Artist Brett Goodroad can still recall the bizarre feeling he had when he completed his 2021 solo show at Cushion Works in San Francisco. “There’s this strange thing that happens, and I’m sure other painters will talk about it: you go to the opening of all this work that you’ve done, and you have this moment of incredible alienation,” he said in an interview. “You can’t understand the work for a while.” The mood was made only more atypical by the arrival of an unexpected visitor: the New Yorker critic Hilton Als. “All of a sudden Hilton comes bursting out of the front door. He just praised me and said all these wonderful compliments and then jumped in an Uber and drove off.”
Als, the Pulitzer Prize–winning writer who has forayed into art curating, with a buzzy exhibition about the life of Joan Didion now on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, made that praise public in a New Yorker review of the show. He revealed that he’d connected with Jordan Stein, the founder of Cushion Works, whom Als had previously befriended in New York, and that Stein convinced him to see the exhibition.
It was there that Als first encountered Goodroad’s paintings, which the artist creates en plein air. The paintings in the show from last year featured diffuse, muddy hues that suggest San Francisco’s characteristic fog, and they often verge on abstraction. Als praised them as “savory, like something you want to taste for yourself, in part for sustenance and in part to become a better person.” Looking back on Als’s visit, Stein told ARTnews that it “changed Brett’s life.”
Als has returned to Goodroad’s work once more for a show at Greene Naftali, the artist’s first in New York. Curated by the critic himself, it features 15 works that Goodroad, 43, has made in the year and a half since he left San Francisco.
Goodroad moved to a small Arizonan city with his partner Tiffani; they bought a house, and Goodroad was going to enroll in a nursing program that was more affordable than ones in San Francisco. He had not been able to pursue a full-time career as an artist, but with a new level of interest in his work from Als and others, he recently committed to being a painter. In these recent works, the brilliant blue sky and the lucent greens and yellows of the Arizona desert brush intervene. A bright primary palette often appears in most of the canvases.
Goodroad applies his oils gesturally to create corduroy-like wale textures, with stitches of paint that amass to form larger sections of color. Some of these areas are almost opaque while others reveal the hues of the underpainting, like blue that offers a view of the saffron beneath At the Depot (2021–22). Although each painting may be appear to be either or a portrait or landscape, the two genres blur as figures and horizon lines merge.
“The thing about his paintings is that they live in his head,” Als said. “They’re not really finished. He has to stop working on them. That’s what makes them so vibrant. You’re in conversation with them while you’re looking at them.”
Indeed, Goodroad returned to one preexisting work for the Greene Naftali show: Untitled (2013/22), featuring a bulbous puce-hued cloud with a vermillion outline. The painting was completed the first time during a year-long residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin County, California in 2013. This was where he first met Stein, who recalled that he was struck by the artist’s “washed-out Rococo-type paintings – trippy little 18th century French court paintings – that absolutely boggled my mind.”
By this point, Goodroad had been in the Bay Area for a while. After completing his M.F.A. at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2007, he stayed in the city, working as a truck driver delivering organic produce and painting between trips. The physical labor of that job eventually took a toll on his body, and it also affected his artistic process. He’d often leave a canvas for four or five days to do his deliveries. Although this slowed down his progress, he has described being happy with the results: each coat dried entirely before Goodroad returned to the painting, allowing the colors to “breathe” and reach their full luminescence, as he put it.
Stein gave Goodroad his first show in 2017, and he had another in 2021 at Cushion Works. The latter show was meant to mark Goodroad’s farewell to the Bay Area before moving to Arizona. But after Als’s New Yorker review, there was interest from all over, and curator Klaus Biesenbach even bought a work for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The show ended up selling out. According to Stein, the Greene Naftali show has too.
“Goodroad wouldn’t know the market if it hit him on the head, and I hope it doesn’t,” Als wrote in his New Yorker review. Asked about that line, Als said he put it in as a “warning” to artists entering a culture that “supports them doing stuff for the marketplace instead of themselves.”
Als’s coverage is, in part, what instigated a market for the paintings, and perhaps he provided a warning because he knew the power of his endorsement. Still, Als told ARTnews that he doesn’t think Goodroad is in any danger of bending to such forces. “If someone wanted me to be more productive, I would probably refuse it,” Goodroad responded when asked about market pressure. He attributes that sensibility to having worked in the Bay Area, where artists do not get the same kind of visibility as New York or L.A.
While the market may have caught on to Goadroad’s quirky, mystical pictures, his enduring curiosity in making art seems to quell Als’s fears. Goodroad said he wasn’t interested in talk of wheeling and dealing, and instead directed the conversation toward a discussion of one of his favorite works on paper, Jean-Antoine Watteau’s Woman Seen from the Back (ca.1715/16), which depicts the seams and folds of a figure’s heavy baroque-era garments.
“I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t come across his goofy squiggly hands,” Goodroad said of Watteau. “This drawing of a woman in this long dress, sitting down. He managed to describe this dress was just parallel lines. Somehow, he did that. It’s this bit of magic, you know?”