The chalk of the town

Big-city museum calls for collector's 'Crazy Conductor' blackboard
by: JIM CLARK, John Goodwin bought Gary Simmons’ “Crazy Conductor” in 1993, intrigued by the chalkboard format, the partially erased imagery and its ability to spark conversation. Now New Yorkers get their chance to respond to it while it’s on loan to the Museum of Modern Art.

When a museum with the clout of the Museum of Modern Art puts together an exhibition, it goes to great lengths. In the case of one Portland art collector, as far as his bedroom.

John Goodwin is the proud owner of 'Crazy Conductor' (1993) by Gary Simmons, a smeared chalkboard 'painting' of what appears to be an orchestra conductor, now on loan to the New York museum.

'I thought it was a guy playing a drum with bones, or maybe stirring a cauldron,' Goodwin says. He only knows it's some kind of jungle figure.

The image on the otherwise pristine green chalkboard was deliberately smeared by the artist, then sealed with a fixative. (There's another Simmons in the Jubitz Center at the Portland Art Museum, a blackboard showing just mouths with teeth.)

'I got a call from MoMA, and I thought it was fake,' Goodwin says. 'I said, 'Send me something in writing.' But they followed up, and then the gallery I bought it from, Metro Pictures Gallery in New York, called and said it was legitimate.'

That was last fall, when MoMA was putting together a show called 'Comic Abstraction: Image-Breaking, Image-Making,' which opened in New York on Sunday.

According to the catalog essay, the idea is to show 'how artists - particularly those working in the last 15 years - have used the vernacular language of comics as a springboard for abstraction, not to withdraw from reality but to engage with it more critically.'

The show features 13 artists. Its poster image is by Rivane Neuenschwander, who takes comic strips and removes everything but the background colors and empty speech bubbles. The show includes works by Takashi Murakami, Arturo Herrera and Sue Williams.

Goodwin bought 'Crazy Conductor' for $5,000 in 1993 when he lived in Hawaii, based on slides the gallery sent. When MoMA's paperwork arrived, the gallery valued the work at $55,000. Nonetheless, Goodwin, who works in membership services at the University Club of Portland, collects for pleasure rather than as an investment.

In the chalkboard series, the artist partially erases his work (Simmons wears golf gloves to get the right touch) to make the point that images from childhood can be erased - but not completely.

There's more art in store

Simmons, who lives in New York, often abstracts racial stereotypes, such as white eyes or teeth, from their context. For example, he uses the crows that teach Dumbo to fly in the Walt Disney movie.

Simmons has noted that the crows shucked and jived and had African-American voices. He found that black people remembered this, and others forgot.

'I'm interested in Simmons' feelings. We have similar philosophy,' Goodwin says, noting that at 46 he and the artist are close in age (Simmons is 42).

'People still tease me now, that if I was in the dark you wouldn't be able to see me unless I smiled,' Goodwin says. 'They say, 'John, smile!' ' (He's talking about 'dear friends,' he adds, not strangers.)

'We as kids grew up with these kinds of images. The thinking was you can expose kids to these derogatory images and then say, 'Oh it's just a joke.' And we kind of go for it, but we don't forget.' He adds, 'I don't have a whole big issue with any of it. The N-word, who cares?'

Goodwin's Pearl District loft is filled with art - hundreds more pieces are in storage - including bronzes by Tom Hardy (who did the horses in Pioneer Courthouse Square), wooden bowls by Ron Kent, lots of Stickley and Limbert arts and crafts style furniture and the obligatory Warhol (it's a screen print called 'Mammy' from his myth series).

Goodwin did have one from the Warhol series '25 Cats Named Sam and One Blue Pussy' but sold it: 'I had the pink pussy; I'm not into that.'

Goodwin also collects black memorabilia and art. A carved butler stands by the front door, while in the hall are photos of poor blacks taken in 1938 near his hometown of Laurinburg, N.C. He struck up a correspondence with the (white) photographer Marion Post Walcott in the last few years of her life.

' 'Crazy Conductor' is a fun painting, it intrigues people,' he says. 'People say 'What the hell? Why do you have a chalkboard over your bed?' But then I explain the imagery. It's a conversation piece.'

Art hits the road, carefully

Roxana Marcoci, the curator of 'Comic Abstraction,' travels within the Western Hemisphere to see a painting in person before putting it in an exhibition. However, she had seen 'Crazy Conductor' up close in the 1990s.

'I thought it was one of the stronger pieces,' she says by phone the day after the gala preview last week. 'His work is about how memories are constructed and embedded since an early age.'

Tracking down the piece wasn't hard, because it had been sold only once, and Goodwin didn't take much persuading.

'John was very generous,' she says.

MoMA sent a truck from Los Angeles to transport the work, and others were picked up along the way to New York, where the piece will hang until June.

Collectors sometimes balk at loaning art if there's a conservation issue with their work, usually works on paper - but Marcoci says that 'at MoMA we take the utmost care, nail to nail, of the work. And lenders love to have their work recognized.'

What else is in it for collectors? Goodwin was sent a complimentary copy of the exhibition catalog, an invitation to the opening and passes to the show for himself and family.

Apart from that, there's just kudos. He was a docent at the Portland Art Museum for three years, specializing in groups of high school kids, so he knows the value of letting an artwork be seen by thousands rather than keeping it at home.

'Comic Abstraction: Image-Breaking, Image-Making'

When: Through June 11

Where: Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., New York, N.Y., 1-212-708-9400