Artist Joseph Goldyne is un mai tre du pretension. The prissy art that he produces holds its demitasse just so, curls its little finger and decorates its shallow chat with phrases from the French. Or the Spanish or the German. His monoprints are now on view at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art in an exhibition titled "Familiar but Unique." It might also have been called "Trivial but Precious."
Goldyne is an artist who borrows from his betters. Perhaps to give his viewers a frisson of surprise, or to flaunt his erudition, Goldyne juxtaposes made-up images with others he has taken from Goya or Picasso, Rembrandt or Winslow Homer.
In his "Smog Alert over Santa Monica Freeway -- Turner's Ship Steaming Ahead" (1972-73), a ship that he has copied from the English master J.M.W. Turner sails most incongruously through the California sky while traffic flows below. Though Lindbergh's plane does not appear in his "The Spirit of St. Louis -- Morris Lifted over Caspar Friedrich's Horizon" (1973), a Morris Louis "Veil" does. His "Jolie: P.P. and B.L.T." (1973) shows Picasso's 1930 "Seated Bather" preparing to devour a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. You get the idea.
The catalogue suggests that we read these pale jokes as the artist paying "homage" to his "favorite masters." But do not be misled. It is telling that a human skull, a symbol of mortality, is placed beside a plaything in his color monotype "Toy Mousie Surveying a Vanitas Arrangement" (1976). Joseph Goldyne camps. His art gives equal treatment to the grand and the banal. He refuses to allow us to take the serious seriously, he always undercuts it with the silly or the cute.
Why, the viewer wonders, is this exhibition here? The answer may be curatorial loyalty. Jane M. Farmer, who put this show together, worked some years ago as an associate curator of secondary education at the National Museum of American Art. Maybe she regards Goldyne's "chamber pieces" -- with their interesting techniques and art-historical allusions--as useful raw material for teaching art to kids. She writes that Goldyne's pictures are "beautifully composed jewels that bring together his wide range of interests, his tremendous technical virtuosity and his sense of humor. The works are visually delightful, intellectually stimulating and unabashedly beautiful." She overstates her case. Goldyne, it is true, is technically accomplished, but his little pictures are stuffed with affectations. Their drawing is derivative. Their originality is slim.
Goldyne has had an interesting career. He was born in California in 1942; in 1968 he received a medical degree from the University of California in San Francisco but chose, before taking his state medical boards, to change his career. He received a master's in art history from Harvard University in 1970. He then returned to San Francisco, where he began producing the colored prints on view.
The recent monoprints displayed -- they show cherries on a flan or sweaters in a closet or flowers in a flower pot -- are less pretentious than the early ones, but none of them is more than a pretty little picture. Perhaps this exhibition would seem less offensive if it didn't make one think of all the better artists now working in this country, to say nothing of this city, who have yet to be selected for a solo exhibition at the National Museum of American Art. It will travel to Nashville, Madison, Cedar Rapids, Honolulu and San Francisco after closing here Dec. 5.