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Charles Goeller: A Wistful Loneliness (Essay)

Updated: Dec 3, 2023

“My aim is to attain a still more clear outline . . .  I don’t want to exaggerate or to make any sacrifices to obtain an effect, all of which leads to a lack of balance." Charles Goeller

 


(Figure 1 - Charles Goeller, c. 1940)


Charles Goeller: A Wistful Loneliness


“A truly superb achievement of team work between eyes

that see and hands that do.”

The New York Times

 

Charles Goeller’s story is one of an immensely talented but frustrated artist who struggled to achieve his full potential. A broken economy, his methodical painting process, and challenges with personal relationships, smoking and alcoholism all conspired against him. Despite these obstacles—or perhaps because of them—Goeller produced an alluring body of meticulously crafted works which spanned thirty years of his abbreviated life. His masterful still lifes, urban and rural landscapes and portraits convey a “wistful loneliness”[1] rooted in his own biography, which placed him in Paris and New York during pivotal moments in the development of modernism.


This retrospective is the first in twenty years and the only exhibition to explore all aspects of Goeller’s oeuvre. Though conventionally and accurately described as a Precisionist, Goeller produced a broader and more nuanced body of modernist work that included Art Deco- and New Objectivity-influenced portraiture, sculpture, photograms, religious works, environmental-themed canvases, Magic Realist and New Realist still lifes, hard-edged abstraction and Chinese inspired calligraphic pen and ink drawings. Many of these works were widely exhibited during his life and heralded equally with his Precisionist paintings. This exhibition provides a detailed re-examination of how these works related to one another, as well as to Goeller’s interests, concerns, and overall life story, and permits a re-appraisal of Goeller’s importance to the American modernism from the 1920s through 1955.


Youth

Charles Louis Goeller was born in Irvington, New Jersey on November 10, 1901 to Charles and Hulda Goeller, German natives who immigrated to the United States as children and married in 1899. The third of five children, the artist had an older brother, Leopold, often called Leo or Lee, a younger sister, also named Hulda, and a much younger brother, Tom.[2] A skilled ornamental ironworker, the artist’s father owned a firm which produced iron and steel construction materials, decorative railings, fences, fixtures and even manhole covers.


The Goeller children grew up amidst relative prosperity. Tom recalled their childhood home cost tens of thousands of dollars, a figure that is likely exaggerated. The family also maintained a second home in the Catskill Mountains. Fashioned in stone and featuring four turrets, neighbors derided the faux castle as “Goeller’s Folly.”[3] Despite his material comforts, the budding artist suffered from clubfoot, limiting his participation in sports and outdoor activities, and contributing to a sense of loss and isolation in childhood.[4] Likely because of these limitations, Goeller formed close bonds with his siblings, especially with Hulda, which would prove beneficial to the young artist. (Figure 2)


(Figure 2 - The Goeller family - back row: parents - Charles and Hulda; middle row: sister - Hulda, brother - Tom & brother - Leopold; front row: the artist - Charles, nieces - Besty & Nancy)


There is no record of Goeller’s childhood artistic influences or his first exploration of art. No one in the family was an artist, though his father was a skilled and artful iron craftsman.[5] The spirit of meticulous handcraftsmanship in iron may have rubbed off on young Charles as he spent time in and around the family business. Goeller produced his first oil painting around age twelve, a surprisingly competent picture of a felucca sailing on the Nile River.  


By the 1920s, the Goeller Construction Company had ramped up to a national scale and at its height, the firm employed dozens of workers.[6] Leopold studied at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and entered the family business, serving as company superintendent. The family expected young Charles to do the same. Following in his older brother’s footsteps, Charles also attended Rensselaer, studying mathematics, civil engineering, and architecture. Goeller later attended Cornell University as well, though it does not appear that he graduated from either school.[7] Despite his technical training, Goeller had little interest in the family business. Architecture, an uneasy concession for Goeller, similarly held little allure.  Instead, he elected to pursue his true passion to become an artist.


Paris

With the financial support of his family, Goeller left for Paris in 1923 to study art. While returning home at least four times for visits, he made Paris his primary home until December of 1928.  “Tucked away in a tiny studio on the outskirts of Paris lives and works Charles Goeller, whose destiny was to be an engineer, as had been the men in his family for three centuries back,” wrote a newspaper reporter in the 1920s.  “He started by compromising and turned to architecture. However, the final break had to be made and he gave up the traditional profession and turned to art.”[8]


In Paris, Goeller approached his new career seriously. He studied with Jean Depujols at the École Américaine de Fontainebleau and attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière where he painted and drew from live models. Goeller “made literally thousands of studies from the human figure, developing that immaculate sense of form which distinguished his work in later years.”[9] Small watercolors of bullfights suggest that Goeller also traveled to Spain during this period, a common detour for many American expatriates.


Paris then was awash with various forms of modernism, including Purism, New Objectivity and Surrealism, all of which influenced Goeller’s work. It was a time of optimism and excess—the height of the Roaring Twenties when dozens of American expatriate artists visited or made Paris their home, including Adolf Dehn, Ernest Fiene, Stuart Davis, Hilaire Hiler, Emil Ganso, Edward Biberman, Alexander Calder and Isamu Noguchi. Some studied at the same institutions, but it is unclear in which artistic and social circles Goeller participated. Though generally an active correspondent, he left little record of his time in Europe. That Goeller’s parents dispatched his sister Hulda to Paris after her high school graduation to check on him may be indicative of the family’s concern for the young artist’s lifestyle and prospects.[10]  


(Figure 3 (left) - Charles Goeller, Praying Girl, c. 1927, oil on canvas, 14 x 9 inches; Catalog 2 (below) - see entry for details)


Based on extant works, Goeller’s Paris oeuvre consisted mostly of portraits and still lifes, two genres at which Goeller excelled from an early age. Three of his known Paris portraits, Seated Figure (Catalog 1), Portrait Head (Catalog 2) and Praying Girl (Figure 3), appear to depict the same model or at least the same archetype from Paris’ Annees Folles. The sitter, who looks a great deal like Rafaela Fano, Tamara de Lempicka’s muse from 1927, was likely a model at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Each painting portrays the sleek black of a tightly bobbed haircut framing the sitter's striking and perfectly smooth face. The influences of Art Deco stylization and New Objectivity are evident in all three works. The model in Seated Figure stares almost confrontationally at the viewer like a pastoral female version of Otto Dix’s Dr. Mayer-Hermann (1926) (Figure 4). The stylized facial features, large eyes, plump red lips, and sleek surfaces of all three portraits echo de Lempicka’s treatment of similar subjects.


(Figure 4 (left) - Otto Dix (1891 - 1961), Dr. Mayer-Hermann, 1926, Museum of Modern Art; Catalog 1 (above) - see entry for details)


Goeller’s Figure (Reclining Nude) (Catalog 3) seems to be in dialog with de Lempicka’s La Belle Rafaela (Figure 5). Both depict a luscious model lounging diagonally across the canvas on a stylized fabric. With closed eyes, fully exposed torso and one arm wrapped around her head, each model exudes the sexual freedom for which Paris was known during the Twenties.  In contrast to de Lempicka’s composition, however, Goeller chose to depict his model’s head at the bottom right of the composition, making her appear upside down. Goeller’s treatment of draped fabric, a skill for which he was heralded several years later upon his return to the United States, may also reflect his exposure to de Lempicka’s Art Deco portraiture.   



(Figure 5 (left) - Tamara de Lempicka (1898 - 1980), La Belle Rafaela, 1927; Catalog 3 (right) - see entry for details)


In his paintings of women, Goeller alternated between sexualizing his sitters and portraying them as religious icons. He sometimes mixed the two, a not uncommon trait among male artists at this time—Picasso comes to mind. The golden backgrounds of Portrait Head and Praying Woman are borrowed from Medieval and Renaissance depictions of saints. In the case of Praying Woman, the reference is direct, while the allusion in Portrait Head is more subtle and can only be fully divined by comparing the two works. Goeller converted his Virgin Mary of Praying Woman into an object of sexual desire in Portrait Head. Despite not being particularly religious (he was nominally Presbyterian), Goeller’s interest in borrowing from and creating Biblical imagery continued through the remainder of his career, often with surprising results.


