Jack Goldstein (1945-2003)

The Portrait of Père Tanguy (1974)
Shane (1975)
Some Butterflies (1975)
The Knife (1975)
A Ballet Shoe (1975)
A White Dove (1975)
The Chair (1975)
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1975)
Bone China (1976)
The Jump (1978)

Artist Lecture - Art Center College of Design (1992)

The Films of Jack Goldstein
by Jordan Kantor

In a 1972 film by jack Goldstein, a blurred image slowly comes into focus, ultimately sharpening to reveal a man staring straight into the camera's lens. Although not conceived as such, the piece serves as an apt metaphor for the current state of Goldstein's oeuvre, which has lately emerged from the fog of the not so distant past. A seminal figure of the New York art scene in the 1970s and early '80s, Goldstein famously faded from prominence over the course of the years that followed, eventually moving to California in 1991 and ceasing to show new work. Recently, several exhibitions have brought the artist back into view: A pair of shows at the Kunstlerhaus Stuttgart and a retrospective at Magasin in Grenoble gave European museumgoers a chance to reappraise Goldstein's output, while last year's rehanging of Douglas Crimp's 1977 "Pictures" exhibition at Artists Space whetted appetites in the United States (see Artforum, October 2001). Here at the Whitney, "Jack Goldstein: Films and Performance," organized by film-and-video curator Chrissie Iles, gave viewers a fuller picture of the artist's early work--restaging a performance and screening twenty-two films, the majority of which had not appeared in New York in over two decades. Executed between 1971 and 1978, these works traced a move from gritty filmed studio actions to the slick appropriative shorts for which Goldstein is better known. Together, they recounted a key episode in the emergence of postmodernism.

The exhibition was installed in three bays, with the sixteen-millimeter films projected directly onto the gallery walls. The films appeared in chronological programs, and the transition from one viewing space to the next mirrored conceptual developments in the artist's work. Goldstein's earliest films show arduous, sometimes quixotic solo actions performed for the camera: In one, the artist hammers a nail into a piece of wood and then pries it loose with his teeth, while in another he sprints around the studio, apparently trying to outrun his shadow. Like Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, and Chris Burden (artists who emerged a few years before him), Goldstein used abrasive physicality to highlight the pathetic and heroic struggle of the creative enterprise, while at the same time addressing larger aesthetic and political issues. When Goldstein jumps on the floor in one film, ever closer to a stack of plates until it falls, or pounds his hand on a table until he spills a glass of milk, his affected juvenile stance not only reflects his personal artistic frustration, but also engages a broader critique regarding the reification of labor under capitalism. What might seem gimmicky in other hands comes off as poignant. Goldstein's critical stance is compelling, in part because it clearly belongs to a bygone era--these works were meant to be shown in alternative spaces and were conceived long before artist's films were viable commodities.

As the '70s wore on, Goldstein seemed to realize that late-stage capitalism (and its attendant commercialization of the art world) could not be effectively addressed with strategies born of the later '60s, and the exhibition's second program included films that accommodated new, increasingly media-driven spectacular conditions. Rather than reenact the alienation of the studio, Goldstein focused instead on the symptoms of reified labor--de-skilling and repetition--through the ironic repositioning of appropriated imagery. In The Portrait of Pere Tanguy, 1974, for example, Goldstein traces the image of a famous van Gogh painting, his facile hand and artistic volition reduced to mimicking the mechanically reproduced image that rests under his tracing paper. Goldstein's reference to van Gogh is considered, creating a fertile parallel between industrialization and the birth of modernity and the conditions of his own emergent postmodern moment. (Indeed, in this light, is it too much to read an homage to Degas into A Ballet Shoe, 1975, the film that immediately followed Pere Tanguy?) Postmodernism is characterized by the unprecedented dominance of the culture industry, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1975, Goldstein's iconic two-minute tour de force, brings media's subliminal power to the fore. The roar of the movie studio's trademark lion here is looped into a (neurotic) repetition, making it easy to discern that the picture moves partly in reverse. This attempt to pass off "backward" for "forward"--a quirk of the source material underscored by Goldstein's manipulation--stands as a particularly compelling visual analogy for the cyclical nature of history and exploitation, as well as for the endless diet of recycled stories Hollywood dishes our.

Beyond their political content, however, the sheer beauty of Goldstein's '70s films constantly forces one to remember that, even when he deploys the strategies of spectacle ironically, Goldstein is a talented visual artist. That these works still look so fresh testifies not only to his refined aesthetic sensibility, but also to his influence on many of today's artists, for whom media culture and the loop have respectively become the subject and device du jour. The exhibition's final bay presented a single film, which (not surprisingly) stressed the artificiality of sumptuous visuality. The Jump, 1978, is a silent twenty-six-second loop projected on a fuchsia-colored wall illuminated by black lights. Using editing effects, Goldstein transformed a high diver, jumping into an amorphous deep purple space, into an incorporeal constellation of Technicolor stars. The strenuously exerted body of Goldstein's early performative films has been completely recast by technology as an image: a burst of graceful, highly regu lated, fireworklike light. The Jump was the last of Goldstein's early films, and it is a fitting swan song to an era when the body was still considered a viable site of resistance. Today, physical experience has atrophied in the face of the technological virtual, but this exhibition brought back into focus a time when, however futilely, resistance was still urgently performed.

Jack Goldstein in UbuWeb Sound