Irwin Golden: A lifetime of talent spills onto the canvas
Inside the Belmont Village Senior Living’s Westwood facility, a large, 5-by-4 canvas hangs on the wall in the third-floor hallway. It’s an abstract artwork, a complex tapestry of mostly earth tones and a varied geometric scheme of squares, cut-off triangles and shapes that fall in between.
An untitled piece, it’s located just outside Room 323, where 90-year-old Irwin Golden grins merely at the mention of it. And for good reason — he painted it.
“I like the big ones,” he said. “But there’s not enough space in here.”
A recent move into a cozy white-walled studio unit has limited his workspace and storage capabilities. As a result, Golden has been forced to operate on a smaller scale of late, evidenced by a slew of recently completed abstract pieces crowding the floor and countertop of his narrow hallway kitchen.
“For him, it’s like working on a postage stamp,” said his daughter, Sharyn Klein.
At 90, Golden has the deep belly laugh of a man much younger.
“I played offensive tackle in high school,” he said when asked about his younger years. Sitting comfortably in his armchair, a walker in front of him, his impressively built frame still doesn’t escape you. “But I was big and clumsy,” he added, letting out that laugh that invites you to join in.
Still stuck on his own clumsiness, Golden recalls a fresh-faced Gene Kelly charging $5 for dancing lessons in Golden’s mostly Jewish Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill where he grew up. Golden enrolled, but, as he remembers it, the future Hollywood star wasn’t pleased with what he saw.
“ ‘Come on, fat boy. Move your ass!’ That’s what he said to me,” Golden said.
Being different turned him on to art, Golden said. A young Walt Disney paying a visit to his elementary school in the early 1930s didn’t hurt either.
“I still collect Disney watches to this day,” Golden said with pride, extending his wrist to show off a vintage Mickey timepiece, one of 12 designs that he owns. The influence also can be seen in a painting Golden made for his grandson, featuring Mickey and trusty dog Pluto bounding through a vibrantly surreal, balloon-filled setting.
As a teenager, Golden designed the stage sets for his high school’s class plays and painted in his spare time. The latter was met with disdain from Golden’s father. “He told me I was a sissy and that boys don’t paint,” Golden said.
After three years of service in the South Pacific during World War II with the U.S. Army’s 98th Infantry Division, Golden returned to Pittsburgh and married his high school sweetheart, Shirley. He attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh on the GI Bill and was classically trained, honing his still-life and landscape skills (which he dismisses as “the boring stuff”). As part of his training, he worked with oils and re-created the works of greats such as Picasso, Modigliani and Chagall.
He took a job in the display department of a department store, and his interests veered toward home furnishing and interior design. At the age of 22, he and Shirley moved to North Hollywood, where he opened a custom drapery business.
Golden eventually moved his family to Mission Viejo. He wasn’t painting much, but his artistic background helped with other community projects. As a member of Temple Judea in Laguna Woods, Golden designed the stained-glass windows. As president of the local chapter of American Red Magen David for Israel, Golden designed Jewish New Year’s cards and tribute cards for fundraising. He retired at 62.
Not one to sit idly by, Golden signed up for art courses at Saddleback College, where he discovered a connection to abstract art. “You get out of [abstract] what you see in your mind,” he said. “I was very into it.”
Over time, Golden developed and strengthened his abilities. He said he began to see works in his head, then transposed the visuals onto the canvas. This internal mechanism prevented bouts with macular degeneration and glaucoma from coming between Golden and his passion, enabling him to bypass his physical limitations.
“It all comes from up here,” Golden said, pointing to his head. “I can see it in my head and my fingers just have to put it on the canvas.”
Golden’s work of late favors earthy browns and greens. Leading lines often direct attention to distinct use of deep reds and blues accompanied by a variety of spheres. There are also works integrating formless cloudlike visions of contrasting warm and cool colors.
His mind is still razor-sharp, recalling memories and conversing with ease. Although hard of hearing, Golden softens considerably at every mention of his wife, wistfully stealing glances at a picture of her resting on a bedside table.
“That’s my best piece of art,” he said, nodding in the direction of Shirley’s picture.
Four years ago, while Shirley battled dementia, Golden stopped painting to be by her side. She died this past February after 69 years of marriage. For her, he completed a still-life painting of flowers, one of his few recent forays into that genre.
“She liked flowers,” he said.
Hoping to occupy his time, Golden resumed painting after Shirley died with renewed vigor. The dozen or so pieces that now litter his studio’s walkways have been completed over the last few months, his daughter said.
A man who found his artistic voice in his 60s, Golden is still evolving.
“It’s fulfilling for me,” he said.
With 90 years behind him, Golden looks forward. He’s eager to keep working, confdent his best work is still within him.
“Look at this,” he said, his eyes scanning the room before finally coming to rest on a window overlooking Wilshire Boulevard. “I’ve got to find more space to work in.”