Goeller exhibited in Paris at the Salon of the Société des Artistes Francais and the Salon d’Antomne and his work was well received. The critic Waldemar George saw his work and endorsed it to Lloyd Goodrich, later director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, who helped Goeller obtain his first gallery representation in New York. By the time Goeller returned from Paris, he had already developed the technical skills and artistic practices on which his reputation was built: meticulous draftsmanship, precise line, dramatic lighting, strong saturated colors, and the ability to depict realist trompe l’oeil surfaces. As Goeller explained to one Paris reviewer, “My aim is to attain a still more clear outline – perhaps it is a reaction against the fluffy work one sees. In any case, it is what I want to do. I don’t want to exaggerate or to make any sacrifices to obtain an effect, all of which leads to a lack of balance.”[11]   


New York

Whether recalled by family, devoid of funding or satisfied that he learned what he needed, Goeller returned to New York on the USS De Grasse from Le Havre, France on December 28, 1928.  He moved into the family’s Newark home with his parents and brother, Tom. Through Goodrich, Goeller was introduced to Charles Daniel, owner of the eponymous New York gallery, who agreed to represent the young artist. This was a major coup for Goeller: the Daniel Gallery included most of the significant Precisionist painters including Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, Preston Dickinson, Niles Spencer, Henry Billings, Peter Blume, and his fellow New Jersey artist and friend, Elsie Driggs, the sole East Coast female painter formally associated with The Immaculate School.[12]


Shortly after his return to the United States, one of Goeller’s Parisian Precisionist still lifes, The Checked Tablecloth (Figure 6), created a sensation when it was exhibited at the Daniel Gallery in March of 1929. It was heralded as a painting to “challenge any of the ‘immaculates.’”[13] The canvas, which was later shown in 1930 at the Museum of Modern Art’s An Exhibition of Work of 46 Painters and Sculptors under 35 Years of Age as well as Goeller’s first solo exhibition at New York’s Argent Gallery in 1933, established Goeller’s early reputation. The painting was illustrated in both Creative Art magazine and The New York Times. “Charles Goeller in his still life gives due weight to a heavy table, textile quality to a white towel with red-line border, and the acumen of genius to the discriminated places and color relations of a checked tablecloth,” gushed the critic for The New York Times.  “A truly superb achievement of team work between eyes that see and hands that do.”[14]


(Figure 6 (left) - Charles Goeller, The Checked Tablecloth, by 1928, oil on canvas, 40 x 25 inches; Figure 7 (above) - Raphaelle Peale (1774 - 1825), Venus rising from the Sea - A Deception, c. 1822, the Nelson -Atkins Musuem of Art)


Other Goeller still life paintings from this period include the equally well-reviewed The Blue Box and The Blue Brocade, both of which were also exhibited at the Daniel Gallery. These early still life compositions bear the hallmarks of what one critic referred to as Goeller’s “fabric wizardry.”[15] They are significant contributions to the canon of Precisionist still life painting and an expansion of the American trompe l’oeil tradition from more than a century earlier as exemplified by works like Raphaelle Peale’s Venus Rising from the Sea – A Deception. (Figure 7)


Goeller’s precise rendering and meticulous machine-like surfaces placed him firmly in the Precisionist camp. “The work of George Ault, Arnold Wiltz, Henry Billings, Charles Goeller, Francis Criss and Elsie Driggs,” wrote Holger Cahill in Art in America in Modern Times, “is characterized by clarity of design and excellent feeling for architectonic arrangement.”[16] Writing in America as Americans See It, Cahill noted:


There are two groups of painters whose inspiration is the American scene. One group [where Cahill placed Goeller] is not concerned with realism as such, but with an interpretation of the American scene in highly personal idioms. These men range from the practitioners of a selective realism, amounting to almost formal purism with some of them, to abstractionists and inventors. The pioneers of this group are Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth.[17]


The allusion to Charles Sheeler is particularly salient, given the favorable similarities between works like Goeller’s The Checked Tablecloth and Sheeler’s early 1930s interiors featuring American vernacular design, such as Americana. (Figure 8)  


(Figure 8 - Charles Sheeler (1883 - 1965), Americana, 1931, Metropolitan Museum of Art)


Goeller’s careful draftsmanship attracted the attention of Cornell where he worked as a drawing instructor from 1931 through 1933, a position which catalyzed a lifelong interest in art education. No doubt, Goeller also used the opportunity to refine his own skill, including working with oils, conte crayon and silver point, as well as experimenting with different styles and media. At Cornell, Goeller studied with longtime faculty member Christian Midjo, a Norwegian-born portrait and landscape painter, though it’s uncertain whether this occurred during Goeller’s earlier time in Ithaca as an undergraduate student before he went to Paris or when Goeller himself was on the faculty.[18] The influence of Midjo’s use of light and simplification of natural forms is evident in Goeller’s oils.


Goeller produced his first sculptures and completed what may be his only purely abstract oil painting (Catalog 5) during this time, a period early in the development of hard edged abstraction that predated the formation of the American Abstract Artists. The work is signed only on the verso of the frame and was likely intended to be displayed in any of its four orientations. Goeller may have exhibited it at a Cornell show in 1933, when he was described as the “foremost exponent of ultra-modernism on the fine arts faculty.”[19] One of his sculptures, which was characterized as “a pensive prehistoric maiden,” was the sole artwork installed in the University’s Needham Glen.[20] Writing in the late 1950s, The Ithaca Journal described the work as “in spirit a part of the place.”[21] (Figure 9).


(Figure 9 (right) - Charles Goeller, Maiden,

c. 1931-33, Cornell University)

Another sculpture in the form of a carved wood and gesso relief (Catalog 58) dates from the early 1930s. In the untitled work, Goeller depicted his sister Hulda in profile with her German braid crown and wearing a white smock. She was positioned in a rounded arch against a blue polychrome background. The overall impression is one of an updated Italian Renaissance relief by Lucca della Robbia (Figure 10). With its white and blue palette representing purity and overt religious overtones, Goeller once again portrayed a contemporary woman, in this case his sister, as a Christian saint. This may have reflected his reverence for Hulda who, with her husband John Newell, had begun to support Goeller financially.    


















(Figure 10 (left) - Lucca della Robbia (1400 - 1482), Virgin and Child in a Niche, c. 1460,

Metropolitan Museum of Art; Catalog 58 (right) - see entry for details)


Utilizing his background in engineering and mathematics, Goeller spent some of his free time devising inventions, including a device for using an inclined plane as an aid for opening boxes, and more relevant to his artistic practice, a stereopticon for color reproduction. “It’s a brain-child I’ve had for a long time,” he explained in a letter to Hulda and John, “but have hitherto been kept from doing anything with it through the lack of money and means of research. Even in Paris I’d drawn pictures of it, and in New York I’d looked up what I could at the library. But here, with room entirely to myself, information by telephone from the physics lab, and no pestering whatever, I’ve been able to get to work.”[22] 


It is also likely that around this time Goeller began to experiment with cyanotype photograms. Cyanotype photography is a camera-less technique that involves laying objects on paper coated with a solution of iron salts before exposing it to UV light and washing with water to create stunning white and Prussian blue images. In the small group of his extant cyanotypes, Goeller again employed a Christian theme, this time the Glad Tidings of Jesus’ birth. The title page for the set depicts a windswept tree, while the remaining images, save one, are of the night sky. In the most compelling image, Goeller used a small cog and circular spring, probably from a discarded watch, to generate an image of the Star of Bethlehem shining down toward the unseen manger (Catalog 55). Another celestial image features a diaphanous white form streaking across the sky, a depiction of the Angel of the Lord announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds (Catalog 56). The last seemingly non-celestial image portrays a light filled portal with mysterious shadows. The left side of the composition is fully exposed and filled with white light representing the manger and the power of the coming of Christ (Catalog 57).   




















