On ViewJewish Museum
May 10 – September 29, 2013
“Jack,” (1973): a man faces the camera, standing against a backdrop of low mountains in a wide-open desert landscape. It’s late in the day. He cries, “Jack”, in a strangely plaintive monotone while looking straight ahead. The cameraman takes a step back. “Jack,” he cries again, and the cameraman takes another step back. These call-and-response moves recur at regular intervals. As the camera recedes from its subject, the man shrinks in relation to the frame while his single, repeated utterance grows less and less audible. As the picture frame encompasses more of the landscape, the desert floor comes into view: an ATV has traced hieroglyphics—circular tire tracks—in the dirt. The man is now an indistinct blue-black blotch on the horizon, a faint sound, then nothing.
Another film comes on, “A Reading,” (1973): a close-up of a sheet of paper, thick-set with type. A voice reads aloud at a clipped pace. The subject is time and the camera pans down the page as the reader reads. A trace of fire flits in at the top of the frame. The paper is burning from top-to-bottom, and the voice accelerates to finish before the sheet is engulfed in flames. This continues five or six pages, and on the last, the fire resembles a falling darkness, like a heavy stage curtain.
These are a few of the early films of Jack Goldstein, which are now on view in the artist’s first museum retrospective in the U.S., organized by the Orange County Museum of Art with guest curator Philipp Kaiser, and Joanna Montoya, Neubauer Family Assistant Curator, at the Jewish Museum in New York.
Goldstein’s early films, from 1972 and 1973, range from three to 12 minutes. In another gallery, a collection of nine films, from 1975 and 1976, are screening. The majority of these last under three minutes, while the briefest, “White Dove,” (1975) runs just 20 seconds—long enough for a woman’s hands to reach up to frame the place of a dove resting on a perch, and for the dove to clumsily flutter off the perch. Another film, “A Ballet Shoe” (1975), lasts 19 seconds. It features a man’s hands untying a ballet shoe: fingers gently pull on the ends of a ribbon, allowing the bow to fall untied; an act which is followed by the ballerina’s foot slowly descending from “on point.”
In a public discussion with Jens Hoffmann, the Jewish Museum's deputy director for exhibitions and public programs, Douglas Crimp (curator of the landmark 1977 “Pictures” show at Artists Space) described his initial experience viewing Goldstein’s films in the ’70s as one of wonder. Crimp stressed the difference in watching the short films without a film looper: after the time it would take to load the reel and thread the film, the 20, 30, or 45-second film seemed instantaneous. It was “like looking at a photograph that moved slightly,” Crimp recalled.
In addition to Goldstein’s short films, about which much remains to be said, the exhibition also charts Goldstein’s serious explorations in sound art, performance, painting, and a kind of neo-Futurist-meets-Fluxus concrete poetry that he produced in the last decade of his life and career.
Goldstein’s work in the medium of sound bears the clearest connection to his work in video. In both mediums, Goldstein appropriates materials from commercial sources: images from Hollywood film and television, and sounds from Hollywood sound effects tracks. Goldstein made his first 7-inch record, “A German Shepard” (1976), from the same stock footage he used for the short film “Shane” (1975). As Goldstein once remarked, “What I tried to do with the records was break down the sounds in my films and treat the sounds as objects in themselves.” The technique of breaking down and isolating “objects,” of making an image or “picture” out of something that exists in time, is perhaps the most consistent thread through Goldstein’s work as presented in the retrospective.
The show’s curator, Philipp Kaiser, emphasizes many other themes: Goldstein’s interest in appropriation, pre-fabrication, anonymity, self-erasure and disappearance, his fascination with sublimated and sublime forms of violence, and so on—but there are, I think, more subterranean affinities to be discovered amongst the artist’s diverse projects. There are palpable ruptures in this body of work. Distinct periods, marked by shifts in medium, are united by a few consistent motifs, but remain aesthetically distanced. The cold, airbrushed paintings of the ’80s and early ’90s, or the digital printouts from Totems, bear little visualresemblance to Goldstein’s earlier works, though they may relate conceptually.
In fact, it seems as if the consistency of concept is what drives the works apart in terms of aesthetic affinities. Availing himself of the current technologies at his disposal, Goldstein’s aesthetic is anything but timeless: the early records, like the early films, are warm, coarse-grained affairs, while later records suites, such as the 1984 “Planets,”deliver synthesizer melodies reminiscent of early computer video games, with sounds as crisp and mechanical as Goldstein’s paintings from this period: pictures derived from computer-generated thermal imaging techniques.
It is, perhaps, the rapid obsolescence of computer technology that causes some of these later images and “sound-images” to feel uncannily dated, which in turn causes Goldstein’s work to appear fractured into distinctive periods. If Goldstein’s more-recent work appears estranged from our present moment, it is, perhaps, that much more valuable as a reminder of the increasing obsolescence of the present.
With regard to his films, Crimp called Goldstein a master of the mise-en-scène. I am inclined to agree with this assessment and to extend its compass—to regard it as a statement pertaining to Goldstein’s oeuvre. Each piece could be a self-contained drama. The late paintings signal their theatricality even through the brightly painted sides of the canvas—stripes of color that mark the painting’s literal depth and which excessively frame the image, like a theater or movie set. Both the individual pieces and the entire body of work oscillates between terseness and bombast. Like a one-word refrain or a simple, insistent gesture, the difference between excess and indigence produces precarious and resonant images.