They loved the water; that’s why for hundreds of years they have called it the Côte d’Azure. If we, in coming from smog-filled cities, had been there first, we might have called it the Côte de Diamants; that’s the kind of air which gives that coast its brilliance.

It was, of course, the Impressionists who taught us that light is color and color light; and so deeply did these artists admire the Côte d’Azure that today Renoir’s girl models, round-faced, bright-eyed and young as they appeared in Renoir’s time seem to sit under the chestnut trees with their boyfriends and drink the wines of Provence as they did aforetime.

The parasol has been exchanged for the bikini, but the light does not change; the sea does not change, and the mountains still ring the Côte d’Azure.  A lither, less inhibited generation has taken over the beaches, and Shirl Goedike is its celebrant.

That, of course, is not the whole story, but it is an important part of the story we have to tell here.  This is essentially an exhibition of the French Riviera – its ocean, its younger people, and above all its light – as recorded by an American artist to whom the sun and the sea and the youth of the Côte d’Azur were hinted at years ago in Southern California.

Win a major prize, and something is likely to happen to you.  Your indecisions reach toward an end.  Prizes, to be sure, don’t make professionals, but they help. Goedike won his first major prize at Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1955.  The picture was called Edinburgh; it depicted a cool northern capital almost as far from our artist’s present concerns as the map of Europe permits. 

He was born in Los Angeles, studied music there at the University of Southern California, and practiced that art professionally for twelve years as  trumpet player and arranger, before deciding that the visual arts would occupy center stage, so far as he was concerned, for the rest of his life.  His principal teacher in painting was the late Lorser Feitelson, one of the country’s leading geometric-abstract artists and, like many devotees of that form of abstraction, a past master of basic techniques.

 The sound of the trumpet calls from Shirl Goedike’s early work. Cavalcades brilliant with banners traverse the surface of his pictures; their brilliance springs not from color, which is likely to lie on the somber side, but from the rush and energy of his line. Horses prance in exuberant spiraling calligraphy and explode thought the surface of the canvas into the spectator’s eye and mind. Tension, raciness, temperamental freedom are the keynotes, played off against richly time-darkened cityscapes like Venice, and like Siena, with its annual pageant-like horserace, the Palio, coursing thought its squares and medieval streets.

  “Goedike proves that high spirits and the grand style go convincingly together,” I wrote twenty years ago on the occasion of his first one-man exhibition in San Francisco, and there is no reason to revise that point of view today. But artists who stand still soon cease to be artists at all, and this is as true of Goedike as of everyone else worth talking about.


“Certain sculptures by Matisse and Brancusi… begin with natural forms and purify these step by step into geometric reductions,” said Alfred Corn in an essay on the poet Eugenio Montale. It can go the other way, too. Geometric reductions, Platonic essences of form and energy, can in time return to the natural forms from which they came. The process is not totally unlike the alteration of tactile and painterly, the yang and yin of pictorial change, which Heinrich Wolfflin sees as the basic dynamic in his Principles of Art History.


Goedike’s evolution toward his current naturalism can be documented through paintings of slanting roofs in old towns peaking as solidly as mountains, their basic geometry emerging grandly through a surface splash of vertiginous brushmanship and freely running paint. (“Cubism is Spanish architecture,” said Gertrude Stein.) It can also be seen in his geometrized polo ponies or his long legged bathers standing tall and joining a strip of sand to a violet sky across a more darkly violet sea.


Goedike has painted in California, in Spain and Italy and Holland, but the Côte d’Azur is where he lives physically half of the each year and spiritually all of each year. In spite of the mountains roundabout, he paints no landscapes into the deep woods of Provence, its deserted rocky places and its abandoned decaying peasant cottages lost in semi tropical growth.


And in recording today’s Côte d’Azur, Goedike has found for us a world between the decades. It is as if the attention of art and artists had been drawn elsewhere once the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists had had their way with the Riviera and nobody else cared until Goedike came to see it alive again, Sure, there are plenty of museums, chapels and big-name collections there, but the artists are all – or nearly all – dead. Where is today’s life in this environment; how do life and the Côte d’Azure currently get along together? Shirl Goedike is the first major painter of our time to address himself to this question.

Interestingly, he came to the Côte d’Azur roundabout, by way of literature. The fictions of F. Scott Fitzgerald and W. Somerset Maugham set on the Riviera aroused his interest. He corresponded with Maugham. He came to see. And then he remained, half of each year with wife and son at his house and studio near Saint Paul de Vence, half of each year in Southern California.

This does not mean that Goedike endlessly transcribes the scene before him. “It’s the ways we think up that re-create an experience that give new dimensions to that experience,” said Goedike in an interview with Janice Lovoos. Memory enlarging into creation is his primary psychological tool. He will make sketches, but he will abandon them when work on the painting starts. He will also refer at times to photographs made for the purpose; painters have been doing that ever since the photograph was invented; it was, in fact, its usefulness as an instant sketch medium that, more than any other aspect of its existence, led to the immediate and widespread acceptance of photography among painters in Europe and America alike.


Napoleon III and Jacques Offenbach dance a gay and ghostly pas de deux in the streets of Nice, The Second Empire waltzes with Art Nouveau where horses once stamped, neighed, and wriggled the skin of their shoulders waiting in line for the opera to end and the champagne to begin. Volkswagen buses now stand dark and silent, and the façade of the Opera House under and about the lighted marquee glows a tarnished yellow.


Nevertheless one series of paintings, partly included in the present exhibition, must be mentioned here apart. That is the series, which Goedike has worked on for many years known as The Girl and the Rose. The theme is old. Sappho doubtlessly knew it, and there are traces of it in medieval French literature. It came to Goedike’s attention through the version of Théophile Gautier. Goedike has included his own prose version of the story here; his writing parallels his draughtmanship and his painting; was there ever a better reason for an interloping art historian to bow from the page and leave the art to the artist?

From the Book


Excerpt by Alfred Frankenstein



Alfred Frankenstein was born in Chicago, is a graduate of the University of Chicago, and began his professional career there as an instructor in the history of music. In 1934 he became art and music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, but as a result of ever-increasing activity in both fields, he became art critic full time in 1965. Mr. Frankenstein has also been active as an historian of American painting, a subject he is currently teaching as Stanford University and has taught in the past at seven other universities including Harvard, NYU, the University of California, Mills College and the Free University of Berlin. He has arranged numerous exhibitions and written numerous books on the history of American art. The most important of these books are After the Hunt; a study of William Harnett and other nineteenth century American still-life painters (University of California, Press, 1953 and 1969); The World of Copley (Time-Life Books, 1970), and William Sidney Mount, a Documentary Biography (Abrams, 1976).

SAN JOSE MUSEUM OF ART, San Jose, California, February 1, through March 7, 1979

HAMMER GALLERIES, New York, November 21 through December 9, 1978

Excerpts from the Catalogue Text by Alfred Frankenstein


Shirl Goedike