(Catalog 55, 56 and 57 - see entries for details)


In addition to the cyanotype series, Goeller completed two sets of illustrations of the book of Genesis, the first around 1934 and the second in the late 1940s or early 1950s. The earlier set, in conte crayon, portrays the seven days of creation drawn with a stylized realism. For the first day, when God proclaimed, “Let there be light,” Goeller created a white starburst surrounded by the receding darkness of the black crayon (Catalog 47). Through the rest of his career, Goeller returned to the use of stark white light to depict the presence of a higher power or humanity. The image of the third day included Goeller’s trademark depiction of what appears to be a fabric standing in for the creation of dry land (Catalog 49). His fourth day depicted the creation of the sun and moon and previewed some of his later craggy landscapes (Catalog 50). For the sixth day when God created man in His own image, Goeller returned to an upside-down composition of the type used in his Paris Figure/Reclining Nude to present an Art Deco-stylized Adam and Eve who hang beneath God’s ghostly silhouette (Catalog 52).[23] In 1934, one of Goeller’s Genesis drawings became the first of his works to enter a major institution when the Museum of Modern Art acquired another version of the Creation of the Sun and Moon for its permanent collection.




(Catalog 47, 49, 50 and 52 - see entries for details)


In 1933, Goeller had his first solo exhibition at New York’s Argent Gallery. Although well-reviewed,[24] its economic impact was minimal. The Great Depression had taken hold of the country, devastating the art market. By that time, the Daniel Gallery was in bankruptcy, eventually trapping some of Goeller’s oils in the bankrupt estate. Goeller was a slow and thoughtful painter who completed a small number of oils.[25] Paintings, when he had them, were difficult to sell and he had little capacity to earn much from his art during the 1930s. Consequently, the artist struggled financially and his parents, similarly impacted, were no longer able to help. The family’s steel and iron works teetered at the edge of failure.[26] The artist had an at times challenging relationship with his mother and father. There is evidence Goeller and his parents quarreled over money and likely the continued pursuit of his artistic career instead of returning to the family business. Despite his artistic success, Goeller continued to rely on his sister and her husband for financial support. In response to their sending Goeller $50 in September of 1932, the artist conceded that it would be a long while before he could hope to repay them.[27] (Figure 11)


(Figure 11 - Charles Goeller, Hulda and John Newell, c. 1929, oil on canvas, 36 x 30 inches)


By 1934, Goeller had moved into an apartment at 207 E. 19th St. in Manhattan, between Second and Third Avenues, a neighborhood which during the Twenties and Thirties had developed a reputation as a welcoming home for artists and other creatives.[28] A few hundred feet from Goeller’s apartment, near the corner of Third Avenue, was the former home and studio of George Bellows, where at least one of his daughters continued to live at the time. Farther down the block on E. 19th Street was the National Arts Club.[29]


Goeller was now fortunate to be included in the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the first federally sponsored art program of the Depression Era. For the PWAP, Goeller painted Perspective View of Third Avenue (Figure 12), likely his best-known painting.[30] In New York, Goeller began to paint and draw his immediate surroundings, suggesting that his world was becoming increasingly insular and isolated. Perspective View of Third Avenue depicted the corner of Third Avenue and 19th Street looking uptown toward the recently completed Chrysler building, a view which was less than one hundred feet from his apartment and across from Bellow’s former studio on the opposite corner. For another painting, Rainy Night, he didn’t even have to walk down the block. Rather, he gazed out his front window to capture a solitary figure walking in front of 206 E. 19th Street, with the light from the building spilling onto the sidewalk. Beyond the entry is a stairway leading to the second floor, which calls to mind Goeller’s Tenement Hallway (Figure 13), a work which probably depicted the stairs and passageway in his own building. A second canvas painted for the PWAP, a beautiful but unlocated work titled New York Rooftops, also portrayed urban buildings in Goeller’s Gramercy Park neighborhood, with their ventilator systems and water tanks sprawling across the surface. This painting may be Goeller’s most fully resolved Precisionist work from the 1930s. When his works were exhibited at the Federal Arts Gallery, they were counted among the “most interesting, freshest jobs” in the show.[31]   


(Figure 12 - Charles Goeller, Perspective View of Third Avenue, 1934, oil on canvas, 36 x 30 1/8 inches, Smithsonian American Museum of Art)


(Figure 13 - Charles Goeller, Tenement Hallway, by 1936, oil on canvas, 25 1/8 x 20 1/8 inches)


A work titled Peace [or Reconciliation] put Goeller in the national art news in 1934 when it was exhibited at the 18th Annual Exhibition of Independent Artists at New York’s Grand Central Palace. The painting depicted an imagined rapprochement between Diego Rivera and John D. Rockefeller. The prior year, Rockefeller plastered over Rivera’s Rockefeller Center mural because it included an image of Lenin and a May Day parade. In Peace [or Reconciliation], Goeller depicted the two antagonists holding hands with their thumbs to their noses while a white dove of peace hovers overhead. The Independent’s directors had hoped to avoid a conflict with Rockefeller, but Delaware’s News Journal reported that Goeller’s painting was “already the talk of the town”[32] and news of the painting filtered across the country in newspapers and magazines. Slickly rendered, the work demonstrated Goeller’s keen ability to lampoon through caricature, a skill which is present in many of his illustrative drawings, such as She Gets Her Way (Catalog 27) and Soda Jerk (Lipstick) (Catalog 28). 


















(Catalog 27 and 28 - see entries for details)


Continuing in a similar vein the following year, Goeller entered a work called The Great American Mural in the annual exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists. “In the field of miscellaneous current events,” The Art News wrote, “the wittiest commentary has been made by Charles Goeller who depicts a negro offering a fried egg to an earnest artist.”[33]  Although Goeller did not complete any murals, he entered at least one national mural competition in 1934 sponsored by New York-based Ever Ready Label Company. His submission won the third prize from among the hundreds of entries. Given his financial challenges, he must have been pleased to receive the $75 prize money and concomitant recognition.[34] 


New Jersey

In 1935, Goeller lived briefly in a two-story house in Bristol, Pennsylvania, a Bucks County hamlet overlooking the Delaware River and facing his native New Jersey. Into the following year, he continued his association with the WPA Federal Art Project (FAP) in New York. He showed at the FAP Art Gallery for the Easel Painting Division in an exhibition of paintings by WPA teachers and supervisors in February 1936. Although he painted and entered works in the Annual Exhibitions of the Society of Independent Artists in New York, his financial struggles persisted. By late 1937, continuing economic instability and labor unrest affecting the Goeller family business caused the artist to return to New Jersey where he resided for most of his remaining life. Goeller moved in with his parents and younger brother, Tom, first to a small home at 28 Porter Road in Maplewood and later to 535 Franklin Street and 1272 Clinton Place, both in Elizabeth. Goeller never married, living as a bachelor with his parents for most of the next seventeen years.  


According to some members of his family, Goeller was in love with fellow artist Helen Blumenstiel (1899 – 1975), whom he met while living in Manhattan when both worked on WPA art projects. Blumenstiel was Jewish and her parents reputedly forbade her from marrying a gentile, scuttling Goeller’s chances for lifelong companionship.[35] Blumenstiel visited the Goeller family in New Jersey during the Christmas holidays in 1937 (and probably many other instances), around the time she was producing watercolors and lithographs for the FAP’s Print Section and the Index of American Design.[36] Many of these works depicted iron fence railings, andirons, weathervanes, and architectural ornaments (Figure 14). It is quite possible that her relationship with Goeller and exposure to his family business influenced her selection and depiction of such subject matter.


(Figure 14 - Helen Blumenstiel (1899 - 1975), Fence, c. 1938, Federal Art Project,

Index of American Design, National Gallery of Art)


Despite living with his parents, Goeller’s poverty remained an obstacle. In late 1937, he wrote to Hulda and John requesting $100 to engage a lawyer to help him recover paintings from the Daniel Gallery storage facility where they had lingered since the firm’s failure earlier in the decade. He recounted that “things are as bad as usual and except for a small portrait that will bring a few dollars there’s hardly anything ahead. Scribner’s have bought permission to use a drawing to be paid on publication, whenever that will be.”[37] Goeller explained that he had joined a group of other Daniel Gallery artists in obtaining legal representation. He told his sister and brother-in-law that “the Blue Checked Tablecloth alone will bring that [i.e. $100] when business picks up again, and there are a few others that are quite nice.”[38] By early 1938, Goeller informed the Newells that $60 would get the recovery process started. “I’m sorry to have to ask you for this,” he wrote, “especially when there’s so little future and not enough work at the shop to enable me to pay you back within a couple of centuries.”[39] The Newells agreed to the payment and the paintings were eventually recovered, likely ensuring their survival.


