Born in Montreal in 1946, Jack Goldstein studied at CalArts before moving to New York in 1974. Here he became part of what would be known as the Pictures Generation: a group of up-and-coming appropriation artists, among them Cindy Sherman, Troy Brauntuch and Richard Prince, who employed images borrowed from television, advertising and film. Goldstein committed suicide in 2003, at a moment when, after a long period of obscurity, he was once again beginning to receive attention for his work. As curated by Philipp Kaiser, this first American retrospective (which originated at the Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, Calif.) makes a persuasive case for the coherence of Goldstein’s oeuvre, his influence on aesthetic discourse of his time and his work’s relevance to art being made today.
In the course of his career, Goldstein moved from sculpture to performance, film and sound works, then to painting and finally to printed text. Over time, his methods increasingly mirrored those used by the mass media, whose conventions and manipulations he isolated and replicated in his art. His style was implacably anti-expressionist: more than any of his peers, he stripped his works of any trace of the artist’s hand, hiring others to paint his pictures and produce his films and sound works. And his artworks touch on big themes—in particular, questions about individual agency and the loss of self in a media-saturated society.
After a brief look at Goldstein’s early Minimalist sculptures, the show begins in earnest with his black-and-white performance-based films of the early 1970s. Each of these follows a simple, dramatic arc. In one, the artist struggles to read aloud a densely, philosophical typewritten text before it is consumed by flames. In the most poignant, a man standing in a desolate landscape shouts out the name “Jack” over and over. Each time he does, the cameraman takes a step back, until the man is only a dot in the distance, his voice inaudible.
In films from the mid- and late ’70s, made in color, the action is reduced to lead-ins that lead nowhere: the MGM lion roars endlessly in a looped sequence; an Alsatian dog, prompted by an off-screen trainer, barks, falls silent, then barks again. During this period, Goldstein also produced editions of vinyl records featuring stock sound effects. Playing continuously in one gallery is Goldstein’s Suite of 9 Records with Sound Effects (1976), whose tracks—a ship’s horn, a crackling fire—like the films, introduce dramatic tension while being devoid of narrative.
In the 1980s, Goldstein turned to painting, creating large airbrushed canvases, executed by assistants. They are based on found photographs—both spectacular and somehow already familiar—of lightning storms, WWII bombing raids and volcanic eruptions. Somewhat later came luridly colored abstract compositions derived from thermographic pictures of the human body. These machine-eye images are accompanied by sci-fi movie music from Goldstein’s suite of vinyl records The Planets (1984), displayed on a nearby wall.
Goldstein’s last, most radically impersonal works were text pieces created on a computer using basic word-processing programs. These include oversize printouts of arrangements of banal phrases, each in a different font and embellished with generic clip art, as well as Goldstein’s Selected Writings (2002), composed entirely of fragmentary quotes from philosophy books, which he had Xeroxed and bound into 17 volumes at a local copy shop. They anticipate with uncanny accuracy not the future evoked by the swelling, romantic scores on his final set of records but that of perpetually circulating images and data which has actually come to pass.