In June 1972, as part of his MFA thesis exhibition at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), Jack Goldstein conducted a burial performance in the corner of a campus parking lot. He placed himself into a wooden box and had colleagues lower him into the ground overnight. Only two things connected him to the world above ground: a tube through which he could breathe, and a wire contraption that broadcast his heartbeat via a blinking red light, situated about 20 feet from his burial site.
This memorable piece, which instructor John Baldessari called “one of the most risky” he had ever seen, could be seen as a poetic, if ultimately tragic, encapsulation of the life and work of Goldstein. As a seminal member of the highly influential Pictures Generation–a group of artists who launched the era of postmodern critique in the visual arts by interrogating and reframing the pervasive influence of media representation in contemporary life–Goldstein was adept at extracting pure elements of popular spectacle and fashioning provocative artworks out of them in a wide range of media that included film, sound, performance, painting, sculpture, installation, and writing. At the same time however, a lingering subjectivity and pathos could be detected–a humanity that unexpectedly haunted and informed his oeuvre, much like Goldstein’s own heartbeat fueled the red light next to his coffin.
As the importance of California-bred conceptualist practices begins to receive its due through new revisions of 20th-century art history, Goldstein emerges as an important lost link. One of the first graduates of the newly created CalArts, Goldstein migrated to New York in the early 1970s to pursue a career alongside classmates like David Salle, Matt Mullican, and James Welling. Shaped by the teachings of Baldessari, this group and their predecessors are now given credit for germinating many of the ideas that were to fuel the Pictures Generation. Goldstein’s work received especially strong acclaim early on, with critic Douglas Crimp giving him substantial attention in the catalogue essay for the now legendary “Pictures” exhibition at Artists Space.
In New York, the CalArts artists were joined by other young practitioners like Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, and Sherrie Levine. Many of these people went on to have long and flourishing careers with a few, like Sherman and Salle, attaining superstardom. In spite of his driving ambition, however, Goldstein was not one of them. As painfully detailed in the oral history-style book “Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia,” by Richard Hertz (2011), which gathers first-person accounts of the artist and many of his peers, Goldstein was socially neurotic and had an ongoing drug problem. He stated repeatedly that he couldn’t trust anyone, and that he believed his work was never given its proper due. Meanwhile, peers like Rosetta Brooks admired his obvious talent and wondered why he was so negative and self-defeating.
Throughout these personal recollections, which have the overheated and cutthroat New York art scene of the 1980s as their lively backdrop, Goldstein, a perpetual outsider, could be seen trying to read and manipulate his social surroundings. It was much like the way he read and manipulated media culture, only with far less successful results. After a number of years in New York, Goldstein found himself unable to sell work and alienated from almost everyone he knew. He moved back to Los Angeles and retreated into obscurity, spending the last decade of the 20th century living in a decrepit trailer in East LA. In 2003, he committed suicide.
This summer, Goldstein returned to public view in “Jack Goldstein x 10,000,” the long-awaited retrospective of his work at Orange County Museum of Art (on view June 24 — September 9, 2012). The most touching work by far in the show is the rarely seen early film Jack (1973). The film begins with a close-up on a man’s face, looking into the camera. He yells “Jack,” at which point Goldstein, the cameraman, takes a step back. He yells “Jack” again, and Goldstein takes another step back. This continues, with the man repeatedly yelling Goldstein’s name and receding farther and farther into the distance as he does so. The two of them are in a remote area, standing on a flat expanse of empty land that is framed by mountains in the distance. The film goes on for about 11 minutes, during which time the ground between the two men, showing numerous tire tracks, grows enormous. Seeing this film after reading about Goldstein’s difficult relationships and constant, unfulfilled longing for validation is nothing short of heartbreaking.
The bulk of OCMA’s exhibition is given over to large paintings from the 1980s, made in a frenzy of production during his last desperate years in New York. Goldstein admitted to turning to painting as a means of accommodating the dominant commercial gallery paradigm of the day; he also admitted that he feverishly worked to produce as many of them as possible, in order to always be prepared for a show and “not be left behind.” Despite these facts, the paintings are fine and meticulous works that succeed in conveying the dislocated nature of spectacle; dramatic scenes of lightning storms and World War II battle scenes are captured in cool, stunning fashion via an acrylic spray-paint process.
Goldstein took pride in the fact that he employed a team of assistants to manufacture these paintings; while he would lay the tape on the canvas himself to outline the images, he would have his assistants apply the paint and then remove the tape–a process that took two assistants a full day. He always said that distance and the removal of the artist’s hand were key to the effectiveness of his work. In those large-scale spectacle paintings, the artist, and all traces of the human subject, seem to disappear completely in a haze of busy objectivity.
In a pair of triptych paintings from 1979, however, a trace of subjectivity seemed to make a final appearance. Each individual painting in these sets features a tiny, lone human figure in a freefall against an endless expanse of clear sky. In one triptych, an astronaut spins against the blackness of night, while in the other a parachutist falls through the deep blue of day. The figures are completely engulfed by the huge distances around them, and yet their presence cannot be missed. While these figures can of course be read as signifiers or Pop culture tropes adrift in space, which is probably how Goldstein intended them, their human drama cannot be denied. Something about their lost quality, and their intimations of mortality, demand that we feel for them, that we connect to them somehow, beyond the spectacle that couches them.