(Figure 15 - Charles Goeller, Suburb, by 1938, oil on canvas, 20 x 25 inches)


Goeller’s relocation to New Jersey provided fresh subject matter for his art. He was struck by the newly-constructed homes which dotted the Maplewood area. In 1938, he painted Suburban Development, which was exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art and subsequently acquired by the Newark Museum in 1941. Goeller also painted Suburb in 1938, an oil depicting a lone, slump-shouldered figure walking along a deserted street against an evening backdrop of for-sale suburban row houses (Figure 15). Edward Lewis of The Philadelphia Enquirer cited Suburb among the meritorious paintings at the 133rd Annual Exhibition of Oils and Sculpture at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.[40] Similar solitary figures appear in other Goeller works from the 1930s. In fact, except for Perspective View of Third Avenue and his portrait of Hulda and John, none of his oil paintings contain more than one person while many works are completely depopulated, a reflection of his own loneliness. His success with Suburban Development and Suburb notwithstanding, Goeller spent more time at the family’s iron and steel business as staffing fell to fewer than ten workers, the result of slow orders and a labor strike in 1937 or 1938. In the December 1938 edition of Nation’s Business, Goeller memorialized this period with a series of illustrations with titles like After the Walkout, While the Pickets Pass the Time Away and perhaps most telling, The Boss’ Son Turns Scab.[41]  (Figure 16)



(Figure 16 - Charles Goeller, Our Father's Shop, c. 1938, crayon on paper, 9 x 11 inches (image))


By the end of the decade, Goeller’s artistic career, financial situation and overall prospects were flagging. He continued to rely on support from the Newells. In a 1939 letter, he thanked them for the “pretty check” which was a “tremendous help even though I’ve been able to gather a few dollars for myself lately.”[42] Goeller couldn’t possibly afford a new suburban home of the type he was now frequently portraying. Rather, he was subsisting with his parents and younger brother in a tiny house built in 1900 and working at his family’s metal fabricating business, a job he had tried to avoid for nearly two decades. The 1940 census reflected that he earned only $250 in 1939; his occupation was listed simply as a “laborer” in a “steel shop.” There was little to attest to his status as a nationally recognized artist who had taught at Cornell and exhibited at the country’s most prestigious museums. 


Despite these challenges, Goeller continued to paint and exhibit during 1940 and 1941, the year in which he completed the first of his table-top still life masterpieces, Dream of Fair Women, a large oil which was characterized as “an ambitious undertaking spiritedly carried out.”[43] (Figure 17) When the painting was exhibited at Goeller’s solo exhibition at the Bonestell Gallery in 1945, The Art Digest remarked that “Charles L. Goeller . . . leaves little to the imagination. . .  His oils are equally painstaking. Particularly noted was a Sheeler-like still life titled Dream of Fair Women.” During this two-year period, Goeller exhibited at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the Newark Museum, the Society of Independent Artists, Princeton University, New York’s Vendome Art Galleries, the New Jersey Gallery in the Kresge Department Store in Newark and the James R. Marsh Gallery in Essex Falls, New Jersey. In November, 1941, he participated in a National Art Week exhibition of New Jersey artists at the Deal Conservatoire. The program was part of an extensive array of shows, sales and activities designed to provide outlets for artists to sell their work without intermediaries and for collectors to purchase art at prices middle-class Americans could afford.


(Figure 17 - Charles Goeller, Dream of Fair Women, by 1941, oil on canvas, 42 x 34 inches)


The Associated Artists of New Jersey formed in 1941 with an initial membership of twenty-five, growing to fifty elected artists by 1950. Goeller was one of its first members and among a cadre of important national artists including Peggy Dodds, Frede Vidar, Minna Citron and Henry Gasser. Goeller exhibited with the Association regularly from the early Forties until his death, serving as its treasurer in 1949 through the early 1950s. By 1949, the Association began curating exhibitions which traveled to colleges, museums, and libraries around the country, giving wider exposure to Goeller’s work.


The artist returned to writing and illustration in 1941 with the publication of Coral Clasps and Amber Studs in Dun’s Review, the title of which is drawn from Christopher Marlowe’s poem, The Passionate Shepherd to His Love. Goeller’s text addressed English Renaissance fashion and how it led to the development of home industries. Catalog no. 34 was used as an illustration for the article. Proud of the publication and with a desire to demonstrate some modest measure of success, he wrote to his five-year old niece, Betsy, knowing that parents Hulda and John would see the letter. Although Goeller was thankful for the financial support provided by the Newells, the artist’s insecurity and discomfort were evident. “Tell your mother and father that Uncle Charlie hopes they read it,” he instructed Betsy. “The editor didn’t take it because of the illustration, but he took it first and asked for some illustrations afterward. Your Father is wrong to have thought otherwise and Uncle Charlie is deeply, deeply hurt.”[44] 


(Catalog 34 - see entry for details)


It is likely that in the early 1940s, Goeller began to grind and mix his own pigments, which heralded a change in the appearance of his paintings. According to an inscription on the back of its frame, The White Oak (Catalog 14) was the first work painted with Goeller’s own formulations. Most of his earlier work produced with commercial pigments had an extraordinarily smooth, almost machined surface, the only texture resulting from the weave of the underlying canvas, as in The Shelf (Catalog 7). Varnish or lack thereof controlled the degree of glossiness. Starting in the early Forties, however, the surfaces of his paintings acquired more depth and there was an inherent luster in the pigments themselves. Unlike traditional impasto techniques, Goeller’s depth did not produce dramatic peaks and valleys as the brush was swiped across the canvas or the paint was aggressively pulled up, down and across the picture plane. Rather, the enamel-like surface resulted from a liquid pooling of pigments which seem to flow in a controlled fashion as they spread across the canvas or board.


Goeller’s 1942 draft registration card lists his employer as the Newark, New Jersey WPA. It is unclear whether Goeller worked for the WPA as an artist, teacher, administrator or in some other capacity, but it is certain that he had left the New York FAP behind.  Goeller probably painted Suburb in Winter (Catalog 8) that same year, one of his finest landscapes of the 1940s, which he entered in the Artists for Victory competition. With its crystalline shadows, brilliant palette, and combination of architectural and natural subjects, Goeller created a sparkling, polished surface. Like the contemporaneous paintings of George Ault, Goeller’s tightly rendered canvases from this period, with their manicured lawns and firm, angular buildings, seem calculated to restore calm and order to the artist’s troubled mind and a chaotic world. 


(Figure 18 - Charles Goeller, c. 1943,

mixed media on paper)


In 1943, during World War II, Goeller moved back to Bristol, Pennsylvania to work at Fleetwings, Inc., an aircraft component fabricator, where he was part of the illustration department. During his time at the company, he created the character Angeline. “When I first came to Fleetwings in March 1943 and saw all the women here,” Goeller recalled, “it occurred to me that they’re symbolic of this war. In fact, the outstanding figure of the war seems to be a little, energetic girl doing her job and surmounting her problems so well.”[45] Angeline, who was featured in Fleetwings’ newsletters and marketing materials, became a recognizable, if problematically infantile, version of Rosie the Riveter. (Figure 18)


In addition to working at Fleetwings, Goeller taught art at Drexel University in Philadelphia during the later years of World War II. He exhibited widely from 1943 to 1945 with the Society of Independent Artists and the Associated Artists of New Jersey, as well as nationally at the predecessor to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the M. H. DeYoung Memorial Museum in San Francisco, where his drawing How Does it Feel to be a Piece of Paper? (Figure 19) received positive reviews. Cleverly composed, the work featured a self-portrait of the artist working on the very drawing depicted. Goeller stares downward and wide-eyed at the paper while the artist’s pencil is clearly visible as it begins to contact the paper. Goeller later recalled in an interview that he used a mirror sitting next to the drawing to capture his own image realistically. (Figure 20)



(Figure 19 (left) - How Does it Feel to be a Piece of Paper?, by 1943, crayon on paper, 15 in 12 inches; Figure 20 (above) - Charles Goeller, c. 1940s)


The artist used a similar composition for one of his large-scale illustrations for John Milton’s Paradise Lost (Catalog 43). Although undated, these four drawings likely date from the early 1940s. In But His Doom, Goeller casts his own visage in the role of Lucifer staring down at the viewer. Drawn with his hallmark meticulous rendering and keen ability to create light and shadow with conte crayon, all four works have a mysterious and haunting quality, no doubt reflecting the darkness of the times and Goeller’s own circumstances.


