Exile’s Return

Why you should know the name Jack Goldstein.

The lion that roared

Click here to see a slide show of the artist’s work. A few weeks ago an artist named Jack Goldstein killed himself at his home outside Los Angeles. He was 57 and apparently had been unhappy for some time. About such deaths a certain silence is called for; but Goldstein’s life was an interesting one: There was a time when he was considered among the most important American artists of his era, and since his influence is still evident—even if his work itself has been largely forgotten—there may yet be such a time again.

Goldstein was born in Montreal in 1945, moved down to Los Angeles, and graduated from Cal Arts in ‘72. In 1974, he left for New York, where he fell in with a group of friends and peers from California, and with another small group who had come down from Buffalo, among them future art-world all-stars Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo. Together, through conversations, studio visits, and collaborations, the group began to work out an aesthetic of a new kind of representationalism. At the time, Minimalism was king,but Goldstein and his peers were interested in pictures: photos from magazines and books, from stock film footage, from the vast, anxious, half-hidden portfolio in our minds. All would be treated as raw material, to be transformed, restaged, remade in such a way as to strip out specific details, context, and function, leaving only the essence of the image itself.

The whole endeavor was worked out under the aegis of an unfortunately obscure and transient theory: words like “simulacrum” and “spectacle” were much about—familiar enough if you were in college at the time, but almost risibly dated now. In the end, all that matters is whether something lives or dies on a gallery’s walls, and while there’s no innocent eye, art’s achievements come on its own terms, and words only ratify them after the fact. Taken more or less at face value, Goldstein’s stuff still looks alive.

He’s probably best-known for his early work: a series of short film loops that seemed to distill performance to its purest form, capturing action for the sake of its thrill, forswearingany purpose, and all the more beautiful for that. In one, the MGM lion is isolated on a red background, his roar looped over and over until it attains the status of an annunciation that heralds nothing but its own presence. In another, Goldstein took stock footage of a diver, stripped out everything but the human figure, and used a rotoscope (a method of converting live action into animation) so that all that was left was a luminous form, twisting and plunging through empty space. Other loops involved a ballet dancer’s feet, a barking dog, a pair of fencers—each removed from its setting and repeated until it achieved its own strange force, where the seduction of film and the power of performance are divested of meaning, or reference to the real world, and thereby create a kind of rapture. “Dangerous objects are glamorous places to be,” Goldstein once wrote, and he was right: By taking violence of various sorts and leaching it of consequence, he created an art of sheer allure.

In 1977, a critic and curator named Douglas Crimp put together a group show called “Pictures” at Artists Space, in New York. Goldstein was included, along with Longo, Troy Brauntuch, Sherrie Levine, and Philip Smith. All of them went on to have substantial and in some cases very prominent careers. Indeed, it’s a sign of the disproportionate influence of that single show that the artists involved were thereafter known as the Pictures group—and that a number of significant artists of the time (Sherman, for example, and the photographer and painter Richard Prince) are generally assumed to have been in the show, though they weren’t.

The efflorescence of the Pictures group was a period of great excitement—1977 to about 1983—followed, as these things usually are, by a period of deepening, if less splashy, achievement for most of the artists involved. For most; but not for Goldstein, and here’s where his story starts getting gloomy. He was, by many accounts, one of the best talkers of the group, and one of the best artists. I remember hearing him spoken of, some years later, in worshipful tones—and I remember, too, his being described as a difficult character. Part of the problem, as always, was money: No one had expected to make any, and suddenly there it was. Commercial galleries devoted to Pictures-type work opened, and collectors swarmed all over it. Goldstein himself did well enough, but not as well as many: His art was, literally, immaterial, a reduction to pure picture and sound, which left comparatively little to sell. A vulgar problem, perhaps, from a purely aesthetic perspective, but a rather more vexing one if you actually have fabrication expenses; if you’re heading into your mid-30s, as Goldstein was; and if your friends are buying nice new studios and hiring assistants.

Goldstein began to make paintings, of lightning fields, fireworks, an aurora—instances of “the Spectacle,” again. They were popular, but some people thought he’d sold out (canvases always make more money than other media). More important, Goldstein wasn’t really a painter, and the work didn’t have quite the impact the films had. By 1991 he was broke, angry, depressed, strung out, and one day he simply moved away, out to the California desert—disappeared, really. Almost nobody heard from him; if you came to contemporary art afterward, you may not even have heard of him. And yet an artist like Douglas Gordon, whose giant videos of a ponderously live elephant, shown at the Gagosian Gallery in New York last month, pleased so many people, owes a great deal to Goldstein, as he may or may not know himself.

In time, as will happen, the circle began to come around again. In 2001, Artists Space restaged the “Pictures” show. The next year, the Whitney ran a retrospective of Goldstein’s films. There was a show in Grenoble, France, complete with a deluxe catalogue, and a new gallery in Los Angeles. His name is all over this month’s Artforum (it’s devoted to ‘80s art). Still, he didn’t seem to be enjoying the early days of his comeback from his exile in the desert. Resentment is a heavy mantle, and one not easily removed. A friend of mine visited him a few months ago and came back claiming he was in about as dark a mood as is known to man. Then, on March 19, there was the obituary in the Times: Goldstein had hanged himself from a tree in the yard of his house.

It’s impossible to know why Goldstein killed himself, and I’d like to think I’d be writing about him now even if he hadn’t. The forgotten star is a tempting topic; the self-destructive artist a story so common as to be a cliché. But we should turn away from such things and simply attend to what Goldstein did; because little histories like this are so easily lost in the vast swirl of things, and if we don’t owe it to him to recover them, surely we owe it to ourselves. Click here to see a slide show of the artist’s work.