Summary of Ralph Goings
Ralph Goings's photorealist paintings of everyday American life say a lot about the artist himself and his family history, one marked by the poverty of the Great Depression. He painted matter-of-fact, precisely rendered snapshots of the American working class lifestyle in a dignified and poetic manner. While he began his career by experimenting with the emotionally unrestrained, painterly style of Abstract Expressionism, he quickly rejected it and moved onto his trademark style and subject matter grounded in emphatic realism. His precise, detailed approach to painting was in part inspired by the renewed emphasis on Realism in the late 1960s - except that Goings was never particularly interested in critiquing consumer culture. His polished, smoothly painted, hyper-realistic still lifes and genre paintings speak less to edgy, postmodern experimentation and more to the longstanding tradition of virtuoso illusionistic painting. This may explain in part the broad and enduring popularity of Goings's work: viewers have always enjoyed paintings that fool their eyes, that trick them into believing that what they are seeing in a painted image is the real thing rather than just a representation of it.
- Goings created a niche for himself in the Photorealist movement by creating paintings that didn't just fool the eye or ponder the effects of light on various surfaces, but also explored the visual culture of working-class America. His diner, truck, and condiment still-life paintings don't dwell on the great philosophical questions as much as they subtly encourage the viewer to consider the small ones. The daily routine and the person punching the clock are, on the other hand, quietly elevated, dignified. Repeated often as they are, such works suggest that Goings has arrived at some basic understanding of how subject matter and technique can fuse and produce the sort of effect that makes a stack of donuts or a ketchup bottle, beautifully rendered, seem somehow monumental.
- Unlike his Photorealist colleague, Richard Estes, who created his illusionistic paintings by cobbling together multiple photographs to produce a convincingly holistic finished image, Goings typically took single photos of subjects, projected them directly onto his canvas or paper, and proceeded from there. He relished defying prohibitions against using photographs to create compositions of paintings, saying, "That it was a bad thing to do...sort of added to the sweetness of it." In some ways, his work is an homage to the photograph and the illusion it provides of authorial remove and neutrality.
- Born and having begun his artistic career in California, Goings is possibly best known for the sun-drenched images of trucks, trailers, diners and the like from his native state. Whether reflecting the intense light of the hot afternoon sun or shimmering coolly in low winter light, a Goings painting of an Airstream trailer speaks of the terrain and environmental conditions of the California desert, providing the viewer with a very palpable sense of place.
Progression of Art
American Salad has a peculiar, patchwork appearance; portions of the collage-like painting overlap with one another, suggesting a relationship that seems illogical or even absurd. Goings uses different approaches to visual representation to create the separate components: an airbrushed-looking, stylized face smiles radiantly in the lower right. Above it, a blurry picture of a young man with an arm outstretched is seemingly enlarged from a much smaller size and is possibly an image from a newspaper. On the upper left, the arm of the man on the right is fused to a basic, black-and-white rendering of a lower arm and hand holding and pointing a gun. Inexplicably, beneath the pointed gun is a realistically rendered, sliced tomato squeezed into the lower left quadrant of the picture with a kind of washed-out, lemon yellow and white smiling face.
The incongruous, collage-like nature of this work that combines elements of visual culture and objects from daily life is exemplary of Pop art, with which Goings experimented in the 1960s before arriving at his own photo-realistic style. In keeping with the Pop art critique of American visual culture and the oversaturation of images characteristic of the media age, the work combines aspects of the so-called American Dream - for instance, the gleaming smile and the healthy, juicy red tomato - with contrastingly dark aspects of American life such as war and gun violence. Conceptually, this piece functions in the same way as a salad does: several components that are generally unrelated to one another are intended to be consumed as a whole.
Oil on canvas
McDonald's Pickup of 1970 is a visually bottom-heavy composition. A hazy blue skyline surmounts a McDonald's restaurant that seems to be closed for business. The restaurant is surrounded by a small, paved parking lot and a single palm tree establishes the building's locale, which is likely someplace in California. The iconic yellow arches of the quintessentially American fast food restaurant are punctuated by the palm tree, beside which, rising to a towering height, is first the utility pole and next the American flag. On the dirt-and-gravel-covered lot to one side of the McDonald's sits an off-white pick-up truck. A white car parked in the lot behind the restaurant stands as a visual counterpoint to the truck. If these are the vehicles of customers, those patrons are nowhere visible in this picture.