(Catalog 43 - see entry for details)


The year 1945 culminated with a solo exhibition at Bonestell Gallery in New York City, more than a dozen years after the artist’s last solo exhibition in New York at the Argent Gallery. Although a complete checklist of the exhibition is yet to be found, Goeller exhibited Dream of Fair Women and a second still life, Black Vase Full of a Bunch of Letters and Stuff (Figure 21), both of which featured intimate, autobiographical images of his personal life. The Cinnabar Vase (Catalog 6) probably also dates from this time, as it shares many attributes with Dream of Fair Women, including an enamel-like surface and an interior grouping of objects set against the background of a cropped wall and window to the outside world. Goeller’s Black Vase Full of a Bunch of Letters and Stuff, The Shelf and The Cinnabar Vase share many of the same characteristics as George Ault’s still life compositions from the 1930s and 1940s. (Figure 22) In many ways, of all the painters routinely placed within the Precisionist group, Goeller’s art and life most closely parallel Ault’s.   


(Figure 21 (left) - Charles Goeller, Black Vase Full of a Bunch of Letters and Stuff, by 1945, oil on canvas, 18 x 15 inches; Figure 22 (right) - George Ault (1891 - 1948), Fruit Bowl on Red Oil Cloth, 1930, oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 20 inches)


By 1946, with the end of World War II, Goeller returned to New Jersey, this time to his parents’ home at 535 Franklin Street in Elizabeth and began teaching at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts. From this point until his premature death in 1955, Goeller enjoyed one of his most productive periods of artistic output and a greater degree of financial stability than at most other times during his adult life. Despite his improved financial position, Goeller, like many Americans who had just survived the Great Depression and World War II, continued to live frugally. In a 1946 letter to his niece Betsy, Goeller asked her to inform her parents that he would be unable to visit because he was saving for a winter coat and raising money for a down payment on a house, presumably 1272 Clinton Place in Elizabeth where he moved with his parents in the spring of the following year. It was around this time that Goeller sold one of his paintings to his then ten-year-old niece for ten dollars. The bill of sale for Church in Trees (Catalog 12) remains a curiosity among the Goeller family papers.[46] 


Newark’s Rabin & Krueger Gallery included Goeller in its 1946 exhibition, Painting vs. Photography, which paired paintings and photographs of the same New Jersey landscapes. The organizer of the exhibition asked the artists to explain why they painted as they did, hoping it would provide “the clearest explanations of why the paintings differ in varying degrees from the actual scenes.”[47]  The concept would have been catnip to Goeller, whose career to that point was based mainly on a desire to create precisely rendered and authentic images akin to photographs, but thoughtfully edited and simplified by the eyes, brain and hands of the artist. 


The following year, Goeller had a second solo exhibition at Bonestell Gallery, where he displayed fifteen oils, a pair of crayon drawings and a pencil composition to positive reviews. The Bonestell exhibitions were the culmination of Goeller’s work to date and a tantalizing preview of what would follow. The oils included Arthur Kill (Catalog 19), a painting which typified what New York Times art critic Howard Devree called Goeller’s “reluctant beauty.”[48] Echoing the same sentiment, the New York World-Telegram art critic wrote, “I can’t imagine a less paintable subject than the dismal streets leading to both the Staten Island and New Jersey terminals of the Kill Van Kull bridges; or the oil refineries lining the same narrow body of water; or the rotting piers which jut into it. Charles L. Goeller, whose work is being exhibited at the Bonestell Gallery, has managed to give them a truly poetic character. He paints realistically, but selectively.”[49] 



(Figure 23 (left) - Charles Goeller, Lace Curtains by 1947, oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches;

Catalog 9 (right) - see entry for details)


Writing about Across the Street (Catalog 9), the New York World-Telegram opined that “Using the most precise and enamel-like technique, he gives the façade of an ugly frame house an air of homey warmth.”[50] The author probably did not know that s/he was writing about a home nearly identical to Goeller’s. Across the Street and a second painting, Lace Curtains (Figure 23), were executed during Goeller’s last year on Franklin, a thoroughfare with identical three-story houses on both sides of the street. Unlike in his masterful drawing How does it Feel to be a Piece of Paper? from several years earlier, Goeller had no need of a mirror to develop this architectural self-portrait; he merely had to look across the street to see the reflection of his own circumstances in his neighbors’ facades.




(Figure 24 - Charles Goeller, Spring is Coming up the Street, by 1947,

oil on canvas, 20 x 25 inches)


In Across the Street and Lace Curtains, Goeller expressed a developing concern for temporality and the changing seasons. He portrayed the same Franklin Street homes in both summer and winter. Two more paintings, Monmouth County in November (Catalog 15) and Spring is Coming up the Street (Figure 24), both of which were included in the Bonestell exhibition, continued the seasonal theme.  Goeller painted a dreary fall scene in Monmouth County in November unburdened by the structures of man, while Spring is Coming up the Street portrays an early morning sunrise at the end of an Elizabeth, New Jersey, street flanked by empty storefronts.  Both give credence to the observation that Goeller’s work was “individual – most of all when with stereoscopic foreground and misty or flat brushed background he obtains strange mood.”[51] Although these canvases depicted four distinct seasons, they shared a common “wistful loneliness,”[52] whether the vista was a commercial avenue, a rural field ringed by distant trees, Goeller’s neighbors’ houses or even the artist’s own home. From the mid-1940s until his death, he continued his exploration of weather, light, humidity, and other seasonal effects on both the built environment of suburban New Jersey and its surrounding rural landscape.


(Catalog 15 - see entry for details)


Goeller probably painted the undated Workman’s Breakfast (Catalog 11) about the same time as Across the Street and Lace Curtains. The two neighboring houses were crisply rendered, recalling Goeller’s earlier Precisionist works, but the artist introduced dramatic early morning atmospheric effects as the roof of the bungalow on the right dissolves into the mist of a winter morning. Devoid of humanity, the two workmen are represented by the warm glow emanating from their respective kitchens, connected by color and light, but separated by the walls of their homes. “Good walls make good neighbors.”[53]



(Catalog 11 - see entry for details)


The works in the 1947 Bonestell exhibition introduced a new style of painting which Goeller sometimes employed throughout the rest of his career.  In addition to his meticulous portraits and Precisionist-oriented canvases which sometimes verged on trompe l’oeil, Goeller began to exhibit a brushier form of abstracted modernist landscape. “New Jersey Meadows occurred to me while I was working in New York and commuting daily for six months,” Goeller explained, “It was painted after studying the meadows for several seasons and at varying times of day.”[54] Described as “atmospheric,” the canvas depicted the meadows in the foreground dissolving into the distance in a bath of bright light. Dramatically different than his prior work, New Jersey Meadows, was well received. It entered the Newark Museum’s permanent collection in 1952 and the same year was exhibited at the Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Paintings at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where Art Digest described it as “One of the best paintings in the show – best because it is self-consistent, personal, keenly felt and excellently painted – this is Charles Goeller’s luminous grey and golden ocher panorama of the New Jersey Meadows, glistening under a smoky sky.”[55] 



(Catalog 17 - see entry for more details)


Sunrise on Newark Bay (Catalog 18) and Sunrise Over the Meadow (Catalog 17) joined New Jersey Meadows as examples of Goeller’s change in direction during the latter part of the 1940s. With heavier impasto which contrasted deeply with the smooth surfaces of his Precisionist oils, these works honored the beauty and mystery of the American landscape and harkened back to the original seeds of modernism found in late 19th Century American Tonalism. Goeller’s shift towards more abstracted forms of representation is not surprising given the prevailing artistic currents at the time. Artists were quickly abandoning mimetic depictions in favor of pure abstraction. Goeller could not go so far to abandon the physical world; rather, in this group of works, Goeller developed a personal vocabulary which mediated between abstraction and selective realism, resulting in a unique form of romantic expression. 


