If you had to single out a mid-career Northwest painter as the golden boy of his generation, Joe Goldberg would be an obvious choice.

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If you had to single out a mid-career Northwest painter as the golden boy of his generation, Joe Goldberg would be an obvious choice. A University of Washington art school dropout in the late 1960s, he pressed forward with a kind of certainty about his work and his identity as an artist that swept people along. That includes one of Seattle’s premier art dealers, Francine Seders, who let Goldberg move into the back of her gallery and debuted his work in 1968, the year he turned 21.

Now Goldberg is 60, and his work is the subject of a well-deserved retrospective at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner. The show touches on the various phases of Goldberg’s career and brings out some glorious paintings. If anyone has forgotten what all the fuss was about, you’ll find plenty of reminders here. In fact, maybe too many. With an installation that’s muddled and cramped, the show doesn’t make the best case for Goldberg, leaving no clear picture of how he developed or where he’s headed.

Part of the blame falls on him. Goldberg’s trajectory over the decades hasn’t been steady. For one thing, he’s hopped galleries too many times, leaving Seders in 1979 to become the darling of the Foster/White crowd. In 1994, he jumped ship to join Woodside Braseth, left there in 2002 and finally settled at Greg Kucera in 2005. During all that, Goldberg moved back to Eastern Washington (he’s a Spokane native), his career roller-coastered and he got a reputation for being insular and a bit difficult. At times, the work suffered. That’s all smoothed out recently, and Kucera has done his best to boost Goldberg back into a star position. Kucera helped usher through a new book on Goldberg, “Joseph Goldberg: Jeweled Earth” (University of Washington Press, $29.95), prompting the MoNA show.

None of Goldberg’s career tribulations would be of interest if the paintings didn’t hold up. Working on his own, Goldberg struggled for years to develop a viable technique for achieving the opulent strata of blowtorched, color-infused wax that make collectors’ (and critics’) mouths water. Minimalism was a ruling influence when he was getting started, and he breathed it in, distilling his early moody landscapes into bare abstractions.

If he had stuck with austere geometrics and shaped canvases à la Ellsworth Kelly, Goldberg might have remained one of the pack, struggling to carve out a niche as an abstract painter. But with his particular use of encaustic and an almost primitive treatment of form, he took the paintings beyond the intellectual realm of minimalism. Goldberg’s paintings are Earth-bound and sensual, like the peeling deposits of sunbaked housepaint burnished to the sheen of old ivory. They speak of desert and open space.

The crowded retrospective is arranged thematically and weighted heavily to recent work, grouping paintings with similar imagery from different phases of Goldberg’s career. There are a few shaped canvases from the early 1980s (including the radiant “Sands” from the collection of Anne Gould Hauberg); some new paintings that experiment with big, swirling expressionistic brushwork; a group of Mondrian-like canvases with neutral grounds and rods of color at the perimeters; paintings with one central form floating on the opulent pool of Goldberg’s encaustic; there are groupings of drawings and watercolors and studies. For the gallery space available, it gets to be too much. And then there are a few paintings shoehorned in where the imagery feels uncomfortably raw or unresolved in contrast with the burnished perfection of others. How to make sense of these? We get little guidance.

The bumpy presentation exposes MoNA’s current shortcoming — its lack of strong curatorial oversight. MoNA has been without a staff curator since spring, and director Greg Robinson and collections manager Lisa Young organized the exhibition. (Be sure to visit Young’s thoughtful installation from the permanent collection upstairs.) Robinson said they chose a thematic arrangement rather than a chronological one to demonstrate how Goldberg has returned to certain imagery at different points in his career. I understand the motivation, but the display doesn’t add up to an aesthetically (or intellectually) satisfying whole. For one thing: What happened to the 1970s? Goldberg’s formative decade is barely represented. One beautiful reminder of the period is the delicate shadow play of “White Box,” a dimensional grid of wire and cinder that goes a long way in illuminating the artist’s thinking at the time, with nods to Joseph Cornell and Agnes Martin. The 1973 sculpture is on loan from Goldberg’s friend Mike Rust, who wrote an essay for the handsome museum handout on Goldberg.

Some other unfortunate gaffes jump out in the presentation. One distracting metallic frame glares out among the other paintings, all subtly finished and meant to hang without frames, their painted edges showing. And in a show that begs for more breathing room, why pile on extra paintings? Three recent owl paintings are a case in point. Just one of them would have made a stronger statement.

The one surprise in the show is a single dramatic wall sculpture from 1985, perfectly installed and lighted by itself below the arc of the stairwell. Goldberg’s work responds well to that kind of isolation and pinpoint focus. This show provides very little.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com