PRINT December 2013

Tim Griffin

Jack Goldstein, A Spotlight, 1972, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 8 minutes.

PROBABLY MOST STRIKING about curator Philipp Kaiser’s incisive retrospective exhibition “Jack Goldstein x 10,000”—originally organized for the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, California—is the uncanny extent to which the artist, seen from our distance today, still proves able to shape the reception of his work. Indeed, such coding in advance was forthrightly thematized here by Portfolio Performance, 1976–85/2001. In this group of nine large prints, each panel features a single archival image of a piece executed by Goldstein in the years referenced, accompanied by an extended caption that effectively directs audiences’ experience—or, more precisely, their mental reconstruction—of the depicted action. Documenting his 1976 Artists Space performance Body Contortionist, for example, the artist presents viewers with the context for his picture of a green-hued leg emerging from darkness, indicating that the performer would disappear into the shadows before his contours were completely replaced by film projections. Such a passage from individual to image would disrupt categories of experience, Goldstein explains, as “equivalence and paradoxes emerge between the live performance and the spatio-temporal illusionism of film,” whereby reality itself assumes “hologrammatic” qualities. The caption then concludes with a statement neatly encapsulating the prevailing wisdom to date on the valences of Goldstein’s oeuvre, whether pertaining to his short films, performances, or recordings: “Uncertainty begins to inflect assumptions about the boundary between perceptual experience and the idealization of reality through the languages of representation.”

Admittedly, one might just be more acutely aware of this artist’s influence on the reception of his own work because his first retrospective comes at precisely the moment that the critical literature—or, put more aptly, the language of representation—is on the very cusp of eclipsing the individual. On the one hand, while surveys and partial recontextualizations of Goldstein’s work have occurred in somewhat regular fashion during the past fifteen years, perhaps only now is it truly possible to suggest that cultural memory has reached a point where, say, the circumstances surrounding the Margaret Bourke-White World War II photograph that served as the basis for one of Goldstein’s large-scale paintings are no longer retained in the popular unconscious by the majority of any viewing public that might pass before that canvas. Furthermore, the specific postmodern discourses with which Goldstein’s oeuvre was ostensibly in dialogue have largely disappeared from everyday art-world conversations, becoming a matter of increasingly distant, if not rhetorical, recollection. Whatever authorial muteness Goldstein’s paintings might have aspired to when they were first made, such silence is only palpably amplified today.

On the other hand, and more pertinently, if one stated intention of Kaiser’s survey is to underscore just how much Goldstein desired to absent himself from the artistic process—given that the artist wanted instead to activate production and distribution apparatuses in different cultural and technological fields, Hollywood production techniques being primary among them, to make his work—it is, after all, in the very discursive and institutional project of a retrospective that such mechanisms most fully manifest themselves. In “Jack Goldstein x 10,000,” the artist’s practice is realized as a picture unto itself: The figure is presented, but only at a remove, and replaced institutionally in our memory.

In this respect, a text like that accompanying Body Contortionist becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophesy within the landscape of contemporary art, as the contextualization of Goldstein’s work provided by “Jack Goldstein x 10,000” effectively heightens the stakes for any uncertainty the artist himself induced around “experience” and the “languages of representation.” In fact, this effect was bluntly driven home from the start in the show’s installation at the Jewish Museum in New York, which early on presented a projection of Jack, 1973—in which the artist’s name is called out by a solitary figure receding into the empty distance of the Black Rock Desert—soon followed by the film A Spotlight, 1972, in which Goldstein perpetually flees the apparatus’s circular glare. In both works, the artist disappears even as he is the works’ subject, with the significance of his diminishing presence filled in only through the knowledge of the viewer. And yet the sense of an “image [becoming] the memory of that object,” which Goldstein ascribed to his films and performances alike, permeated the galleries in a manner highly unusual for a display of work from the past fifty years. An awareness of this substitution—in this case, of living figure for the figment of the contemporary imagination—permeated the space.

Jack Goldstein, Untitled, 1981, acrylic on canvas, 7 x 11'.

It is, perhaps, all too easy to ascribe new import to Goldstein’s absenting of authorship today. But, however presciently the artist dealt with the mediatization of natural forces, and however “of the moment” his wedding of popular iconography to Minimalism may feel, it is no doubt his shuttling in and out of languages of representation that makes his work seem so uniquely resonant with the fundamental decentering of subjectivity being pursued in philosophical circles today. Yet, for all Goldstein’s interest in such authorial erasure, it is at its limits and in its failures that his work becomes most interesting—and timely, even now. Only through a kind of redoubled resistance, in other words, does its potential arise. To wit, the cool hermeticism of aquatic imagery and setting moon in Underwater Sea Fantasy, 1983–2003, conjures, even as it upends, Lacan’s distinction between animal and human: The latter interprets while the former merely responds—and this in a work that would seem to rebuff any attempt at interpretation. And, far from the familiar stuff of romanticism, Goldstein’s diminutive skydivers and astronauts do not bespeak the sublime so much as reverse the polarity of positive and negative space, rendering human perspective—and even any sense of gravity or orientation—nearly incidental within the vast plane of the physical universe. The Planets, 1984, his vinyl recordings for those celestial orbs, extend that logic humorously, with the exhibition generally suggesting that the language of representation, as reckoned in Goldstein’s day, is giving way to a different period. And so this unique retrospective reflected back on an audience seeking to center itself, or render itself newly relevant to the material at hand, when in fact both the artist and his works remain a world away.

“Jack Goldstein x 10,000,” organized by Philipp Kaiser for the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, California, traveled to the Jewish Museum in New York this past May, where it was installed by Joanna Montoya.

Tim Griffin is executive director and chief curator of The Kitchen in New York and a contributing editor of Artforum.