Los Angeles

Jack Goldstein

Although Monday is apparently the favored day for suicide, Jack Goldstein did himself in on a Friday—not after the weekend, but just before. Grim observations aside, one can’t help but read into this an analogy to his career, which, following an almost decade-long decline, was about to peak again. In 2001, a survey of the artist’s early films in Stuttgart and at his gallery in Los Angeles, as well as the rehanging of Douglas Crimp’s epochal “Pictures” exhibition at Artists Space, New York, promised a return to form. The following year ushered in a retrospective and several more survey shows; Goldstein’s work once more graced the cover of Artforum; young art students and old collectors alike were enthusiastically dropping his name. Like the ’80s in general, Jack was back!

One crucial difference between this exhibition and those preceding is simply that it is posthumous. Just as the music of Joy Division took on surplus gravitas after the death of lead singer Ian Curtis, a sense of existential fulfillment hangs heavy over this selection of early paintings (most of which have not been widely shown). However theatrical they may appear, the artist’s suicide hints that their ironies are wafer thin and just barely mitigated an all-too-earnest, even romantic, sensibility. The suggestion made throughout the recent rethinking of the ’80s in these pages—that the so-called Pictures group was less influenced by critical theory per se than its dissolution in the era’s lively music and club culture—is here attested at every turn.

Like Curtis, Goldstein was obviously very much taken with the mythos of the Third Reich, which provided him with a storehouse of images as well as a model for the confluence of fetishistic control and cataclysmic release that he was chasing in his own practice. A painting of church spires silhouetted against upturned, roving searchlights suggests Kristallnacht; another shows the city at night from the overhead perspective of—one assumes—a fighter pilot. In later years, Goldstein would become known for “farming out” his paintings, thereby gaining an even greater distance from their production, but initially, when he was still claiming responsibility for every mark and gesture, their underlying tensions were perhaps more evident. These are earthshaking, Wagnerian sentiments expressed with the steady hand of a surgeon.

Three panels roller-painted with jet black enamel, individually framed in thin yellow molding and butted up edge to edge, make up Untitled, 1979. This work suggests a kind of Minimalist gag until one catches sight of the tiny astronaut falling from one panel to the next as though through successive frames of film. The lifeline that once connected this figure to a spaceship has been cut, suggesting imminent asphyxiation, but here, as in all of Goldstein’s work, not only is death the precondition of the image; it comprises its very grounding and substance. The twisting astronaut turns the literal, self-evident surfaces of Minimalism into an endless, icy void. The cutting of the oxygen line will ultimately serve to extinguish every last light, but not before a final concerted flash causes life in its entirety to pass before the eyes.

This show was arranged around a crucial insight: Goldstein rendered the hard surfaces of Minimalism photosensitive. It follows, though, that only the most violent phenomena could be expected to leave a mark; hence the lightning storms, fireworks displays, and exploding bombs. The image is seared into surface, into memory, to continue burning there long after its original witness has gone.

Jan Tumlir