Betty Goodwin draws on the skin of things. She makes art with flattened shrouds of disembodied clothes, old vests pressed into paper like dried flowers. She stitches scars onto a black tarpaulin that hangs folded, with ropes dangling, like a stage curtain. She works dark bruises into paper and Mylar. And in her body of work, the body is always making itself felt, as a vessel of memory, the flesh smudged by love or torture. She draws swimmers who may or may not be drowning. Bodies that could be floating or falling. Bones, nerves, phantom limbs illuminated by pain. But behind the dull ache and discreet terror, there is a resilient beauty. And an openness. Her work resonates with echoes of the work being done and undone - the shuddering rhythm of countless erasures, and the presence of penciled figures left unerased from early drafts, like pictographs from past lives.
At the age of 75, Betty Goodwin is an artist in her prime. Visiting Toronto last week to open a landmark retrospective of her work at the Art Gallery of Ontario (Nov. 18 to March 7), this shy, meticulous woman from Montreal found herself deluged by major media attention. "I feel I've been split apart," she said as she sat down for yet another interview, looking frail but thoroughly modern in layers of black, her hair a blaze of copper. "It's like I've won the Nobel Prize or something." In fact, Goodwin is the first winner of the $25,000 Harold Town Prize for drawing. And there is an aspect of lifetime achievement to her solo exhibit at the AGO, which features 71 works spanning four decades. But despite her age, Goodwin is not about to rest on her laurels. As she sits with a glass of water, soothing a voice worn ragged by too much talk, she is eager to get back to work, to retreat to her warehouse studio in Montreal, the city where she was born and raised. "I'm at a point where I really want to dig deep and see how I can go beyond," she says. "I just want to go further and push, push, push."
Goodwin pursues her art with singular perseverance. "She has great determination," says Jessica Bradley, the AGO's curator of contemporary art, who has been exploring her work since 1980. "As sombre as her themes can be, everything she does is so full of this life, this drive." What is remarkable about Goodwin's success is that, in a predominantly male art world where painting rules, she has made her mark by drawing. "She has reinvented drawing as a primary process rather than a preliminary act towards a finished piece," says Bradley. Adds AGO director Matthew Teitelbaum: "At a very crucial time in the development of painting, she told people by her example that drawing was a worthy engagement. It would be hard to think of another woman of her generation who has had a greater effect on subsequent generations of artists."
Goodwin, who abandoned the brush in 1968, feels more comfortable with the direct touch of graphite, powdered carbon or oil stick. "In drawing," she says, "I can pull out what I want. It has an immediacy." Drawing also allows Goodwin to let her work evolve through a constant process of erasing and revision. Often she works on translucent Mylar or Geofilm, rubbing out drafts with turpentine. "Sometimes I'd be left with fragments I wasn't able to erase, or that the turpentine couldn't get out," she says, "and those fragments come right into the work." Consequently, early drafts lie hidden like epidermal layers - faint lines quivering at the edge of a figure, or a blush of color from below.
But there is nothing ironic or cynically postmodern about her method. "She has incredible honesty," says Goodwin's dealer, Jared Sable, whose Sable-Castelli Gallery in Toronto recently opened a wide-ranging show of her art. "When she wants something she will worry a piece of paper to death until she finds it. She comes at you with a raw emotion - I've seen people literally stand in front of her work and weep."
Goodwin does not talk about the personal tragedies that have informed her art. But the basics are known. Her father, who owned a vest factory in Montreal, died when she was just 9. She has been married for 53 years to Martin Goodwin, a civil engineer, and their only child, Paul, died at 30 of a drug overdose. Betty says she was a "spaced out" student no good at anything but art. After graduating from high school, she studied design at Valentine's Commercial School of Art in Montreal, then launched her career as a painter and printmaker in the late 1940s. Painting mostly landscapes and still lifes, Goodwin enjoyed considerable success. But, profoundly dissatisfied with her work (she later destroyed most of it), in 1968 she vowed to limit herself to drawing.
She also took a course in etching. And in 1969, she made a breakthrough by putting a pair of gloves directly through an etching press. Later she used men's vests, turning them into a sequence of haunting images. She concluded the series in 1975 by casting vests in plaster and then, in a funereal gesture, burying them in earth.
Goodwin tends to latch onto an icon - a tarpaulin, a bed, a megaphone - and work it into the ground with a loving touch. Her studio is filled with objects waiting to be used - stones, feathers, industrial artifacts - and her work includes metal sculptures and walled installations of aromatic wax. But the gravity of the human body keeps drawing her back. Goodwin's Swimmers series, which won acclaim in 1983 as part of her first one-woman show in New York City, is among her most sublime works. Whether the swimmers are adrift in an amniotic sea or embalming fluid - or just plain old water - is open to question. In La mémoire du corps, a series of X-ray visions, Goodwin explores submerged worlds of memory and pain. One delicate drawing in pastel and graphite shows the sparrow-thin bones of a leg bisected at the joint by sunset streaks of inflammation. And in her 1993 work Untitled (Nerves, No. 1), a body lies prostrate on the earth, wired to a subterranean maze of veins and roots. The image originated with a photograph that Goodwin took of an eroded cliff in the Dominican Republic.
Although she hails from a community with a strong identity - Jewish Montreal - Goodwin's own roots are not readily visible in her work. The Quebec art scene of the 1950s was dominated by the revolutionary automatiste movement, but "I never felt part of it," she says. Nor is there a sense of Canadian landscape or politics in her work - although her wounded souls would not be out of place in the existential barrens of Atom Egoyan's films or the fiction of Anne Michaels. In fact, the author of Fugitive Pieces penned the introduction to the AGO's Goodwin catalogue. "Her figures," writes Michaels, "are profoundly homeless, in a terrible exile . . . in a zone without landscape . . . a featureless geography."
While the sense of place is elusive, Goodwin's art aches with compassion for a suffering world. "I'm not making a comment about any specific horror," she says, then goes on to talk with despair about Rwanda and Kosovo and ethnic massacre. In a 1998 piece titled But in what terms, a metal saw blade is framed with a dark image of a crouched, blindfolded torture victim and a gold-lettered quotation by Leonardo da Vinci about "abominable and awful evils." But the focus on pain and mourning can be misleading because, as Sable points out, "there's so much affirmation in her work."
You can sense that by watching Goodwin walk through her show at the AGO, her blue eyes sparking with fresh connections. "I learn a lot from my own exhibition," she says, "I see the interaction between works - I'm going to go again tomorrow." Armed with fresh research into the art of Betty Goodwin, she will then go back to her studio, back to the business of drawing a surgical line between life and death.
Maclean's November 30, 1998