This new style suited Goeller’s ongoing interest in depicting the presence of a higher power through brilliantly crafted light which reprised his overtly Biblical works of the 1930s. Goeller also applied his new approach to explore his growing interest in the environment. Beginning with both versions of Abandoned Wharf (Catalog 20 and 36), Arthur Kill and Arthur Kill at Elizabethport, Goeller began to explicitly reveal the degradation of New Jersey’s fouled waterways. “Everything happens to a river, especially in three hundred and forty years of manhandling,” he wrote in a 1950 article entitled City Rivers for the periodical The Land. “The Elizabeth River is an example. It is unimportant in our national geography, being only ten miles long. But the ten miles have endured every possible violation . . .”[56]  


(Figure 25 - Charles Goeller, Arthur Kill at Elizabethport, oil on canvas, 42 x 32 inches)


Goeller used the platform of his art to lament the “green slime on rotten pilings of long abandoned wharves, week-old oil slicks floating to and fro with the rise and fall of the tide, a sulphide reek of industrial waste.”[57] (Figure 25) In his art as in his writing of City Rivers, Goeller made a plea to revive the public spirit of the WPA Era to remediate the polluted river.  But he acknowledged that “Maybe we haven’t recovered from the last war. Maybe the Korean situation and the threat of further wars is to blame. But there is no sign of concerted effort in the whole length of the river.”[58] Both are examples of Goeller’s propensity to think globally of universal, sometimes existential, issues facing humanity, but address them within the context of his immediate surroundings.      

 

As the Abstract Expressionists on the other side of the Hudson River wrestled with their own versions of existential concern for the fate of humanity in the Atomic Era, Goeller painted Long Abandoned Orchard (Catalog 22), a canvas he first exhibited in 1950 at the 4th Annual New York Exhibition of the Associated Artists of New Jersey at the Riverside Museum. Although the lonely, skeletal silhouettes of trees are readable in the foreground, the painting is dominated by the dark expanse of the winter sky in the background. Transitioning from white at the bottom to shades of grey at the top, Long Abandoned Orchard has black streak running through middle passage consisting of a thicker, more emotive impasto than seen in his other works. At no other time since his Cornell days did Goeller flirt so extensively with pure abstraction in his oil paintings. His depiction of winter landscapes during this time, including Passaic River in Midwinter (Catalog 21), also corresponded to Ault’s consideration of the Winter scenes, though Ault’s work was more constrained (Figure 26).


(Catalog 22 - see entry for details)



(Figure 26 - George Ault (1891 - 1948), Hunters in the Catskills, 1940, oil on canvas, 22 x 30 inches)


Some of Goeller’s drawings from the late 1940s through the end of his life approached pure abstraction. A first group of works executed in ink with a “Chinese quill” and blue crayon offered highly stylized views of a waterway, perhaps a creek leading to the Elizabeth River (Catalog 42). Goeller exhibited his quill pen works with the Associated Artists of New Jersey in 1950, together with other works in the same media by Abram Tromka.


The other group of abstracted drawings from this period is Goeller’s second Genesis series. Remarkably different than his first series in the early Thirties, the later group adopted a purely abstract approach, with God’s Creation of Living Creatures starting with a bisected circle and progressing through two stages of cellular division represented by slightly interconnected ovals (Catalog 54). God’s Creation of the Firmament was depicted as a lively and chaotic series of swirling black, gray and white patterns (Catalog 53). As with the first series, Goeller accompanied these works with the Biblical text. Goeller exhibited a similar abstract drawing called Topological Islands (Catalog 39) in 1951 at the 21st Annual New Jersey State Exhibition at the Montclair Art Museum. 


(Catalog 53 - see entry for details)


In the post-war period, Goeller served as a drawing and painting instructor at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts, where his fellow instructors included Reuben Nakian and Hans Weingaertner, who Goeller considered a friend to the point that Weingaertner and he traded paintings. As a pair of painters known for their Precisionist aesthetics, Goeller and Weingaertner are credited with influencing their pupil, Leo Dee, and teaching him “a precise and quiet form” of trompe l’oeil realism.[59] Goeller was also John Angelini’s drawing instructor. Goeller’s position at the school provided much needed financial stability. By 1949, Goeller reported income of $4000, a figure which was above the average earnings for an American worker, though he continued to live with his parents and brother Tom at the Clinton Place home.[60] The artist occupied the front bedroom of the house since it had the best light and provided him with views of the New Jersey suburbs he so often depicted in his paintings.


During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Goeller associated with various New Jersey teaching and arts organizations in addition to the Associated Artists of New Jersey. He was a member of the Union County Art Association, the Summit Art Association, and the Plainfield Art Association, where he often exhibited and served on the selection committee for its annual juried exhibitions. Goeller also served as a guest instructor for landscape painting at the Plainfield Art Association and at the Middletown Art Association, together with Weingaertner, Vidar and Michael Lenson.  Combining his artistic practice, background in mathematics and engineering and interest in teaching, Goeller contributed to the display of geometric models at Newark’s Math Fairs for high school students sponsored by the Newark Council of Teachers of Mathematics.


(Catalog 24 - see entry for details)


In the early 1950s, Goeller returned to the desktop still life motif which he first developed in 1941 with Dream of Fair Women. That work, together with Unfinished Problem (Catalog 24) and Despair Among Glasses (Catalog 23) formed a trio of deeply personal autobiographical paintings. In her essay for the Goeller exhibition at New York’s Riehlman Fine Art in 2003, noted scholar Gail Stavitsky explained the context for these paintings:

 

Goeller had already worked at his father’s steel firm during a strike in 1938. In his later years Goeller recalled “I’ve relapsed into the family trade long enough to design a factory.” The artist’s conflicted involvement with the family business is suggested by the still life elements of the paintings Unsolved Problem and Despair Among Glasses. In the latter work, the harsh glare of a desk lamp illuminates various kinds of glasses, including an empty liqueur glass, a blueprint, a mysterious equation possibly associated with probability or symbolic logic, strewn cigarette butts, and the weary artist/amateur mathematician’s forearm. The frustration of family work is similarly suggested in Unsolved Problem in which half rolled blueprints are juxtaposed with the artist’s glasses, a half-eaten orange, and a stack of cigarette butts. The welcome distraction of the world at large is evoked by the open window to the left. These paintings suggest possible motivations for the never-married Goeller’s habits of drinking and smoking to excess.[61]

 

These three works are the best examples of Goeller’s Magic Realist paintings. Lincoln Kirstein, in his introduction to the catalog for the Museum of Modern Art’s ground-breaking 1943 exhibition, American Realists and Magic Realists, described the artists included in that show as follows:

 

The painters represented here have chosen and developed a technique in drawing and handling paint, the aim of which is to create images capable of instantaneous identification. By a combination of crisp hard edges, tightly indicated forms and the counterfeiting of material surfaces such as paper, grain of wood, flesh or leaf, our eyes are deceived into believing in the reality of what is rendered, whether factual or imaginary. Magic realism is an application of this technique to the fantastic subject. Magic realists try to convince us that extraordinary things are possible simply by painting them as if they existed.[62]

 

Later in his essay, Kirstein connects the American Magic Realist painters to German New Objectivity, a movement which profoundly influenced Charles Goeller since his time in Paris. As Kirstein explained, “There is a new departure, a new objectivity in fact, which strongly recalls the Neue Sachlichkeit of the nineteen-twenties, that attitude ferociously express in Germany by Otto Dix . . . This New Objectivity was human and concrete though often cruel, exact though frequently fantastic, almost always meticulous.”[63] Returning to American Magic Realism, Kirstein concluded that “It is a frank, cool art. . . .”[64]  

 

Although Goeller was not included in American Realists and Magic Realists, this trilogy of paintings fits squarely within the aesthetic, stylistic, and emotional characteristics of the Magic Realists, who did not, themselves, have a manifesto, association or even a common understanding of who was, or was not, part of the group. From early in his career, Goeller was heralded as a master of replicating surfaces, very much in the trompe-l’oeil tradition. His drafting was precise and crisp, regardless of whether he is painting wood, glass, or the flesh of his own arm, as in Despair Among Glasses. His arrangements of objects were unexpected – each was clearly defined, even if their intended meanings were not. Consider the precariously placed paper dolls in Dream of Fair Women and their juxtaposition between an electric cord and the gleaming scissors on the desktop. And there was always the intense light which takes on a mysterious, substantive, and hyper-realistic quality, casting mysterious shadows which match the mystery of the treasures and secrets to be found in the open drawer in Dream of Fair Women or the mathematical formula scrawled on the crumpled paper in Despair Among Glasses.


