To get an idea of the curious byways an artist might find himself exploring, here, in the twenty-first century, you can’t do better than head to the New York Studio School’s “Glenn Goldberg: Plums and Breezes,” an adumbrated, if somewhat bumpy, overview spanning forty years. “Plums and Breezes” begins in 1977, when Goldberg entered the Studio School as a student, and works its way to pieces of a more recent vintage by the now–Associate Professor of Painting at Queens College. Goldberg’s trajectory, and more so his landing place, offer an example of how quixotic the artist’s lot has become. Contemporary artists work in a media landscape teeming with imagery, not to mention a culture inured to the notion that art is an endeavor free of standards or definition. Creative types have been left to their own devices in ways that were unimaginable one hundred, let alone five hundred, years ago. The challenge of operating within this increasingly fluid playing field isn’t realizing an individual vision, but instead making that vision matter. Given the rabbit holes into which artists ensconce themselves nowadays, the big question is why the rest of us should feel obliged to follow.

The “rabbit hole” trope is, in Goldberg’s case, ready-made. Bunnies figure in his iconography, as do rubber ducks, gingerbread men, flora, birds, basketballs, and the stray Collie. Goldberg’s archetypes are rendered in silhouette and placed within areas of washy acrylic, after which they’re defined with dots—lots of dots. This methodology is less beholden to Pointillism than to stitching: the dit-dit-dit of Goldberg’s brush brings graphic coherence to compositions that might otherwise dissipate altogether. The resulting rhythms can be likened to the bustle of a beehive or, given the silvery tonalities gleaned from a palette predicated largely on black and white, television static. A sense of duty—of a job well and thoroughly done—grounds Goldberg’s flightier scenarios. However hermetic the imagery might be, the artist’s touch endows them with a workaday concreteness, a hands-on practicality.

Glenn Goldberg, Guy 2 (Snow), 2011, Acrylic and ink on canvas, the New York Studio School. Photo: courtesy of the artist

“Plums and Breezes” opens with an oil-on-cardboard self-portrait—a handsome gloss on adolescent angst by way of Egon Schiele and Picasso’s Blue Period. It isn’t until one enters the exhibition proper that “Plums and Breezes” underlines its sweep by pairing a drawing from 1979 with a painting dating some thirty years later. The former is a ballpoint portrait of Mercedes Matter, the founder of the Studio School, a painter of considerable tenacity and, one guesses, a mentor; the latter is a pictograph of a “guy” that resembles nothing so much as a sock puppet down on its luck. The Matter portrait, with stylistic goalposts provided by Giacometti, coalesces through the accretion of scrabbled, searching lines. Guy 2 (Snow) (2011), in marked contrast, is funky and outsiderish, simultaneously willful, wistful, and naive. The juxtaposition of the two works makes a point of how the work has shifted from direct observation to imagination and reminiscence. The bulbous shapes hovering around the perimeter of Guy 2 (Snow)—forms that are part mandala, part accumulation of swollen breasts—hint at metaphysical pursuits as well.

Though two attendant sets of works-on-paper take into account the physical world—specifically, weather and the city—“Plums and Breezes” drifts ineluctably towards the emblematic. Pure abstraction—at least, as seen at the Studio School—is only glanced upon. A group of enamel-on-wood pieces from the late 1980s and early ’90s makes a virtue of painterly wear-and-tear through the layering of pigment and image; imagine Malevich as a graffiti artist. Works-on-paper of that time evince something different: a distinct amble away from High Modernism toward the tantric. Rigorous affect makes way for improvisatory flow. Atmosphere—whether put into motion with ink, watercolor, acrylic, or an oddment of collage—leads to pictorial spaces that are both macro- and microscopic, aqueous and airy. Compositions become headier if no less hieratic. Non-Western influences are embraced—it’s a good bet Goldberg is a fan of Buddhist painting and Indian miniatures—as is a surprisingly congruent silliness. Calm and quirk are equal partners in Goldberg’s patchwork multiverse.

Glenn Goldberg, Him, 2016, Acrylic and ink on paper, the New York Studio School. Photo: courtesy of the artist

“Plums and Breezes” comes to a kind of apotheosis with an installation of eight paintings dating from 2009–13. The scale is small—each canvas measures nine by twelve inches; the orientation, landscape; the feeling, homespun and cosmic. Stage-like settings—Romper Room variations of the endless horizons seen in surrealist painting—give precedence to Goldberg’s unblinking grotesques, lined up as if for a pageant. Any suggestion of narrative is quelled by how each composition is blatantly orchestrated. The paintings put one in mind of Byzantine icons in their compartmentalization, and how they explicitly confront the viewer. The work carries with it a certain spirituality, though one would hesitate to claim too much religious import for, say, the basketball at the center of Game On (2010). (That a basketball could be rendered all-knowing and immutable is, of course, part of the joke.) Still, even to hazard the comparison proves that goofy pictures can tap deep sources. “We need to honor that which is bigger than us,” Goldberg told the critic and curator Jennifer Samet a few years back: “otherwise, we are making art to protect each other and ourselves.” It’s a measure of Goldberg’s quixotic accomplishment that his paintings make good on the vulnerability and openness they so patently set forth.