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Barbara Goodstein, ‘The Most Original Sculptor of Her Generation’

Barbara Goodstein, an artist who trained in Mexico, England, and the U.S., whom critic Jed Perl “probably the most original sculptor of her generation,” died on December 5 at age 70, Bowery Gallery announced.

In the three decades she showed at Bowery, which is based in Chelsea in Manhattan, Goodstein regularly exhibited sculptures and reliefs in solo exhibits. “Her interest in art was wide-ranging and eclectic, and extended, in the visual, to the arts of Africa and Asia; to architecture, particularly in indigenous forms, and to painting, both figurative and abstract,” according to the gallery.

She was also influenced in part by her Jewish identity, says Deborah Rosenthal, a painter and friend of Goodstein’s. Rosenthal, who will direct a small foundation from Goodstein’s estate, is also a professor of fine arts at Rider University in New Jersey.

“She was a liberal with a feeling for social justice, and certainly she identified that as coming from being a Jew,” says Rosenthal, who met Goodstein in the early 1970s. At the time, Goodstein was an M.F.A. student in sculpture at Queens College, and Rosenthal was a printmaking M.F.A. student at Pratt. Bowery had already been representing Goodstein in 1984, when it started representing Rosenthal as well.

Goodstein visited Israel when she was young, says Rosenthal, who remembers that the former worked on a kibbutz, although the name escapes her. “Though she came from near Philadelphia, she had lived in New York her whole adult life, and she was a New York Jew, all right — verbal, skeptical, intellectual,” Rosenthal says.

In her exhibition reviews for Art & Antiques and her teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, and the Chautauqua School of Art, Goodstein displayed a “Jewish penchant for explication and exegesis,” according to Rosenthal. “Somehow all this is wrapped up with her Jewishness, as she saw it, and at the same time the sacred Jewish year — the Jewish holidays — were significant to her.” For the past number of years, Rosenthal adds, Goodstein attended her Passover seders.

A particularly striking body of Goodstein’s work depicts, in relief, synagogues and churches in the Catskills. The images, which look at first like white chalk drawings on black paper, are boldly rendered with complexity that is initially masked by an apparent naiveté. The synagogues prominently display Stars of David in their façades, often multiple times in the same building.

In the past decade, Goodstein, who had spent a good deal of time in the Catskills, purchased a home in Tannersville, where she build a studio with a kiln.

“Barbara was very interested in architecture altogether — both the architect-made kind and the indigenous kind, perhaps the latter even more than the former. I think she saw the Catskills synagogues, those plain wooden buildings, as indigenous architecture,” Rosenthal says. “I think she liked that they were evidence of the history of the Jews as farmers and the like in the Catskills, dating from the late 19th and the early 20th centuries.”

Although Rosenthal doesn’t think Goodstein gave her synagogues any sort of special treatment elevated over her churches, she believes Goodstein appreciated the simplicity and plainness of the forms of both sorts of buildings. “She enjoyed, too, their little bits of ornament, such as stained glass,” she adds. “In her churches and synagogues, it’s as if she is shaping and recalling a kind of history of tolerance in rural America.”

Rosenthal, who is toying with the idea of curating a show of Goodstein’s synagogues and churches, isn’t sure how many of each the latter created. But she does think they belong together. “She was attracted, I think, by what religious belief could do to bring people closer to each other, and the church and synagogue compositions demonstrate that attraction,” Rosenthal says.

Bowery Gallery has another show, which Rosenthal will curate, scheduled for October 2016. That show, she says, will represent work from all the periods of Goodstein’s life, and will include all of her motifs.

“Barbara was an artist who leaves a wonderful, mature body of work, and a fascinating and touching part of that is her work depicting synagogues,” Rosenthal says.

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