More than 35 years after the initial “Pictures” show was curated by Douglas Crimp at Artist’s Space in downtown Manhattan, many of the artists in the show — and those associated with that now-historic art world moment — still command attention. While some of the artists, especially Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, and Sherrie Levine, have enjoyed decades of steadily growing critical attention and collecting demand, others such as Jack Goldstein, who withdrew from the art world and committed suicide in 2003, have only drawn serious attention in recent years. Goldstein’s first American retrospective is on view at the Jewish Museum through September 29, having previously been shown at the Orange County Museum of Art, California.
Crimp, a professor of art history and visual and cultural studies at the University of Rochester, recently participated in a public talk with Jewish Museum deputy director Jens Hoffmann about the Goldstein show and the broader phenomenon of the Pictures artists. He also sat down one on one with ARTINFO to talk about the original 1977 show and its enduring influence on the contemporary art world.
How did you come to curate Pictures?
I was friends with Helene Winer [now director of Metro Pictures Gallery] and these were artists she was exhibiting. She was very much the person who had her finger on the pulse of what was going on. She encouraged me to go to the artists’ studios. It was a small exhibit — just five artists — in an alternative space in Tribeca. Nevertheless it was a space around which there was a large community of younger artists and there was a specific kind of aesthetic practice, there was a kind of buzz. I suppose the fact that it was the first curated show and the first one to have a catalogue there may have been noteworthy. When I wrote the catalogue text, I attempted to explain to myself as well as to readers what I thought this new tendency in art was about.
And what was the “tendency” or common thread among these artists as you saw it?
I saw this work that was really different from anything I’d ever seen. It was dealing with pictures, it was dealing with representation, but it wasn’t abstract. I was going to a lot of studios and of course looking at what Helene was doing. It was also the beginning of my reading of post-structuralist theory, so if you read the first Pictures catalogue, I was trying to figure out both post-structuralist theory and these pictures and trying to apply one to the other in some sense. I found ways to link it to other art as well as the theory that I was interested in. That’s not to say that I wasn’t also just looking at the work really carefully and asking, “What’s going on here?” It really stood out. If you think for instance, about the '70s movement of Pattern and Decoration, this was just something very different.
What initially struck you about Goldstein’s work?
First of all, you didn’t experience films very much in art galleries. There were artists who were making films, as many did in the late '60s and early '70s. Castelli and Sonnabend actually had a distribution company, but you did not see the films projected in galleries. What was astonishing about them was that they were so short. It wasn’t like any experience of film that I ever had, it was more like looking at a photograph or a still picture, but one that moved slightly, like “A Ballet Shoe” [a short film by Goldstein that is part of the current retrospective]. It’s simply the hands pulling the ribbon that unties the shoe and the ballerina descending from point, and that takes something like eight seconds. It’s certainly not a narrative, it’s essentially a picture. I simply had never seen anything remotely like it on film.
Why do you think there is a resurgence of interest in Goldstein’s work now? Is there something in particular that you think has struck a chord with contemporary audiences?
Jenelle Porter did a reconstruction of the “Pictures” show at Artist’s Space in 2001. She literally tried to reconstruct the show, get the same work, hang it in the same way. And they found all these boxes of catalogues. (Helene Winer had figured it was not much more expensive to do a large print run than a small print run, so there are many copies of the original pamphlet like catalogues still around). And I think people were struck, more than anything else, by Jack Goldstein’s photos. Maybe it was partly that film installation was becoming more important; it was in a lot of the younger galleries at the time. So I think those works were particularly striking at that moment and people talked about them when they saw that show. It’s also the work of really dedicated curators who are really interested in history. Philipp Kaiser [who curated the Goldstein retrospective] is very smart and really does his historical research. Galleries also became interested in the work. It’s usually a kind of conjunction of many forces, that may be to some degree coincidental, maybe not… maybe Zeitgeist.
What did you think of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s take on Pictures in their 2009 show?
I have no desire to control the history, but at the same time I have a lot of real problems with the kind of anti-intellectual point of view of Doug Ecklund’s show, where he is very scornful of the people who do dissertations on the work of Cindy Sherman. I’m not scornful of that, I actally might be advising one of those dissertations. The original “Pictures” show has now actually become the subject of dissertations. I think that’s inevitable, I think that that’s how we get history. It’s not just what happened right there at that moment but its also how it gets looked at retrospectively.
What are you working on now?
A memoir that will be called “Before Pictures.” I’ve been invited to conferences a lot lately about the '80s and I always say: “I’m sorry I’m working on a memoir of the '70s now.”
You said that the last chapter of your memoir, which you have yet to write, will be about “Pictures.” What do you think you will say?
I want to make it clear how small it really was at the moment. I want to talk about how I eventually went from just observing the work and trying to figure it out to trying to give it a historical genealogy.