This work, an image that resonates Americana, owes much to the Pop movement, which both paid homage to and critiqued American pop culture. However, unlike Pop, Goings' approach was to lend everyday objects importance without commenting on their significance to consumer culture, particularly not in a negative way. Rather, he tried to elevate the common, which looked a lot like his own life.
Art critic and journalist Edward Lucie Smith remarked on Goings' works, that they reflect "aspects of America that are familiar to most Americans but not usually celebrated in art." His pickup trucks and diners reflect the mobile, freewheeling quality of the American lifestyle. In the United States, if you don't like the place you are in, then there's always a highway that beckons you to go somewhere else."
Oil on canvas - Collection of Marilynn and Ivan Karp, New York, NY
Airstream features an angled view of a sleek Airstream luxury trailer, parked on a gravel lot. At least two or three more such high-end camping trailers are also parked in close proximity to the one in the foreground. The shiny metal surfaces of the trailer reflect its surroundings, although the reflections are soft and indistinct. These reflections, which change depending on the texture and terrain of a given surface, gave Goings the opportunity to create paintings that combined jaw-dropping, hyper-realistic representations of objects and to embed in them an enormous variety of abstract forms that resulted from the interplay of light, shadow, and colors on surfaces.
In the distance, snow-capped mountains line the horizon; in a somewhat nondescript middle ground, telephone poles create a dividing line between wilderness and the civilization of the comfortable trailer. The cool palette and snowy mountain range suggest the desert of the American Southwest in wintertime, rugged conditions contrasting with the protective, interior warmth of the roving home-away-from-home.
The Airstream trailer symbolizes a kind of escapism in which even the less well-to-do could indulge. Recreational camping had, by the time Goings painted this piece, become an American pastime. It provided even the working class with the possibility of leaving behind for a weekend or a summer family vacation the rigors of daily life.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Two Waitresses - Afternoon Break
The reflective chrome countertop and the sharp zigzagging of the black-and-white tiles create a dramatic diagonal that, almost arrow-like, draws attention to the two waitresses for which this piece was titled. Relaxing on the backless bar stools, the women, dressed in stark white uniforms, are either relaxing after a shift or perhaps getting ready for the day. One holds a cigarette while the other sits with a rag draped across her shoulder. Light streams in from windows that extend beyond the painted scene and illuminate the surfaces of the diner's interior.
The oft-repeated subject of American diners is rooted in Goings' personal travels and, aesthetically, in his fascination with light and the visual malleability of objects and surfaces by light. His works occasionally feature human figures as with the two waitresses in this piece. Those who do populate his figural works - most often, denizens of diners and the people who attend to their needs - are members of the American working class. For every Goings painting that hints at human connections via seemingly recently parked vehicles, homes, and camping trailers with closed doors and curtains, there are images such as this one in which the viewer is invited to enter the interiors and join their human occupants.
Goings' respect bordering on reverence of the American working class is reflected in his depiction of these two waitresses: their crisp, white uniforms allude to archetypal associations with benevolence and quiet fastidiousness. The works are less sentimental than respectful snapshots of a way of life that may not seem worthy of memorializing in painting.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Donna and Neil Weisman, New York, NY
In Shanna's Pickup, Goings represents the bed of a white work truck, against the backdrop of a wide dirt road, surrounded by farmland, under a crisp blue sky. The exposed truck bed is battered and rusty, and the lack of a tailgate reveals an array of objects: loose chains, buckets, a fuel tank and other items related to manual labor-based work. There are fresh tire tracks in the foreground of the painting, indicating that the truck might have recently been in motion and is parked only briefly.
Goings' keen attention to the light source lends this ordinary, utilitarian vehicle a kind of monumentality. The title indicates that there's an owner of this vehicle: Shanna, the wife of the artist. The truck seems to stand in as a substitute for her, the person who has just parked her vehicle, including leaving fresh tracks as evidence of her recent presence in the picture frame. The piece is, in some ways, a symbolic portrait of the invisible Shanna, just as other images by Goings are absent of people but the objects that are features of their daily lives are testaments to their existence just beyond view.
