When telling its own history, the art world is more into Hollywood-style mythmaking than it likes to admit, but it also tends to be better at looking back and correcting mistakes. Thus the work of Jack Goldstein, the artist associated with Douglas Crimp’s 1977 ‘Pictures’ exhibition, who retreated into the California desert and critical obscurity for years, has been nudged into the spotlight again. This is not, thankfully, due to his suicide in 2003: before his death Goldstein was the subject of a film retrospective at the Whitney Museum, exhibitions in Europe and posthumously a book of recollections by the CalArts post-studio clan and others.
‘Jack Goldstein: Films Records Paintings’ at Mitchell-Innes and Nash and ‘Jack Goldstein: Paintings 1980–1985’ at Metro Pictures offered another opportunity to consider his elusive project. Combining elements of Minimalism, Pop and Conceptual art with an undertow of uncanniness, his performances, films, records and paintings reflect the ‘Pictures’ tribe’s fascination with appropriated Pop culture imagery but brought a dark, obsessive precision and an unmatched elegance to their ambiguous return to representation.
Goldstein was criticized for turning from film to painting in the late 1970s, but he wasn’t selling out: although the films were his strongest work, the startlingly particular images in the paintings effectively mine the paranoid in media spectacle. Viewed in the flesh, these canvases – which depict such apocalyptic phenomena as lightning bolts shearing through clouds, night-time explosions and warplanes soaring in starkly lit skies – have a menacing sheen. Many include black bands on two sides, like the edges on filmstrips that are perforated by sprocket holes. They clearly influenced Robert Longo’s visibly laboured charcoal drawings of rocket launches and atomic blasts, but differ in that they betray no trace of the artist’s hand and are as shamelessly beautiful as they are distanced. An untitled 1980 painting, for example, vignettes a small image of raging fire in a large black field; in another, from 1985, magenta volcanic eruptions vibrate against blue clouds and sky. Only in his paintings could Goldstein achieve this conflation of the Sublime landscape tradition and cinematic spectacle.
Of his 16mm films, which are equally anxious but more lapidary and performative, the best-known may be Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1976), a loop of the studio’s lion mascot roaring, blinking and roaring again. The beast seems trapped, not only in terms of being physically caged but also as an image within a film; one also notices that the scrollwork of filmstrips encircling Leo’s head bears letters reading ‘Ars Gratia Artis’. Goldstein created two show-stoppers by having filmed images professionally animated. In the tautly poetic Bone China (1976) a colourfully plumed painted bird flaps frantically around a china plate to the sound of beating wings; in his most haunting work, The Jump (1978), a glittering gold-and-red rotoscoped diver repeatedly twists and plunges into a black void.
A couple of the nine films that were projected render light as tangible as the objects under scrutiny, to magical effect. In The Chair (1975) the glaring white highlights on a freshly painted black chair rhyme with multicoloured feathers that fall and stick to the paint, caught by both paint and camera, while the chair itself nearly disappears into the deep blue background. The Knife (1975) neatly defines a wrenching form of cinematic spectacle, radically distilling the marriage of style and narrative in Hitchcock’s and Brian de Palma’s suspense films: reflected light slowly seems to fill the sleek steel weapon like a liquid – first in green, then in red, blue and yellow. Colour also signals conceptual purity in his 45rpm records: pressed in candy-hued vinyl, they contain sound effects that conjure intense visuals with such tantalizing descriptive labels as ‘burning forest’ or ‘wrestling cats’.
Goldstein’s work not only reflected a fascination with spectacle as it permeates contemporary consciousness; his mimicking of Hollywood filmmaking on a reduced scale by using commercial production methods echoed his tendency to compare the art world to Tinseltown: ‘It is a microcosm of Hollywood,’ he said, ‘only there is less money going around.’ When he was making films, galleries didn’t view such work as saleable, and this influenced his shift towards painting. Some film artists, such as Hollis Frampton, maintained an art-world presence, but that was short-lived. The divide between the art and film worlds is finally being eroded, but few artists have achieved the beauty of Goldstein’s films, and few filmmakers have matched their conceptual rigour. Perhaps his willingness to erase his own presence goes some way to explaining his work’s potency – in one of his earliest pieces he buried himself alive, leaving above ground only a device that relayed his heartbeat.