Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Visual Arts

Volume XXVII Number 2
Spring 2005

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Neil Goodman working in studio
Neil Goodman at work in his northwest Indiana studio.
Photo by Michael Chaseley

sculptures in gallery
Goodman's work on display
Photo courtesy Neil Goodman

A Monumental Landscape

by Debra Kent

"You can be a victim of your landscape," says sculptor Neil Goodman, "or you can be a participant."

One look at sculptor Neil Goodman’s work—metal and massive, with great sweeping lines that echo the scale and precision of barges and steel mills, bridges and cranes—there can be no doubt that Goodman is very much a participant in his landscape.

Goodman’s landscape happens to be the rustbelt topography of northern Indiana where he grew up and has worked since 1979 as a professor of art at Indiana University Northwest. Commuting between his home in Chicago and the Gary campus, the artist has had plenty of time to reflect on an area “where every place,” he says, “is anchored by a steel mill or something industrial.”

Goodman is a long way from his first medium, clay. “A friend of mine took me over to the Union, gave me some clay and sat me down in front of the potter’s wheel,” he says, hearkening back to his undergraduate days at IU Bloomington, where he majored in fine arts and comparative religion.

“I was just so happy being in a studio. I never felt better in my life.” He went on to earn his Master of Fine Arts at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and soon afterward joined the faculty at IUN.

While he says that his attention to physical forms has remained essentially unchanged since those early days at the potter’s wheel, it does take a lot more muscle—and assistance—to produce the monumental bronze sculptures Goodman creates today. The process is strenuous and labor-intensive, not unlike the industry to which he pays homage. He carves his pieces out of wood and wax, creates plaster molds, then casts the final shape in bronze with the help of a local foundry. The tools of Goodman’s trade include a sturdy welder, a grinder, clamps, a hoist, and a good set of hand tools.

Another set of hands also makes it possible to lift and manipulate the huge pieces. “My assistant, Eric Tucker, works a lot harder than I do,” Goodman says. “He’s younger, and it’s good to have someone to work with. It helps you get through the hard labor and all the lifting.”

“I joke that as I’m getting older, my work is getting bigger,” continues Goodman, whose monumental wall relief in Chicago’s McCormick Place is 90 feet long and 20 feet high. But while he says his work has never been about scale, sometimes size really does matter. “If I’m doing a series of works that relate to the landscape, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to make them four inches high. Ultimately, form is always feeling. If the form is right, it creates feeling.”

Goodman’s influences in form and feeling were the Italian sculptor Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966) and the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957), two artists whose work defined modern concepts in sculpture and painting. “As you get older you always return to the fundamental, where you came of age visually, where you developed your own taste, your own identity,” he says. “For my generation of sculptors, it was Giacometti and Brancusi. Both of them opened doors for me. Brancusi opened the door for nonrepresentational work, and Giacometti showed me that one didn’t just make objects but modeled space, that space was an active ingredient in sculpture. Everything I’ve done in my career has been, to some extent, a dialogue with those two artists.”

Goodman consistently attracts public work commissions and is rewarded financially for his art. Besides the McCormick assemblage, Goodman’s most visible public sculptures include a permanent bronze installation at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University; Geography Earth, an interactive large-scale sculpture at the Burnham Park Children’s Garden next to Chicago’s Soldier Field; and pieces in the Dow Centennial Sculpture Garden in Midland, Mich.

Goodman’s current project is the IU Northwest Sculpture Garden, designed to reflect the culture and ecology of the region—an industrial terrain at the eastern edge of a prairie. Goodman’s work for this project is based on his earlier exhibit Shadows and Echoes, in which each piece is a multiple composed of four repeated, mathematically connected elements. (The “shadows and echoes” of the title allude to the repetition within the pieces and to the industrial shapes they echo.) A collaboration with landscape architect Cynthia Owen-Bergland, the garden will include 10 bronze pieces from eight to 13 feet high. When it’s complete, it will be one of the region’s largest public art projects.

A preview of this work appeared at the IU School of Fine Arts Gallery last fall in Bloomington. Gallery director Betsy Stirratt was struck, she says, by the “absolute precise nature of (Goodman’s) visual sense” and the contrast of that sensibility “with the use of such a hard and unforgiving material like bronze.”

Stirratt believes that Goodman is successful because “his work combines the beauty of modern sculptural ideas with a contemporary sensibility. His work is so beautifully composed and formal, yet it refers to the utilitarian and industrial. And,” she adds, “his work is easily understood by people when they encounter it in the environment or in an installation. He has done an excellent job of making bronze sculpture relevant in today’s art world.”

Asked whether he feels constrained by the parameters of creating public art—being forced to consider another’s vision for a project, designing pieces with mass appeal in mind—Goodman takes a sanguine view. “Sometimes parameters give you the most freedom because they give you a framework to work for or against,” he says. “I really like the specificity of public projects. I also like the idea of creating art for a certain community.”

In fact, Goodman asserts, public art is probably the most important venue for artists. “Art isn’t a commodity for me but a way to interact with the world. When you do a public piece, it’s very exciting because it’s going to mean something to people you will never see. You actually have a relationship with people through time and space in ways that a gallery exhibition or private collection will never have.”

Goodman takes a similarly thoughtful approach to his teaching. “I try to teach my students to not be afraid,” he says. “I teach them that some things are going to work out, and some are not. I want to give them a basis in craft and materiality without stifling their ideas about how they see things, how their work can be used. The best art opens new doors for people, creates new ways of connecting with your autobiography, confronting what it’s like to be a person living in a particular place and time. That’s what art is.”

He may be modest or simply realistic, but Goodman says he has no illusions about whether his work will be valued by future generations.

“Just because you’ve done something that’s pretty good doesn’t mean people should hold on to it forever. My public works are designed for their space, and when that space no longer exists, the function of those pieces will also cease to exist. In very few cases does art survive the artist,” he says. “Maybe artists need to think of themselves more like architects, who build buildings that serve humanity, then make room for other architects who suit their time.”

In other words, Goodman cares more about currency than legacy. He is particularly interested in the way an artist adds to what he calls the common “vocabulary” of art, and he sees parallels between artists and scientists. “Doing art is a way of learning about one’s self, one’s world,” Goodman explains. “That’s why the creative arts belong in the university. What we do is similar to what scientists do. We’re creating an interesting pool of information. In both professions you’re always pushing your own knowledge base. You’re always on the edge of growth and change. It’s a very interesting way of living.”

But Goodman notes a major difference between the scientist and the artist: scientists have to prove that their results are replicable. “An artist doesn’t have to do that,” he says. “All you have is a subjective idea about how your piece is working.”

And how does an artist know his piece is working? “You know you’re on the right track if you like looking at your work,” he says. “You have to find it kind of beautiful.”

Debra Kent is a freelance writer in Bloomington and manager of media relations for the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs.