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The Arts

Medicine Show

The Secret Life of Dr. William Goldiner

Sam Holden
Art House: Dr. William Goldiner at ease in his living room

By Matt O'Brien | Posted 7/31/2002

Neighbors don't know what to make of the silvery golemlike creature in William Goldiner's living room. The figure stands nearly two stories tall, a torpid robot frozen in time on its thick haunches. Its reflective aluminum love handles offer observers the warped effects of a circus mirror.

The children in Goldiner's Pikesville neighborhood call it the "Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man," but Goldiner prefers to call it "Geister," or "Grosse Geister," the proper name for the hulking mass of sculpture custom-made for his home by the young German artist Thomas Schütte.

The Baltimore Orioles aren't sure what to make of Geister, either. As O's team physician for the past nine years, Baltimore native Goldiner spends many of his working hours at Camden Yards, tending to injured players at home games (he also has his own internal medicine practice). When he showed team members the pictures depicting how he managed to get "Geister" in the house, a few of them had a hearty laugh.

But the man getting the biggest kick out of contemporary art in Baltimore might very well be William Goldiner himself. The occasional piles of bright art-show catalogs and the occasional political thriller novel aside, his semiattached house is clutter-free, in appearance more like a gallery space than a home. If he didn't have to sleep and eat, one thinks, Goldiner might well would swap the bed and kitchen table to find more room for art.

The roster of artists whose work is displayed from the basement to the bedroom of the home he bought in 1997 reads like the lineup of some international biennial. Andreas Gursky's well-known wide photograph "Prada II" rests comfortably downstairs, matching the tidy and alien tranquility of the basement with its portrayal of an empty commercial display case. Another Gursky work, a broad and busy photo of a bustling airport ("Hong Kong Airport"), faces the dining-room table.

On a stairway, a young German man looks out at the gallery-cum-house from Thomas Ruff's 1986 large-scale photograph "Stoya." In a collection of mostly unpeopled works, it presents a rare human face, albeit a deliberately dispassionate one. Goldiner's walls are lined with James Welling's photographic abstractions, Candida Höfer's peculiarly still interiors, and Thomas Struth's stately photograph of the Todai-ji temple in Nara, Japan. Behind the Schütte sculpture hangs "After Richter," a large-format cut-up color-chip photograph interpretation of Gerhard Richter's painting "Betty" by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz.

The floors are dotted with smaller sculptures, such as the bronze "Ballerena" by the late Juan Muñoz. The Muñoz work is figurative on top, with hanging bell arms and a half-sphere replacing legs below: the ballerina has no feet or limbs to dance, and can only rock back and forth. "It's almost an imitation of Degas," Goldiner says. "From the waist up, it's Degas. From the waist down, it ain't Degas."

For the Schütte work, Goldiner went straight to the artist's studio in Düsseldorf. He picked the work he wanted out of a group of maquettes, or preliminary models, and the artist eventually sent the model to the foundry. Since it finally reached Goldiner's living room in 2000, he's had plenty of time to mull it over.

"I think he has some of the feeling of German guilt," Goldiner suggests about Schütte. "He tortures himself with that. The pain, the contortion of it . . . the unresolved issues. I think he feels the pain of his generation for the deeds of before. I think his art is the way he works that out."

Many private collections are based on the arbitrary whims of the collector in question. The striking thing about Goldiner's collection is how much it seems like a seamless whole. A number of the works share an austere prettiness, but attempts to categorize the collection in the particular realm of the German experience, or realism, or anything else prove perilous. Goldiner says he welcomes and is fascinated by visitors' interpretations, because it helps him understand his own compulsion to collect. As soon as a visitor makes any connection between pieces, however, the doctor will mirthfully provide another surprise work that makes attempts to lump his holdings into an easy thematic package irrelevant.

For example, Hiroshi Sugito's small painting "From the Water Room" hangs in the corner across from "Geister." From afar it looks like an abstract work marked by a large velvety mat of cool, multihued green. Upon closer examination, the painting depicts a room--a bright green video-game interior with a stand-out red square door. An imposing shadow of a giant head looms over the whole scene.

Goldiner excitedly mentions Mothra, Godzilla, and the importance of the lumbering monsters of Japanese kaiju movies in Sugito's art. Of course, the shadow could be cast by Goldiner's head, or it could be one's own. Most disturbingly, one realizes that it could be the shadow of Schütte's tower of aluminum at the other end of the room.

Goldiner is particularly enamored of a much larger Sugito painting currently lodged in his garage because there's no room for it in the house. In describing his attachments to works such as Sugito's, he uses words like "infatuation," but then later muses, "Is it infatuation or love?"

It was one of those, certainly, that first brought Goldiner to collecting. At a medical conference at Baltimore's Good Samaritan Hospital in 1984, he happened upon a piece of art that attracted his attention.

"Outside of where the meeting was going to take place, there was a picnic table [covered] with zillions of prints," he says. A print from Marc Chagall's Bible Series caught his eye: "I sort of liked it, and the guy was taking American Express. I ended up buying it--it was $110."

His interest soon expanded, and the guidance of fellow Baltimore doctor and collector Marvin Mordes helped lead Goldiner to the photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher. The German couple's realist portraits of factories and blast furnaces from the 1950s and onward are still part of his collection, but their presence in his home is reflected as much in their influence as in the works themselves. (Of which Goldiner says he was able to amass so many because some galleries were "practically giving them away" in the '80s.) A professor at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, Bernd Becher and his wife helped jump-start an entire German photography movement in the 1980s. Many of their pupils are represented in Goldiner's collection, including Gursky, Struth, and Ruff.

"Whether or not I purchase or live with a piece has to do with that piece and how it communicates with me," Goldiner says. "It's communication between the object and the person. I purchased the Bechers before I knew anything about the art they were doing. I learned about them afterwards. In my particular case, that's how I collect."

For someone who proclaims, "I don't know about art history," Goldiner's perceptive eye leave some art historians in awe.

"He has such a good sense for works that are interesting for somebody studying contemporary art as a kind of historical question," says Brigid Doherty, a professor of art history at Johns Hopkins University. "He has an intuitive feeling for works that have their own sets of historical relationships but don't look mannered or any less interesting visually as a collection."

Goldiner says he tries not to buy on impulse, looking instead for some lasting resonance with the object, but occasionally he does get rid of works to make room for others. Whether he gives them away to museums or, as in the case of an expensive Gursky work, sells them back at auctions, he says the works he packs off are works he has grown tired of, perhaps works for which that initial passion was only a fleeting infatuation, not a real communication. But for many other works, such as the large Sugito painting in the garage, their absence from the display are simply a question of the doctor's space restrictions.

"They're masterpieces! And I can't even get them in the goddamn house," Goldiner says. "Maybe I'll have to move again."

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