Goings' elevation of an object to a more complex status - as a portrait of a specific person and also as a symbol of the American working class - is not dissimilar to the strategy of Pop artists like Oldenburg or Warhol, who explored and critiqued American culture through the lens of mass production and consumption. The objects in the truck become attributes of the overall character of its owner but, in the case of Goings' work, such images are tributes rather than critiques.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Two Shakers Close-Up
This vertically-oriented piece features ordinary, restaurant-style, glass salt and pepper shakers unevenly aligned in front of a shiny, metal napkin holder, with a white paper napkin exposed in the front. In addition to his focus on the various effects of light on reflective surfaces and the way light penetrates transparent objects, Goings' mania for detail prompted him to describe even the granular quality of the salt and pepper inside of the glass shakers with a kind of reverence. Everything is illuminated to the minutest detail; nothing is inconsequential.
One of the most familiar subjects of photorealist painters like Richard Estes, Audrey Flack, Chuck Close and, of course, Goings, was that of metal reflecting light and the abstract forms created in the process. The mechanical look of their precise work, which seemed to be the result of faithfully copied photographs (although that usually was not the case) was in alignment with the machine aesthetic of the 1960s that emerged in response to the physical and emotional sort of free-for-all of Abstract Expressionism that preceded photorealism. Metallic surfaces and particularly chrome, which still evoked the notion of modern materials, seemed to emphasize mechanical reproduction and precision. In this piece, Goings zooms in to an extreme so that the chrome of the napkin holder becomes the surface of the painting itself except the viewer is nowhere to be seen in the reflected world of everyday objects.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
As a painter of still-life imagery, Goings is part of a long tradition of artists from Chardin to Cézanne, Picasso to Wesselman, who zoomed in on the mundane aspects of life, on everyday objects, and made them seem important. His modest still-life paintings of donuts, cups of coffee, condiments, napkin holders, and the like function as intimate, masterfully painted images that evoke thoughts of quiet morning rituals, of the simple pleasures of working-class American life.
With works like this one, Goings has left behind the reflective and usually impenetrable building exteriors and has gone inside. Not only have we glimpsed the waitresses and the working class customers, but we can now get a close-up look at the objects that furnish the interiors, isolated to function almost as icons of a the humble, working-class American ethos. Repeated often as they are, such works suggest that the artist has arrived at some basic understanding of how subject matter and technique can fuse and produce the sort of effect that makes a stack of donuts or a ketchup bottle, beautifully rendered, seem somehow monumental. This modest breakfast stands in for the American morning routine itself. This image of an as-yet untouched donut and a freshly prepared cup of coffee evokes the idea of an individual having a moment of meditation as they prepare for their workday.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Ann and Donovan Moore, Brooklyn NY
Biography of Ralph Goings
Childhood and Education
From an early age, Goings has memories of his father being "a classic victim of the Great Depression." For the working-class at that time, it was extremely difficult to find work; often, temporary or "odd" jobs comprised the only available opportunities for earning even scant wages at the time.
As a favorite pastime, the Goings family - mother, father, Ralph, and his younger brother, would pile into their car and take long drives. On one unfortunate ride, Goings' younger brother, James - just six years old at the time - was thrown from the vehicle and suffered a severe head injury that he later died from. This tragic event caused his parents much grief and was a turning point, which prompted the family to relocate to a neighboring town for a fresh start.
Throughout his formative years, Goings was involved in a number of extra-curricular activities including learning to play several instruments. While art was not a part of formal education at that time, he had a strong tendency to draw in class, against the wishes of his teachers. Goings' understanding of art was rooted in replication. Having spent a good deal of his idle time drawing, he developed what was to be his own, lifelong aesthetic ethos: that drawing was "just a way to figure out how things were - sometimes, how they worked."
By the time he graduated from high school, World War II had just ended and, finally old enough to enlist, Goings joined the army. At the same time, he set his sights on becoming a musician at the end of his military service; an ambition that was short lived when the opportunity to attend college presented itself. Goings enrolled in Hartnell College in Salinas, CA for just two semesters before pursuing an art degree more intently at the California College of Arts in Oakland, CA.
After graduating from art school, Goings accepted a job as a high school teacher, teaching both art and music. While his intentions were to pursue a career as a full-time artist, by that time he had a wife and four children to support, so he chose pragmatism over artistic ambition.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Abstract Expressionism was the most influential, avant-garde artistic movement. Artists such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock were at the forefront of the art scene and, during his art school training in the late 1950s, the only acceptable route to take was that of abstraction. The style never really suited him. He recalled, "Abstract painting just didn't offer me the kind of satisfaction I wanted, so I tried representation."
