There’s a haunting montage at the end of director Spike Lee’s 2000 film “Bamboozled” showing archival clips from Hollywood movies in which black Americans are depicted in viciously racist caricature. It’s shameful, enraging, and wholly impossible to look away from. Rewatching the sequence today, in the aftermath of a presidential campaign and election that gave alarming sanction to white supremacists, one can’t help but think that the more things change, the more they stay the same. This same feeling permeated “The Soul of Black Art: A Collector’s View,” a riveting exhibition last fall at UPFOR Gallery in Portland, Oregon. Commingling artwork across an array of media with historical racist memorabilia, the show was startling both for its formalist rigor and its brutal, thematic gut-punch. Curated by Portland-based collector John Goodwin, it consisted largely of artworks that Goodwin and his partner, Michael-Jay Robinson, have amassed during their 34-year relationship. The story of this remarkable collection suffuses the couple’s soaring loft in the Pearl District of northwest Portland.
It began in Goodwin’s childhood in Laurinburg, North Carolina. Born in 1960, he was blessed with a family that nurtured in him an abiding love of the arts. His aunts carted him along to museums, plays and operas. His mother, Lucille Goodwin, took him to yard sales, antique shops, and auctions, and sometimes let him buy small pieces. “I had A.D.D. as a kid,” he remembers, “but going to the auctions helped me focus. Interestingly, the rhythm of the auctioneer’s voice was really calming to me.” He began collecting in earnest, buying trinkets, kerosene lanterns, and small paintings, especially landscapes. “I liked landscapes of open, expansive areas, probably because we were a family of seven kids, and I never had my own space. I was always daydreaming of open spaces.” In high school, he was student-body president and discovered a talent for writing, penning press releases for his local newspaper. In 1980, while earning a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina, he spent a year on scholarship at the University of London and met Robinson, a fashion model who later became a painter. In 1982, they moved to Brussels together, then shortly thereafter to New York, where Goodwin landed a writing job for a burgeoning cable network called MTV.
Two more relocations followed: first to Hawaii, then to Portland, where Robinson continues his art practice—creating mixed-media paintings with richly layered surfaces and raw emotive intensity—and Goodwin works as the senior premium-services manager for the Portland Trailblazers basketball team, serving as a liaison with VIPs who attend the games. It’s a natural fit for Goodwin, with his winning smile, impeccable people skills, and unflagging attention to detail. These attributes, coupled with a concern for the long-term health of Portland’s artistic ecosystem, also serve him well as board member of the Oregon Cultural Trust and the Portland Art Museum Board of Trustees (he is also a board alumnus at Disjecta Contemporary Arts Center).
Although they own art focused around a multitude of themes, the bulk of couple’s collection coalesced over the years around work themed to the black American experience. “It just happened,” Goodwin says. “I was buying what was familiar to me: images that reminded me of where I grew up.” He points out a photograph that hangs on the walls of his upstairs bedroom: a black-and-white photograph by Marion Post-Wolcott taken in Wadesboro, North Carolina, only forty miles from his own birthplace. The photo shows a brother and sister holding hands, walking down a hill, the family home in the background. “To me,” he says, “that’s my sister and me walking to the school bus.” Another piece, a 1938 painting entitled New Orleans, by Ralph Chessé, is a cityscape with a man and woman huddled together on the streetside, washing clothes using old-fashioned tin washboards. Goodwin hung the painting in his bathroom so he could see it in the mirror behind him as he dresses for work each morning. “My grandmother often washed clothes like this in a galvanized tin tub with a washboard and plunger. I think about her when I look at this painting—how hard she and so many folks struggled before me to make my life possible.”
As the collection grew, so did the rationale behind it. “It wasn’t so much that the collecting became political,” Goodwin explains. “It was more about what I wanted to do with it. I wanted not only to have the pieces in my home but to show them to people—to show how things used to be and should never be again.” He is acutely aware of how undervalued work by black artists is, or even work by white artists that portray black people. Why is it, he wonders, that Andy Warhol’s portraits of Marilyn Monroe are so much more expensive—factoring in their dimensions and edition size—than Warhol’s portraits of iconic black celebrities, such as Muhammad Ali and Diana Ross?
He posed these and related issues in “The Soul of Black Art…” at UPFOR, his first exhibition as solo curator. A thoughtfully conceived and invigoratingly hung show, it combined a cross-section of Goodwin’s and Robinson’s collection with works loaned from other collections—featuring historical and contemporary artists of many races and nationalities, among them Kris Graves, Zun Lee, Glenn Ligon, Gary Simmons, and Damon Winter. To commemorate the exhibition, Goodwin designed limited-edition tee-shirts with the words “Lives Matter” printed in black script, a takeoff on the “Black Lives Matter” movement but underlining the idea that all lives matter, regardless of color or creed. Proceeds from the shirts benefit two Portland charities, New Avenues for Youth and Black Parent Initiative.
He also gave talks and walk-throughs of the critically praised exhibition to high-school and college students, sharing the stories behind key pieces. Crazy Conductor, for example, is a 1993 smeared-chalk work by Gary Simmons, which Goodwin’s friend and art-world mentor, the late Portland collector Ed Cauduro, helped him purchase from Metro Pictures Gallery in New York City. In 2007, Goodwin loaned the piece to the Museum of Modern Art for the exhibition “Comic Abstraction: Image-Breaking, Image-Making.” Other highlights of “The Soul of Black Art…” included the ravishing portrait Strength (1994), by Robinson and a 1939 photograph by Post-Wolcott of a man walking up a “colored-only” stairwell in Mississippi, strikingly counterposed against a 2012 image by Damon Winter of President Barack Obama walking up the stairwell of Air Force One. The show also featured pieces from Goodwin’s collection of racist antiquities, among them a “Jolly Nigger” toy bank from the 1890s, “Mammy” cookie jars, and “Hitchin’ Boy” sculptures, all of which traffic in crude stereotypes and which Goodwin views as conversation-openers for discussions about race relations.
What’s on Goodwin’s wish list for future acquisitions? He really wants a piece by the late artist Romare Bearden and a piece by contemporary sculptor Richard Hunt. He’s also pushing for one of Hunt’s sculptures to become part of the Portland Art Museum’s permanent collection and to be displayed in one of the museum’s public areas. “One of the reasons I like Richard Hunt,” he notes, “is that he’s an African-American artist, but when you look at the work, you don’t know it. It’s uplifting, it’s majestic, it’s fluid, but it’s not like, ‘A black person did that.’ I would love for the way we describe art to move more in that direction.”