New York

Jack Goldstein

Jack Goldstein’s move into painting in the late 1970s was driven, in part, by truly damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t decision making. “I didn’t want to be this guy who did performances and films when all these other guys were painters,” he admitted during a 2001 conversation with Meg Cranston, noting the pressure he felt to adapt not only to the “other guys” (i.e., David Salle, Troy Brauntuch, Robert Longo, et al.) but also to the wave of new commercial galleries and withering of alternative spaces. Yet, he goes on to say in the same breath, “It was a difficult thing to go back to painting. If you look at the end of the seventies, there was Frank Stella. What . . . was there possible to do?”

Ironically, then, Goldstein’s ambivalence about painting some three decades ago had little to do with carrying a torch for the “dematerialized” object; nor was he particularly bound, it seemed, to art-historical narratives that deemed performance and film as necessarily more radical practices. For Goldstein (1945–2003), forays on the canvas seemed, in principle, to be just fine, so long as there was a way to make them relevant, of their time. This he did extremely well, by jettisoning any pretense to painting’s medium-specificity and concentrating instead on his ability to produce upon canvas all manner of surface effects. Having spent his career insisting on a kind of affinity between—if not outright conflation of—things and their representations, Goldstein found in painting an unlikely arena in which to hyperbolize. For what he pictured there were ostensibly elements drawn from “real” phenomena but, as with his films and performances, every detail assumes emphasis bordering on hallucinatory.

Indeed, his paintings and works on paper from the 1980s privilege “content” whose actual, thinly disguised interest for the artist lies in dramatic plays and connotations of light. Images are drawn from such otherwise incongruous sources as World War II blitz photographs and split-second snaps of lightning storms, volcanic eruptions, and the like; in some instances, more abstract works have more the “look” of calamity, their compositions overdetermined blurs: dilating, expanding, flooded with unnatural, oversaturated pigment—exuding an apocalyptic vibe. At Mitchell-Innes & Nash, a tight grouping of Goldstein’s works gave a mini-overview of the now-deceased artist’s production during the 1980s. A stark, beautifully roughshod black-and-white triptych from 1981 shows—on its central panel—a small plane dive-bombing (or maybe just flying) through thick clouds. Executed on Masonite, this photorealistic image is flanked on either side by densely black panels of equivalent size. The effect, when one stands some distance from the work, is that of a filmstrip, a bit of moving image held momentarily still. Yet, seen up close, the two black panels show Goldstein’s deep attention to material and process (an attention that held despite the artist having assistants execute most of his paintings). Covered in thick pulls of pigment, they risk being downright “painterly,” and rather than stand in opposition to the much more slickly executed central panel nudge viewers to slow their viewing of an otherwise “fast” image.

The earliest piece in the show, this triptych plays hard and fast with the tension between painting and photography. Other early works, including two depictions (one acrylic on canvas, the other spray enamel and acrylic on paper) from 1984 of strangely anthropomorphic lightning bolts do the same, if more subtly. Least effective are the pieces from the late ’80s, which, though lush and evocative in their amorphous content and supersonic colors, lose some of the understated, poignant poetics of the earlier work. The best of Goldstein’s oeuvre—film, performance, painting, sound, writing—manages to exude, despite all its ostensible coolness and even after all these years, an unexpected, unquantifiable tenderness.

Johanna Burton