Word And Image

The medium-rich work of Jack Goldstein.

06/18/2013
Jewish Week Book Critic
“Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer,” 1975. Color sound film, 3 min.
“Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer,” 1975. Color sound film, 3 min.

Artist Jack Goldstein rarely signed his work. When asked about this, he said that his name is a reproduction of a reproduction — “If you look in the telephone book, there must be ten thousand Jack Goldsteins.”

“Jack Goldstein x 10,000” at The Jewish Museum is a retrospective of the artist’s work in film, painting, sculpture and installation art, along with his writing. Goldstein is one of the key figures associated with the Pictures Generation, along with artists like Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo, who came of age in a time of television, and experimented with images from mass media in their work.

Phillip Kaiser, who curated the show for the Orange County (Calif.) Museum of Art, where it was presented in 2012, said that writing is the spine of Goldstein’s work, but that no medium was specific enough for him to stick with.

Born in Montreal, Goldstein moved to Los Angeles as a child and graduated from California Institute of the Arts. He moved to New York City in the 1970s and began showing his work, dividing his time between the two coasts. In the 1990s, he returned to California, largely disappeared from the art world and spent a decade unseen, living in a trailer outside of Los Angeles. Suffering from depression, he committed suicide in 2003 at the age of 57.

At the entrance of the show, his 1978 silent film, “The Jump,” features four color sequences of a high diver — soaring and turning, appearing and disappearing, and presented in silhouette as a field of twinkling lights. In the next gallery, his untitled wooden sculpture (here in replica) is made of heavy beams, without wood or nails, and looks like it might fall over.

In a conversation that took place next to the minimalist sculpture, Kaiser suggests that the notion of the precariousness of life seen in these works, and in some of his symbols and metaphors, might relate to Jewish culture. But, he adds, “I wouldn’t stretch it too far.”

In other short films, Goldstein shows a close-up view of an object, like a ballet shoe, a knife or the roaring regal MGM lion, out of its context, with the words “Ars Gratia Artis” below it, art for art’s sake. While the ideas for these films were his, he had assistants make them.

Kaiser and others have said that Goldstein was very interested in the connection between film and memory. In a wall of aphorisms in black and red large type, he is quoted, “Sound is the memory of image that dislocates the origin from its object.”

His large-scale abstract paintings fill two galleries; they are based on other images, whether photographs of landscapes, wartime explosions or natural phenomenon; others are computer-generated images. In his paintings and recordings too, he was director, assigning tasks to assistants. In the accompanying catalog, published by the Orange County Museum, photographer James Welling, who was a classmate at CalArts, describes Goldstein’s “willful distance” from his work, other than in his writing. Several photographs by Welling of Goldstein’s Los Angeles studio are included in the show.

Words were essential to his artistic expression, throughout his career. For his word totems (set vertically to resemble totem poles), he linked intriguing words, using computer generated type, and clip art. Goldstein’s final work, seen in the last room of the exhibition, is his 17-volume “Selected Writings.” He set out reading books of philosophy and other texts backwards, in order to break the narrative — he didn’t want to follow the logic, but rather to find lines that resonated. For eight years, when he was mostly living anonymously, he spent 14 hours a day reading and selecting passages. The result is a form of autobiography in aphorisms.

His lines end in commas, as though continuing. “Truth dwells/in what/comes to/presence,”

In another essay in the catalog, “Word Processor: On the Writings of Jack Goldstein,” artist and critic John Kelsey describes his work as “writing at the margins of literature.” Before Goldstein died, he had two copies made of the 17-volume “Selection Writings.” It was still a work in progress. 

“Jack Goldstein x 10,000” runs through Sept. 29 at The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave., at 92nd St.; (212) 423-3200, thejewishmuseum.org.

A series of public events is scheduled, with “How is Jack Goldstein?” on Tuesday, June 25, 6:30 p.m., featuring John Baldessari and R.H. Quaytman in dialogue, moderated by Jens Hoffman, deputy director of exhibitions and public programs. Admission is free, but reservations are required, thejewishmuseum.org.

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