Around the same time that he moved on from abstract painting, Goings relocated to Sacramento, CA in order to connect with the thriving art scene there, transferring to a new high school to continue teaching while engaging more directly with other artists and an overall environment more conducive to his artistic growth. The move was the first of many that were prompted by pragmatism - finding decent-paying teaching jobs - but it opened up new artistic opportunities, as he was able to join the Artist Collaborative Gallery, which provided him with an opportunity to show his work and engage with other experimental artists.
The move inspired a period of extensive experimentation; his work from that period ranged from thickly coated canvases to Joseph Cornell-style boxes. The range of his experimentation, however, spoke more to his own frustration with his own inability to connect in a meaningful way to the popular styles of the period.
In 1963, Goings had a personal breakthrough in his studio: he was fond of a particular magazine cover and decided to paint it to look as "real" as possible. The exercise was anything but taxing; rather, he found it both challenging and fulfilling and was inspired to find new images, which he could replicate based on his impulse toward precision or, at least, the illusion of precisions.
In 1969, while still working as a teacher, Goings received a surprising and ultimately life-changing proposition from his friend, the successful gallery owner, Ivan Karp. Confident in the artist's potential for achieving critical and commercial success, Karp urged him to quit his teaching job so that he could begin painting full-time and assured the reluctant Goings that, should he take the risk, his work would definitely sell. Goings's first solo exhibition took place in 1969 at Karp's OK Harris Gallery in SOHO in New York City.
By the mid-1970s, Goings and his wife, Shanna moved their family to upstate New York so he could be closer to the New York City art scene, although neither husband nor wife wished to live in the city itself. The terrain of upstate New York suited them and they bought an old farmhouse. Goings converted a barn on the property into an art studio, where he produced the majority of the paintings he made throughout his career.
After having experimented with collages, using images he found in magazines and then producing paintings of single human figures - usually his own students - he arrived at one of his most familiar subjects: pickup trucks. Such things, he said, "that were so common in the environment that people didn't even look at them." These were the paintings that launched his career.
Goings established a method for creating such works: he would take photographs of whatever object or objects he planned to paint and would project the imagery from slides directly onto his canvases (or paper). It was almost a mechanical process, just like the manual technique that he developed in which his brushwork was smoothed over. The goal, explained Goings, "was always to remove myself from my work so that there was nothing, no intermediary between the viewer and the subject of the picture."
As Goings began narrowing the focus of his work in the early 1970s, paintings that most often featured diner culture, (including genre images and still lifes) he found that the guiding force in his work was light and the subtle changes that could affect an entire composition. While he is known for his emphasis on creating complex surfaces, allowing reflections to exist as the abstract aspects of a given work, the artist insists that it isn't surfaces alone that interest him. "I'm fond of the objects, the places and the people I paint," he said in an interview. "They are the ordinary inhabitants of my world and they're loaded with visual excitement for me."
Starting in the mid-1980s onward, Goings and his wife lived both in upstate New York and a second house in Santa Cruz, California. Finally, in 2006 they decided to sell the New York farm and Goings currently resides in California.
In interviews in the early 2000s, Goings spoke about how his works have evolved over the decades of his painting career and the aesthetic refinement that took place as his personal interest and style evolved.
The Legacy of Ralph Goings
Goings was one of a handful of Photorealists who lent the banal, consumer object and the everyday experience a sense of importance that the unbelievable (and deceptive) realism of his paintings seems to demand. By nature of his almost reverential attention to detail, Goings' representations of diner interiors and exteriors, trucks and camping trailers that evoke thoughts of working and middle-class mobility and leisure, and mundane objects like donuts and coffee cups, encourage viewers to consider even the most ordinary things and people "worth looking at," as interpreted by art critic Edward Lucie Smith. This echoes Pop art's obsession with the ordinary but without the persistent critique of consumption. Goings' technique, compared by critics to that of Dutch Masters like Vermeer, emphasizes smoothness over the painterly style of the Abstract Expressionists who preceded him. While the Photorealist movement was relatively short-lived, in part because of "art world politics and taste," argues a New York Times critic, and also due to "the post-60s 'death of painting' and the embrace of different kinds of conceptualism," the importance and reach of the movement can be seen in the works of successors like Richard Prince and Jeff Koons, who enlarged (to extremes) photographs instead of painting them or, conversely, in the work of Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky, whom Louis K. Meisel referred to as "photographers who work like painters."