to Pablo Casals).’’

He leaves his wife, Miko; a daughter, Kathleen; and a brother, Philip.