Jack Goldstein Paintings: 1980–1985

Metro Pictures Jack Goldstein: Films Records Paintings
Mitchell-Innes & Nash

Jack Goldstein, “Untitled” (1981) acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Metro Pictures.

I first heard of Jack Goldstein through a mutual friend by the name of Paul McMahon. They knew each other at Cal Arts in the early seventies and were both students of John Baldessari. At that time, Baldessari was a guru to many young artists, many of whom became the core of the by-gone postmodern generation of the eighties. Most were working through the photographic medium in one form or another. They emerged in the twilight of conceptual art and, in the transition period of the seventies, were critically noted as “post-conceptualists”—a short-lived term that some of them felt was too academic.

Jack Goldstein was one of these artists—and perhaps, in the long haul, one of the best. What Jack did not have—which most of the others did—was a sense of self-confidence based on a feeling of entitlement. Jack knew how to pose at openings, but in a quiet way. He was never outlandish in his remarks, never ill suited to the occasion. His demeanor was rigorously guarded, but in a deceptive way. He could make himself look California cool and still be on guard. Beyond it all, Jack was a great guy, especially on a one-to-one. He was generous, serious, good-looking, shy, and completely dedicated to his art. His had an intuitive understanding of aesthetics—a quality that continued to pervade his work until the end. He was never sloppy in his manner of presentation, whether he was doing records, photographs, films, performances, or his posthumously celebrated paintings.

The latter were the subject of a two-gallery retrospective in April through June at Metro Pictures and Mitchell-Innes & Nash. Metro was, in fact, his gallery in the early years, even before it became the unofficial institute of postmodernism in SoHo. The subject matter of the paintings includes natural calamities, spectacles, and warfare. All of these were taken from photographs that others had made. Indeed, Jack was one of the early appropriation artists along with Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince. Even so, he was not included in Douglas Crimp’s legendary Pictures exhibition at Artists Space in 1977.

To see these paintings again after a hiatus of twenty years was a moving experience. Pictures such as his eclipse from 1983 and his bifurcated lighting series from the same year (both untitled) struck me as beautiful and topically relevant, albeit, in the belated sense. Another untitled painting of a parachutist descending against a red sky under a large jet seemed to take on an almost symbolic autobiographical meaning.

I knew the films from the seventies before they were even shown publicly. There were nights down on Chambers Street where we would sit together and watch them projected on the wall of Jack’s tiny studio. I remember at the time a kind of nervous quality about these films. Jack was so intent on precision that it often became an encumbrance, as “White Dove” and “A Ballet Shoe” (both 1975) attest.

In some ways, I think that Goldstein found it easier being a post-conceptual filmmaker than becoming a postmodern appropriation painter. There is no doubt that he cared about both aspects of his work, even though they were nearly a decade apart. I don’t think anyone ever did exactly what Goldstein did in painting. He foregrounded the aesthetic component in the work as much as the offbeat, sometimes catastrophic subject matter. To see a large black vertical canvas with the image of a house on fire centered toward the top of the painting was, in many ways, a revelation as to how little a painting needed to produce a strong emotional effect.

To evaluate the work of Jack Goldstein is not easy, but I believes it deserves the recognition that it has gotten in recent months. Not only are the paintings topically relevant, but also there is a sense of ambiguity about them—an ambiguity without the weight of disaster. Instead, one senses a kind of arbitrariness in Goldstein’s work that is fully conscious of its beauty and elegance. His presentation is about the distance between beauty and the dark side of human and natural events, how they come together through a kind of poetic sublimation. In retrospect, it would seem that Jack’s sense of failure in his youthful late years was that the conflict within his work became too much about himself. He cared about what he was doing and wanted people to understand it. But the pressures of the market became too overwhelming. Everything was reduced to that, and it seemed that he couldn’t go on this way. His sensitivity was unable to grasp the marketing rationale to which his art had been subjected, and in this sense, he has became an icon of the loss that art has suffered in recent years. 

To my mind, Goldstein represents a period in art that was hidden beneath the surface of the eighties; a period when the market began its ascendancy over aesthetics and theory became the gasoline on the fire. Jack’s moment constituted a hidden hope at that moment for artists who really cared about what they were doing and wanted to be understood on these terms.

Contributor

Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.

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