The Man Behind the CalArts Mafia: A Portrait of Jack Goldstein, Pictures Generation Progenitor

James Welling's portrait of Jack Goldstein, 1978
(Courtesy James Welling and Regen Projects )

Nearly a decade after Jack Goldstein’s suicide, his hungry ghost has yet to make peace with his artistic hometown, Los Angeles. One of the first casualties in the lurching institutional gearshift of Jeffrey Deitch’s arrival at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art (culminating with Paul Schimmel’s unceremonious firing from his 22-year tenure as chief curator), “Jack Goldstein X 10,000” — the artist’s first North American retrospective, on view through September 9 — was shunted south, to the tony but off-the-beaten-track Orange County Museum of Art. Back in the 1980s, OCMA was the Newport Beach Museum, where Schimmel cut his curatorial teeth and made his initial impact on the L.A. art scene. The circularity, careerist intrigue, and absurdity of the situation would probably have delighted Goldstein, though it might just as well have given him stomach cramps.

Goldstein’s name is unfamiliar to many, though at one point his stock was ranked equal to such fellow travelers in the Pictures Generation and Neo-Geo movements as Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, and Jeff Koons, as well as John Baldessari, David Salle, Ross Bleckner, James Welling, and other community members from the newly founded California Institute of the Arts in the early ’70s. Dubbed the CalArts Mafia, this tightly knit, ambitious circle was the subject of Goldstein’s last testament: Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia, his spectacular collaborative oral autobiography with Richard Hertz (and 11 other contributors), which manages to be both bleak and exhilarating in its unflinching examination of the neurotic machinations behind art world success and failure.

 

Failure is the lurking terror throughout the volume — originally published in 2003 and recently reissued by Minneola Press — and some pathological pas de deux with failure led Goldstein to hang himself a few days after finalizing the book’s contents and design. Having burned most of his bridges through an abrasively confrontational interpersonal style and a spiraling appetite for hard drugs, Goldstein found himself forgotten by the mid ’90s, living without electricity in a trailer amid the cholo culture of East L.A. and working as a day laborer to pay for his daily junk.

Tabloid titillation aside, these biographical dimensions lend tremendous gravitas to Goldstein’s work, whose dark humor, theatricality, control-freak precision, and ostentatious disinterest in the physical experience of creative action might seem as affected as Koons’s if they hadn’t been backed up with the most anti-physical control-freak theatricality possible. The obliteration of the figure, the dismantling of the artist’s presence, the poetic obsession with recurrence, duration, and ephemerality — and other motifs that crop up throughout Goldstein’s career — are, ironically, fleshed out and made more substantial by the artist’s final disappearing act.

Even his drastic serial abandonment of one genre after another, one signature style after another, could be said to reach its logical extreme with that one last jettison. By his own (quite convincing) account, these shifts were more opportunistic plays/acts than evidence of any overarching conceptualist strategy. While an undergrad at the Chouinard Art Institute along with Laddie John Dill and Charles Arnoldi, Goldstein made Postminimalist sculptures from unadorned lumber and molded Plexiglas. Such mute formalism didn’t fly when he moved on to CalArts, so he reinvented himself as a Chris Burden-like performance artist and a filmmaker in the vein of Bruce Nauman, William Wegman, and Michael Snow.

Part of Los Angeles’s uncertainty toward Goldstein had to do with his being in the last generation of local artists who felt compelled to pursue their career in New York City, though he kept a foot in Hollywood for the easy access to film technology. The early ’70s was a period when many of the leading art critical lights saw cinema as the only way forward out of modernism’s endgame, so Goldstein was able to stick with the medium for several years, tightening and refining his narrative and aesthetic vocabulary and developing a distinctive voice — albeit one that spoke from a ventriloquist-like remove. For it was during this phase that Goldstein — following Baldessari and Warhol — began to systematically remove himself from the physical processes that produced his art.

“The Jump,” 1978, is given place of honor in the OCMA show as a continuously projected loop in the exhibition’s entrance. And rightly so — it is the masterpiece of Goldstein’s film work, possibly of his entire career. Yet it’s a work that is barely there, and Goldstein’s role in it was essentially supervisory. A mere 26 seconds of footage — three shots of a diver leaving the high board, sampled from Nazi aesthete Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia,” 1938 — is given a disco-psychedelic makeover by a team of professional Hollywood rotoscope animators. The result distills the paradox of Jack Goldstein: In spite (or because) of his insecurities, his pathological careerism, and his profound disengagement from authorship and material process, “The Jump” is hypnotic and entertaining, formally exquisite and conceptually rigorous, entirely derivative, and wholly original.