(Catalog 23 - see entry for details)


At the time Despair Among Glasses was exhibited in 1954 at the Associated Artists of New Jersey 7th Annual New York Exhibition, the artist and critic, Michael Lenson, wrote about what Kirstein likely would have characterized as “frank,” “cool,” and “cruel” in equal measure. Lenson noted:

 

Among a number of strong paintings in the show, there are four (two realist and two abstract) that strike a common chord of dejection, and none is meant to entertain. Leo Quanchi, Maxwell Simpson, Minna Citron and Charles Goeller are the authors in this graphic four-act drama . . . Goeller . . . deals mercilessly with the facts and in his ‘Despair Among Glass,’ they are the facts of loneliness. Seen under the intense light above a drafting table, is the painter’s forearm, surrounded by a variety of glasses, an enlarging glass, a blue drinking glass and an empty liqueur glass, and a quantity of stubbed cigarette butts. It is painted with devasting and unnerving realism.[65] 

 

Dream of Fair Women was squarely placed in the Magic Realist canon when it was exhibited in 1952 at the Montclair Art Museum’s exhibition, The Illusion of Reality. Of the forty-seven paintings exhibited, many were by acknowledged Magic Realists, including John Atherton, Eugene Berman, Peter Blume, Lux Feininger, Thomas Fransioli, Charles Rain, Priscilla Roberts, and George Tooker. The historic artists included in that exhibition included Harnett and Peto. There was a significant overlap between this group and the artists included in American Realists and Magic Realists, almost as if the Montclair show were a version 2.0 which was launched nearly ten years after the original. Many years later, Gail Stavitsky also placed these works into the Magic Realist rubric when she noted, “The affinities of mood and technique between Goeller’s paintings and the work of Criss, Blume, Hirsch, and particularly George Ault, reflect the differing directions Precisionism took from the 1930s onwards, particularly towards Surrealism and Magic Realism.”[66] 

 

Making Blue is a fitting culmination of Goeller’s oeuvre. A precisely rendered self-portrait of the bare-chested artist laboring to grind a brilliant blue pigment in Goeller’s home studio, the canvas recalled his early New Objectivity-influenced Paris portraits with their dramatic lighting, smooth surfaces, and trompe l’oeil effects. Goeller portrayed himself, alone, struggling to bring forth the ultra-marine paint which he depicted using the “fabric wizardry” techniques from twenty-five years before. This time, however, there was something different about the artist’s depiction of his body. Between his beautifully crafted hands and torso, Goeller’s right arm and leg were less well defined, less well developed, more modern in feeling, as if the artist himself was still a project in the making, like the ground paint in the foreground.


(Catalog 25 - see entry for details)

 

Goeller died of a brain aneurysm in 1955. Goeller’s family believed his alcoholism, excessive smoking, and isolation compounded his medical condition and contributed to his increasingly difficult personality. Hulda recalled the artist would “drink himself into oblivion” to alleviate his pain.[67] If Goeller’s life had not been cut short, he may have explored pure abstraction more deeply by applying the visual vocabulary of his late drawings to his paintings. Or, perhaps he would have continued with his Magic Realist-influenced still lifes and found more inspiration in Pop Art of the 1960s. It is almost certain that Goeller would have continued to explore the “wistful loneliness” of his existence.    

 

After his death, the Newark Museum hosted the 2nd Annual Juried Exhibition of Work by New Jersey Artists. As a special memorial, the show included works by five artists who had died since 1952, including Goeller and John Marin. That Goeller was honored by an exhibition together with John Marin, who less than a decade earlier had been lauded as one of America’s ten best painters, was high praise. The following year, the Hunterdon County Art Center in Clinton, New Jersey, held a second Memorial Exhibition for Goeller, Gus Eager, and Bror J. O. Nordfeldt. CW American Modernism is proud to contribute to the preservation of the legacy of Charles Goeller through this catalog and exhibition of seven of the twelve works from that show.


Chris B Walther

______________________________________

 [1] “Vignette: Painting, Mathematics and Writing,” Newark Sunday News, June 28, 1953, Goeller Family Archives (GFA) (Vignette)

[2] The second child in Goeller family died from an accident in childhood. Interview with the artist’s niece, Nancy Lader, 2023 (Lader Interview)

[3] The information in this paragraph concerning the Goeller family finances comes from an undated letter from Tom Goeller to Nancy Lader (GFA) (Tom Goeller Letter)

[4] Lader Interview

[5] A well-conceived and executed table—his father’s apprentice project—remains in the Goeller family collection.

[6] The Goeller firm was a principal in a project for a shale plant in Eastern Kentucky, where the senior Charles acted as structural engineer. “Estill to Get Big Oil Shale Plant,” Lexington Herald-Leader, September 15, 1925.

[7] According to the 1940 census, the highest level of education Goeller achieved was three years of college; however, the 1950 census classified Goeller as “C5,” indicating attendance at a graduate school level which, in Goeller’s case, likely corresponded to the professional art schools where he later taught.

[8] Undated and unattributed newspaper clipping, c. 1927-28 (GFA)

[9] Vignette

[10] Lader Interview

[11] Undated and unattributed newspaper clipping, c. 1927 – 28, quoting the artist (GFA)

[12] The only significant East Coast Precisionists missing from the regular Daniel Gallery’s roster were George Ault, Francis Criss, Stefan Hirsch, Louis Lozowick, and Edward Biberman, who was at the time living in New York.

[13] “Group Exhibition: Daniel Gallery,” The Art News, Vol. 27, Issue 24, March 16, 1929

[14] Cary, Elizabeth Luther, “The Lexicon of Youth A stimulating Mixed Exhibition Is Now Presented at the Museum of Modern Art,” The New York Times, April 13, 1930; see also Freund, Dr. Frank E. W., “When In New York”, The Cincinnati Inquirer, May 4, 1930, “As to the paintings, there is only space left to touch upon . . . Charles Goeller’s ‘Checked Tablecloth,’ excellent in its simplicity . . . “

[15] Jewell, Edward Alden, “Birthday Armor at Metropolitan – Young Moderns – Edzard Wins His Battle – Cats,” The New York Times, April 20, 1930

[16] Cahill, Holger, Art in America in Modern Times, Reynal & Hitchcock, New York, (1934), p. 40

[17] Ringel, Fred, J., editor, America as Americans See It, The Literary Guild, New York, (1932), p 258 (essay by Holger Cahill)

[18] A keen writer, Goeller also entered a short volume in the James T. Morrison poetry competition at Cornell, a copy of which is in the GFA.

[19] “Disputed Portrait of Christ Features Faculty Art Exhibit in Morse Hall Galleries,” The Ithaca Journal, June 13, 1933

[20] “The Needham Glen,” The Ithaca Journal, October 11, 1958

[21] Ibid.

[22] Letter from Charles Goeller to Hulda and John Newell, December 17, 1932 (December 17, 1932, Letter)

[23] Goeller thought highly of the Genesis series and went to the effort and expense of creating a handful of bound books with reproductions of the drawings complimented with the Biblical text.

[24] Devree, Howard, “Other Shows,” The New York Times, November 26, 1933 - “Three exhibitions provide the Argent Gallery with diversity. Charles Goeller in his first one-man show is represented by both sculpture and paintings. His painting by itself has sufficient diversity to be startling. The still-lifes are outstanding both in color and in remarkable fabric textures obtained . . . the carefully distinguished textures in the still-life subjects make Mr. Goeller’s first one-man show a very commendable achievement.”; “Charles Goeller, Hilde Kahn and J. Rollie Abraham,” The Art News, Vol. 32, Issue 8, November 25, 1933, “Charles Goeller formerly exhibited with the Daniels Gallery. This was followed with recognition by the Museum of Modern Art as one of the coming American painters . . . The themes cover the general topics associated with still life and a few figure subjects. Vases, glasses, blue brocade, egg plants, boxes and jelly jars are painted with enormous facility and clarity. In ‘Checkered Table Cloth,” we see as exquisite drawing and taste as one could hope to attain.”

[25] Although the previous estimate of Goeller’s output was around sixty pictures, he likely completed closer to seventy-five oils.

