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Periodic Table

Betty Goodwin
Periodic Table, 1996
Steel, glass, earth, plaster, oil crayon, pastel and metallic paint
Steel plate: 152.5 x 200.7 x .5 cm; narwhal tusk: 245.5 x 30.4 x 30.4 cm; cube with earth on stand: 170.4 x 41 x 42 cm overall; cube with earth: 49 x 41 x 42 cm
Gift of Betty and Martin Goodwin, Montreal, 1999, in honour of Pierre Théberge
© B. Goodwin

Betty Goodwin's installation Periodic Table bas been described as a "tombeau," or tribute, to the Italian chemist, writer, and Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi, whose autobiography bears the same title as this work. Each chapter in the autobiography is titled after one of the elements, metaphorically grounding the painful narrative of his life. Profoundly affected by Levi's testimoni, Goodwin created this sculptural response. One of the legs of the table supporting a heavy glass container of earth is inscribed with the prisoner number that was tattooed indelibly on Levi's forearm. The table/container suggests both a body and a grave. Reading it as body, we notice that earth fills the space where the chest would be. Beside the table stands a weathered plaster replica of a narwhal tusk, prized in the Middle Ages as the horn of the legendary unicorn. It is a singular thing, a bony outcropping about the size of a man, appearing, in its context, as another reminder of death.

Bones and tables recur in Goodwin's recent work. In The Pulse of a Room, completed a year earlier, the tables support steel boxes with pipes coming out of them. As oblique references to the Nazi gas chambers, these oven-like boxes direct our thoughts to the unspeakable transformation of flesh and bone into their basic elements. Bones also bang beside pendulums in Goodwin's drawings - juxtapositions suggestive of her reflections on human existence. In later life, Goodwin bas become obsessed with time and memory. Art, in her hands, is a means of restoring a sense of order to life, inevitably marked by loss. The periodic table alluded to is both a scientific tool and, here, a metaphorical reckoning of a life.

Goodwin, whose major contribution to twentieth-century art bas been her elevation of drawing to the status of a major expressive tool, is less well known for her sculpture. Nonetheless, she has repeatedly returned to such hard, dense materials as steel and plaster, as if to concretize the probing, exploring lines of her drawings, and to three-dimensional form, to locate her ideas in the immediate space of the viewer.

Apart from Periodic Table, the National Gallery owns an extensive collection of Goodwin's drawings and prints, as well as three key sculptures: an untitled steel structure sometimes referred to as "River Piece" (1978); a vessel-like plaster sculpture, Sargasso Sea (1992); and a small bronze, Before Silence (1998). Periodic Table resonates in the context of these other pieces, enlarging and extending our understanding of the significance of Betty Goodwin's artistic accomplishment.