In the 1970s, when Linda Givon was collaborating with artists Walter Battiss and Norman Catherine on the Fook Island fantasy at her Goodman Gallery, her royal title was Linda Queen Linda, Queen Asteroa of Fook Island. And queen of the South African art world she certainly was, holding court at the Hyde Park Gallery she opened in 1966. Her word, her opinion, was the one that counted. Artists vied to be shown at her gallery.
Linda knew everyone in Johannesburg, and everyone knew her. A visitor sitting in Linda’s office might see her flick over the pages of her personal phone book and pick up the phone. ‘Darling! I’ve found a wonderful piece for you. The artist brought it in this morning. And I’ve called you first! Yes, it’s right here. I’m looking at it now. You’re going to love it. I think you should come in this afternoon. Three o’clock? Perfect!’
And another sale would be on its way to consummation.
Born in Johannesburg in 1936, Linda graduated from the University of Witwatersrand with a Bachelor of Arts degree, then received a teaching and acting diploma from the London School of Dramatic Art. This was followed by an apprenticeship at the prestigious Grosvenor Gallery in London in the mid sixties. Somewhere along the way, Linda learned to speak fluent French, always an asset for a gallerist, and passable Italian, and her sense of style was impeccable.
In 1966, when Linda (then Goodman) had returned to this country and first invited viewers into the ‘black cube’ of her new gallery, it was a time when South Africa and its artists were not even a tiny blip on the radar of the international art world, Linda’s driving mission was to change this sad state of affairs, and to set a new standard. She started to bring to South Africa the work of contemporary international artists like Victor Vasarely, Mimo Palladino, and Henry Moore. Even more importantly, she sought out and launched the careers of local artists whose work she felt had something to say, whose work had energy, was confrontational, and moved beyond the safe and lacklustre, ‘always taking into account the social demographics of this country’, as she said.
While visual artists were not as susceptible to having their work banned by the apartheid government as playwrights and writers, (it appeared the State considered visual art was more likely to appeal to an elitist rather than a popular audience) there was no doubt that the State did monitor what was going on in the commercial art galleries. In 1978, when Ezrom Legae exhibited his powerful ‘Chicken’ drawings at the Goodman Gallery, referencing the murder by security police of activist Steve Biko in 1987, the authorities threatened to confiscate them. Linda fobbed them off by arguing that the drawings were merely representations of ‘poultry’, and she later went on to facilitate the exhibition of Legae’s series overseas.
To Linda, her gallery was not just a business, it was her life, and she dedicated it to promoting and showing work from artists like Legae, Dumile Feni, Cecil Skotnes, Patrick Mautloa, William Kentridge, Sam Nhlengethwa, Penny Siopis, David Koloane, David Goldblatt, Willie Bester, Robert Hodgins, Jeremy Wafer, and Clive van den Berg, among many others. Later on, younger artists would join the gallery roster: Kendell Geers, Moshekwa Langa, Tracey Rose, Frances Goodman, Lisa Brice.
In 1984, the Goodman Gallery’s application for a full size stand at the world’s oldest and most important art fair, Art Basel, was accepted, the first gallery from South Africa to achieve this international accreditation. Galleries must submit the work they intend to show ahead of time for approval, and standards are stringent. Many are rejected. It was an accolade for Linda.
But the Goodman Gallery space was more than just a space to show the work of the country’s top practitioners. It was literally the centre of the art world, an arena for fun, for conversation and engagement with whatever was new. When Penny Siopis and Colin Richards got married in May 1987, wedding guests went from the ceremony in the Greek Orthodox Church in Hillbrow to the Goodman for a convivial reception, graced not only by a cake sculpture made by Penny, but one you could actually eat, ‘curated’ by Linda. Penny and Colin’s baby son, Alexander, attended the event wearing a little white and blue outfit knitted by Linda herself.
Crucial as the director of a gallery is to its success, a strong support team is essential. Linda ruled with an iron rod. The staff at the Goodman came and went, the more fragile ones sooner than the others. Sometimes assistants left more than once. On the timeline of his life, in his monograph Irrespektiv, Kendell Geers notes: ‘1992 Retrenched and Banned from Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg’.
The longest standing member of the Goodman staff, and still there today, unfailingly warm, remembering every artwork, every sale, every client, is senior curator Neil Dundas. Neil wrote this week, ‘Yes, (Linda) could still be a diva and quite off the wall, and very demanding, even last week. But also generous, funny, smart and grand when she pleased, too. She has been in my life, on my case, at my side and leading the way for so long … teaching, critiquing, laughing, gossiping, reprimanding and entertaining for over 38 years! I shall miss her … She taught me a huge amount even if sometimes rather harshly!’