[26] The family lost its prominent Wilber Avenue house in Newark while “Goeller’s Folly” crumbled in the far-off countryside. Goeller’s parents and brother Tom moved into the much smaller bungalow in Maplewood, New Jersey, owned by their son, Leo, a house they would also eventually lose to foreclosure in the late 1930s. Tom Goeller Letter

[27] December 17, 1932 Letter

[28] Goeller shared the apartment with a roommate, likely George Raymond Van Allen, a former student and English professor during Goeller’s time at Cornell. A copy of Goeller’s bound volume of Genesis drawings bears the bookplate of Van Allen and an inscription which reads: “Given me by Charlie Goeller when I shared apartment with him 207 E. 19th St., N.Y.C. in the 1930s.” 

[29] The muralist Robert Winthrop Chanler also resided on the same section of E. 19th street, leaving behind a delightful 1922 mural of giraffes in a lunette above the entrance to his home and studio. An apartment building in the middle of the block once housed actresses Lillian Gish and Ethel Barrymore.

[30] The work has been widely and consistently exhibited, featured in government-issued posters, and published in American history textbooks.

[31] “Oils at the Federal Arts Gallery,” The Brooklyn Eagle, February 9, 1936

[32] “Exhibit is Field Day for Artists,” The New Journal, April 18, 1934

[33] Morsell, Mary, “Independents Hold Annual Exhibition of Art and Effort,” The Art News, Vol. 33, Issue 28, April 13, 1935

[34] “Labels,” The Art Digest, Vol. 9, Issue 8, January 15, 1935.

[35] Other family members, believe Goeller was gay or bi-sexual, providing an alternate explanation for Goeller’s life-long bachelorhood and another potential source of anguish at a time when the LGBTQ+ community was not widely accepted.

[36]Letter from Goeller to Hulda and John, and their daughter Elizabeth (Betsy) Newell, January 9, 1938 (GFA) (January 9, 1938, Letter) 

[37] Letter from Goeller to Hulda and John, October 23, 1937 (GFA)

[38] Ibid.

[39] January 9, 1938, Letter

[40] Lewis, Edward, “Annual Opens at Academy,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 30, 1938

[41] Nation’s Business, December, 1938 (GFA)

[42] Letter from Goeller to Hulda, John, and Betsy, 1939 (GFA)

[43] Devree, Howard, “A Dozen One-Man Shows,” The New York Times, October 7, 1945

[44] Letter from Goeller to Betsy, c. 1941 (GFA)

[45] “Noted Fleetwings Artist is Creator of ‘Angeline,’” Fleetwings News, October 1, 1943 (GSA)

[46] Invoice, dated August 13, 1946 (GFA)

[47] “Painting vs. Photography Differences Due to Varied Approaches of Artist,” unattributed newspaper clipping, 1946 (GFA) 

[48] Devree, Howard, untitled notice, The New York Times, May 4, 1947 (GFA) (Devree 1947)

[49] “Series of Exchange Shows Open Dismal Subjects,” New York World Telegram, May 3, 1947 (GFA)

[50] Ibid.

[51] Devree 1947

[52] Vignette

[53] Frost, Robert, Mending Wall, 1914

[54] “Artists Explain Interpretations,” unattributed newspaper clipping, c. late 1940s (GFA)

[55] “Another Whitney Annual,” Art Digest, November 15, 1952 (GFA)

[56] Goeller, Charles, “City River,” The Land, Winter, 1950-51 (GFA) 

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid.

[60] 1950 US Census

[61] Stavitsky, Gail, Emotion Expressed Through Precision: The Art of Charles Goeller, Franklin Riehlman Fine Art and Megan Moynihan Fine Art, New York, 2003, unpaginated (Stavitsky)

[62] Kirstein, Lincoln, American Realist and Magic Realists, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, (1943), p. 7

[63] Ibid., p. 8

[64] Ibid.

[65] Lenson, Michael, “The Realm of Art . . . Associated Artists of N.J. Annual On Exhibition in New York,” Newark Sunday News, November 14, 1954 (GFA)

[66] Stavitsky

[67] Lader Interview. Again, the comparison to Ault is relevant, as he too suffered from alcoholism and isolation, circumstances which also led to his premature death, potentially by suicide.   


________________________________________________


Charles Goeller (1901 – 1955)


Selected Chronology


1901 – Born in Irvington, NJ


Late 1910s/early 1920s – Studied engineering, mathematics and architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Cornell University


1923 – Moved to Paris to study art with Jean Despujols, at the École Américaine de Fontainebleau and Académie de la Grande Chaumière 


1927 – 1928 – Exhibited at Salon des Artistes Francais and Salon D’Automne, both in Paris


1928 – Returned to the U.S. and began painting in New Jersey


1929 - Exhibited for the first time at Society of Independent Artists and The Daniel Gallery, both in New York; included in “The Immaculate School” group of artists, together with Sheeler, Demuth, et. al.   


1930 – Exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, An Exhibition of Work of 46 Painters & Sculptors under 35 Years of Age


1931 – Alfred H. Barr cited Goeller as a ‘New Objectivist’ at the College Art Association


1931 - 1933 – Taught art at Cornell University


1933 – Exhibited at his first solo show at the Argent Gallery, New York


1934 – Lived in New York and worked for the Public Works of Art Project; exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


1935 – Exhibited a prize-winning mural study at the Architectural League, New York; lived in Bristol, Pennsylvania


1936 - Worked for the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration  


1937- Returned to New Jersey and began to depict the burgeoning suburbs around his home


1938 – Exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Whitney Museum of American Art; worked in his family’s iron and steel firm


1941 – Founding member of the Associated Artists of New Jersey


1942 – Exhibited at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, (and traveling), Portrait of America, Artists for Victory, Inc.


1943 – Exhibited at the Society of Independent Artists, M.H. DeYoung Memorial Museum, San Francisco, CA, and Riverside Museum, New York; moved back to Bristol, Pennsylvania to work at Fleetwings, Inc., an aircraft component fabricator, where he was part of the illustration department and created the character “Angeline”


1945 – Solo Exhibition at Bonestell Gallery, New York


1947 – Solo Exhibition at Bonestell Gallery, New York


Late 1940s/ early 1950s – Acted as an art instructor at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts


1952 – Exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art


1955 – Died in Elizabeth, New Jersey as a result of an aneurysm at the age of 54; a special memorial held as part of the 2nd Annual Juried Exhibition of Work by New Jersey Artists to commemorate five artists who had died since 1952, including Goeller and John Marin


1956 - The Hunterdon County Art Center in Clinton, New Jersey, held a second Memorial Exhibition for Goeller, Gus Eager, and Bror J. O. Nordfeldt


1994 – Exhibited at the Montclair Art Museum (and other venues), Precisionism in America 1915-1941: Reordering Reality


2003 – Solo Exhibition at Franklin Riehlman Fine Art/Megan Moynihan Fine Art, New York, Emotion Expressed Through Precision: The Art of Charles Goeller


2004 – Solo Exhibition at Greenville County Museum of Art, Greenville, South Carolina, July 3 – August 29, 2004, Charles Goeller  


2009 – Exhibited at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., 1934: A New Deal for Artists


2018 – Exhibited at The M.H. DeYoung Memorial Museum, San Francisco, and the Dallas Museum of Art, Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art


2022 – Solo Exhibition at Menconi and Schoelkopf Fine Art LLC., New York, Art of the Unfinished Problem


December 1, 2023, through January 19, 2024

All art in the “Exhibition” portion of this catalog is available for purchase.


© CW American Modernism LLC, 2023 (catalog)

© Various artists or their respective estates (artwork)


Credits:

Physical Catalog Design: Clanci Jo Conover


A special thanks to the Goeller family and their advisor, Ed Christin, for entrusting CW American Modernism with the artist’s work and to our friends at Schoelkopf Gallery in New York for their support in this effort. Goeller’s niece, Nancy Lader, was particularly helpful in sharing her and her mother’s recollections of the artist. Our heartfelt appreciation goes to Arthur Hittner, Sandra Koretz, Lisa Gordon and Marty O’Brien for their insights, suggestions, and edits on this catalog. Any errors or omissions are our own.


Dedicated to Franklin Riehlman who helped rediscover Charles Goeller more than twenty years ago. We also extend our thanks to Gail Stavitsky for her 2003 essay Emotion Expressed Through Precision: The Art of Charles Goeller.

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