Ralph Goings - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Ralph Goings
Childhood and Education
From an early age, Goings has memories of his father being "a classic victim of the Great Depression." For the working-class at that time, it was extremely difficult to find work; often, temporary or "odd" jobs comprised the only available opportunities for earning even scant wages at the time.
As a favorite pastime, the Goings family - mother, father, Ralph, and his younger brother, would pile into their car and take long drives. On one unfortunate ride, Goings' younger brother, James - just six years old at the time - was thrown from the vehicle and suffered a severe head injury that he later died from. This tragic event caused his parents much grief and was a turning point, which prompted the family to relocate to a neighboring town for a fresh start.
Throughout his formative years, Goings was involved in a number of extra-curricular activities including learning to play several instruments. While art was not a part of formal education at that time, he had a strong tendency to draw in class, against the wishes of his teachers. Goings' understanding of art was rooted in replication. Having spent a good deal of his idle time drawing, he developed what was to be his own, lifelong aesthetic ethos: that drawing was "just a way to figure out how things were - sometimes, how they worked."
By the time he graduated from high school, World War II had just ended and, finally old enough to enlist, Goings joined the army. At the same time, he set his sights on becoming a musician at the end of his military service; an ambition that was short lived when the opportunity to attend college presented itself. Goings enrolled in Hartnell College in Salinas, CA for just two semesters before pursuing an art degree more intently at the California College of Arts in Oakland, CA.
After graduating from art school, Goings accepted a job as a high school teacher, teaching both art and music. While his intentions were to pursue a career as a full-time artist, by that time he had a wife and four children to support, so he chose pragmatism over artistic ambition.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Abstract Expressionism was the most influential, avant garde artistic movement. Artists such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock were at the forefront of the art scene and, during his art school training in the late 1950s, the only acceptable route to take was that of abstraction. The style never really suited him. He recalled, "Abstract painting just didn't offer me the kind of satisfaction I wanted, so I tried representation."
Around the same time that he moved on from abstract painting, Goings relocated to Sacramento, CA in order to connect with the thriving art scene there, transferring to a new high school to continue teaching while engaging more directly with other artists and an overall environment more conducive to his artistic growth. The move was the first of many that were prompted by pragmatism - finding decent-paying teaching jobs - but it opened up new artistic opportunities, as he was able to join the Artist Collaborative Gallery, which provided him with an opportunity to show his work and engage with other experimental artists.
The move inspired a period of extensive experimentation; his work from that period ranged from thickly coated canvases to Joseph Cornell-style boxes. The range of his experimentation, however, spoke more to his own frustration with his own inability to connect in a meaningful way to the popular styles of the period.
In 1963, Goings had a personal breakthrough in his studio: he was fond of a particular magazine cover and decided to paint it to look as "real" as possible. The exercise was anything but taxing; rather, he found it both challenging and fulfilling and was inspired to find new images, which he could replicate based on his impulse toward precision or, at least, the illusion of precisions.
In 1969, while still working as a teacher, Goings received a surprising and ultimately life-changing proposition from his friend, the successful gallery owner, Ivan Karp. Confident in the artist's potential for achieving critical and commercial success, Karp urged him to quit his teaching job so that he could begin painting full-time and assured the reluctant Goings that, should he take the risk, his work would definitely sell. Goings's first solo exhibition took place in 1969 at Karp's OK Harris Gallery in SOHO in New York City.
By the mid-1970s, Goings and his wife, Shanna moved their family to upstate New York so he could be closer to the New York City art scene, although neither husband nor wife wished to live in the city itself. The terrain of upstate New York suited them and they bought an old farmhouse. Goings converted a barn on the property into an art studio, where he produced the majority of the paintings he made throughout his career.
After having experimented with collages, using images he found in magazines and then producing paintings of single human figures - usually his own students - he arrived at one of his most familiar subjects: pickup trucks. Such things, he said, "that were so common in the environment that people didn't even look at them." These were the paintings that launched his career.
Goings established a method for creating such works: he would take photographs of whatever object or objects he planned to paint and would project the imagery from slides directly onto his canvases (or paper). It was almost a mechanical process, just like the manual technique that he developed in which his brushwork was smoothed over. The goal, explained Goings, "was always to remove myself from my work so that there was nothing, no intermediary between the viewer and the subject of the picture."
As Goings began narrowing the focus of his work in the early 1970s, paintings that most often featured diner culture, (including genre images and still lifes) he found that the guiding force in his work was light and the subtle changes that could affect an entire composition. While he is known for his emphasis on creating complex surfaces, allowing reflections to exist as the abstract aspects of a given work, the artist insists that it isn't surfaces alone that interest him. "I'm fond of the objects, the places and the people I paint," he said in an interview. "They are the ordinary inhabitants of my world and they're loaded with visual excitement for me."
Starting in the mid-1980s onward, Goings and his wife lived both in upstate New York and a second house in Santa Cruz, California. Finally, in 2006 they decided to sell the New York farm and Goings currently resides in California.
In interviews in the early 2000s, Goings spoke about how his works have evolved over the decades of his painting career and the aesthetic refinement that took place as his personal interest and style evolved.
The Legacy of Ralph Goings
Goings was one of a handful of Photorealists who lent the banal, consumer object and the everyday experience a sense of importance that the unbelievable (and deceptive) realism of his paintings seems to demand. By nature of his almost reverential attention to detail, Goings' representations of diner interiors and exteriors, trucks and camping trailers that evoke thoughts of working and middle-class mobility and leisure, and mundane objects like donuts and coffee cups, encourage viewers to consider even the most ordinary things and people "worth looking at," as interpreted by art critic Edward Lucie Smith. This echoes Pop art's obsession with the ordinary but without the persistent critique of consumption. Goings' technique, compared by critics to that of Dutch Masters like Vermeer, emphasizes smoothness over the painterly style of the Abstract Expressionists who preceded him. While the Photorealist movement was relatively short-lived, in part because of "art world politics and taste," argues a New York Times critic, and also due to "the post-60s 'death of painting' and the embrace of different kinds of conceptualism," the importance and reach of the movement can be seen in the works of successors like Richard Prince and Jeff Koons, who enlarged (to extremes) photographs instead of painting them or, conversely, in the work of Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky, whom Louis K. Meisel referred to as "photographers who work like painters."