Artists were either in, or out. Tempestuous scenes were sometimes played out in the gallery. One could never be quite sure what one’s latest standing was. Robert Hodgins once wrote to me, ‘Oh, the horror of Linda on her high horse …’
My first exhibition at the Goodman was in 1994. One work was an installation entitled The Last Supper Revisited, in which the main element was a circular table with a black glass top. This top was lit from beneath by dozens of small bulbs to highlight resin blocks encasing residue from the demolition sites of District Six. I was in Johannesburg for the show, and a few days after the opening, received a call from Linda. An icy voice came down the phone. ‘Darling, your table top. There was a tremendous crack and it just collapsed! Glass everywhere! And it happened just as [artist and critic] Jo [Schonfeldt] walked in to that room to review your work.’ I was totally mortified. The heat of the lighting had been too much for the glass. But the glass was replaced with a thicker quality, and no one could have been prouder than Linda when the exhibition went on to win the Vita Award for best exhibition in South Africa for that year.
With the ending of apartheid and the first democratic election, South Africa began to attract international interest, and when the Havana Biennale committee asked me if I could help enlist some South African artists to participate in the 1994 edition, I turned to Linda. Selections were made by the Biennale, and Linda badgered the Department of Arts and Culture to provide funding for shipping and for some artists to attend, and organised all the logistics and shipping through the gallery.
It was a time when everyday necessities in Cuba were almost unobtainable and travel advisories suggested that visitors should bring such items with them as small gifts. Linda was unfailingly generous, and took note of this instruction. On the day of the opening ceremonies in Havana, Linda asked me to come to her hotel room en route to the event. Here, she handed me two large plastic bags of deodorants, aspirins and soap, and asked if I would please hand these out to artists that day. I declined, but wherever her supplies landed up, I’m sure they were greatly appreciated.
Linda’s generosity extended to support for her artists in so many ways. Tertiary art education overseas would be paid for, rehab, projects, books, airfares. Art institutions, chronically short of acquisition funds, would receive donations of work from her artists’ latest exhibitions.
But in 1995 there came a moment when Linda got fed up with the art scene and with all us artists, and we received notice from her that the gallery would be closing down and our work would be returned to us.
Wrote Michele Witthaus in Business Day on June 30, 1995,
The unthinkable is about to happen in the Johannesburg fine art world. The Goodman Gallery is closing down. This week, the gallery’s formidable proprietor Linda Givon reached a decision she had been threatening to make for years. The reasons she gave included high overheads, a punishing exhibition schedule and the difficulty of persuading locals to visit the gallery and buy art.
As if in confirmation of her mood, it was discovered on the same morning that a painting by Willie Bester had been stolen off the wall in one of the gallery’s front rooms. At least one person had been motivated to visit the gallery and liked the art enough to walk off with it. The only problem was that neither the gallery nor the artist made any money on the deal.
Luckily, before the moving trucks pulled in to load up all the artwork to be returned, a new gallery possibility swam into Linda’s view, an extremely visible stand alone building with curved walls and display windows looking out onto the busy highway of Jan Smuts Avenue. A lease was signed, moveable walls made the new space much more flexible, and in October 1996, the new Goodman Gallery opened with a important group exhibition which launched Art in South Africa: the Future Present, the book I co-authored with Ashraf Jamal.
In 2006, after investigating potential gallery spaces in Cape Town for almost two years, the Goodman Gallery opened their second branch in a handsome third floor industrial space in Woodstock Cape Town, under the curatorship of Emma Bedford and Storm Janse van Rensburg. Only two years later, after a bout of ill health, Linda announced that she was retiring, and had sold the Goodman Gallery to Liza Essers, who would be the new director.
It was hard to think of the dynamic Linda settling down to retirement, and it wasn’t too long before she recovered her health, and revealed plans to open a new gallery in the trendy area of Braamfontein, in partnership with curator Koulla Xinisteris. ‘I have built up one gallery from scratch and I will do it again,’ said Linda. ‘I am going to launch the careers of a new generation of young artists.’ Lease problems ensued, and plans for this space were never finalised.
Throughout her life Linda donated art to a number insititutions like Iziko South African National Gallery, and Wits University, and in 2016, to coincide with her 80th year and honour her enormous contribution to art in this country, the Wits Art Museum held an exhibition of her personal collection called Off the Wall, curated by Josh Ginsberg and James Webb.
Another of Linda’s retirement projects was going to be the writing of a book, which would recount the history of the Goodman Gallery and the art world as she had seen it change and evolve over her time at the helm of her gallery. Various writers have been said to have worked on this project with Linda, and I hope that even if the book is incomplete, we will one day see whatever has been written so far. Linda’s experiences and her role in the artworld were quite unique, and should be preserved for posterity.
On Saturday, October 3, Linda had been expected at the Goodman Gallery to view William Kentridge’s latest exhibition, but she texted Neil Dundas to say her driver was off, and she was feeling a bit tired. On the morning of Monday, October 5, news came that she had slipped peacefully away in her sleep in the early hours of the day.
It is difficult to imagine the art world without Linda. Her Goodman Gallery was the forerunner, setting the standard for all the new galleries which have followed in its wake. Today, the artists she launched have been firmly established in the international art world for decades, the Goodman Gallery brand has been carried forward with energy by Liza Essers who has now opened a London branch of the Goodman as well, and Linda’s irreplaceable contribution will never be forgotten.