Some of Goldstein’s films are even shorter. “A Ballet Shoe,” 1975, shows a dancer’s foot en pointe. Two hands untie the bow of her slipper, and the dancer’s foot relaxes to a more natural position. Nineteen seconds. In “White Dove,” 1975, hands move up to form a triangular frame in front of the titular bird, which then flies off its perch. Twenty seconds. These works operate at a tangent from Goldstein’s slightly longer loop-based work, emphasizing duration with their minimal, punch line-determined narrative structure. Unlikely as it seems, it was this joke structure that provided the bridge for Goldstein’s transition to painting.

As the ’70s wound down, painting underwent a surprising resurgence under the rubric of “New Image” or “Neo-Expressionism,” a mishmash of often deliberately awkward figurative styles from Europe and America. A number of Goldstein’s colleagues — Salle, Bleckner, and Eric Fischl in particular — were at the center of this cyclone and began moving product hand over fist. Goldstein, despite the fact that he was already garnering attention as a member of the patently anti-painting Pictures Generation, wanted in.

His first forays into painting territory retained much of the Conceptualist animosity toward the predominant Greenbergian theoretical model. Works such as his two untitled triptychs from 1979 imposed a familiar durational punch line narrative on the viewer, but shifted it from a passively endured cinematic sequence to an interactive perceptual choreography. And it’s a pretty good art joke: Paintings that appear from a distance to be Minimalist monochromatic fields à la Brice Marden resolve into vast spatial voids punctuated by tiny, carefully rendered figures of astronauts, parachutists, or deep-sea divers. Carefully rendered by Ashley Bickerton, that is — or one of the other assistants Goldstein hired to execute his vision.

Weirdly, Goldstein’s major legacy may have been his role in shifting the deliberately provocative outsourcing of art manufacture, as in the work of Warhol and Baldessari, to the industrial infrastructure of the contemporary global art market. Part of this is due to the downplaying of this aspect as one of any number of postmodern displacements at play in his work. But mostly it’s because Goldstein took advantage of the plausible Conceptualist deniability afforded by this authorial indeterminacy to sneak the long-banished qualities of aesthetic beauty, poetic resonance, and meticulous craftsmanship back into the dialogue of painting. How was he to know it would wind up meaning a Damien Hirst dot painting in every home?

Whatever its historical repercussions, that loophole resulted in an outpouring of one of the most dazzling and coherent bodies of painting produced in the 1980s. Goldstein quickly abandoned the structure of his figure-ground gag pictures for isolated, outsized images of luminous obliteration — rocket bombardments, volcanic eruptions, eclipses, lightning strikes, digitized images of the body derived from medical technology. Appropriated from popular magazines, rendered with a variety of depersonalizing techniques (airbrushing, pinstripe rollers, intricate layers of masking tape), and framed and interrupted by brightly colored geometric bands and sprockets, Goldstein’s decade of paintings managed to combine an infuriatingly mute literality with a through-the-looking-glass romanticism that remains paradoxically fresh, personal, and original to this day.

After giving up painting, Goldstein spent his final decade compiling idiosyncratic autobiographical aphorisms into poetic clusters, completing an enormous body of work that is virtually unknown today. There’s an entire oeuvre of LP records over-lapping Goldstein’s transition from film to painting, curious minimalist versions of musique concrète compiled from commercial music and sound-effect libraries, whose significance in the history of sample-based audio collage composition has yet to be assessed. One of the most engrossing works in the OCMA exhibition is “Burning Window,” a highly cinematic 1977 installation that gives a strangely soothing impression of an immense landscape immersed in flames. 

But it is the paintings that seem to have pulled the most out of Goldstein. Which makes sense, because in spite of the commercial acuity of embracing that oldest of genres, it was a tremendous — and perhaps poorly calculated — risk in terms of the critical dogma then prevailing in his community. Goldstein’s genius was to recognize that if painting actually had anything left to say, he had to transform his art-making practice into a ventriloquist’s dummy, because sometimes channeling all the unspeakably awkward taboos through a puppet is the only way to move the conversation forward.

To see images from the Orange County Museum of Art's Jack Goldstein exhibition, click the slide show.

This article appears in the September issue of Modern Painters.

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