One of the central figures of the Pictures Generation of the 1980s, Jack Goldstein has been called a “paradigmatic conceptualist” by curator Philipp Kaiser. His body of work includes sculptures, performances, films, phonographic sound works, photographs, paintings, and texts, and often employs appropriated photographs and pop culture images in a transformed, decontextualized environment that strips away assumptions in order to reveal the essence of the image.
Born in Canada in 1945, Goldstein moved with his family to Los Angeles as a teenager. He was exposed to and participated in the vibrant Los Angeles art scene as a graduate student at CalArts, where he also spent time as a teaching assistant for John Baldessari. Goldstein moved to New York in 1974, where he fell in with several young artists who shared his interest in issues of media and representation, including Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo. He worked mainly in film during this period, and even at this early stage many themes emerged that would concern him for the rest of his career, including transformation through altered context, authorial distance from his own work, and appropriation. For example, his 1975 film Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer features the MGM logo isolated on a bright red background, its signature lion growling endlessly on loop as it announces a feature film that will never come. In another, The Jump from 1978, a neon-bright diver surrounded by a shadowy glow leaps into black, empty space before disappearing into the bottom of the frame.
Critical reception of Goldstein’s work grew substantially in 1977 when he was included in the seminal Pictures exhibition at Artists Space in New York along with Troy Brauntuch, Sherrie Levine, Longo, and Philip Smith. The press release described these artists as having a shared interest in “the psychological manifestations of identifiable and highly connotative, though non-specific, imagery.” This show established Goldstein as an artist concerned with the appropriation and decontextualization of imagery culled from the mass media, and brought both critical and commercial success, resulting in his first New York solo show at Metro Pictures Gallery in 1980.
Goldstein turned to painting soon after this exhibition. Using photographs of war and cataclysmic natural events as source material, he enlarged his images to grand proportions and sometimes combined them with areas of flat, primary color. Goldstein directed the painting’s completion by assistants rather than finishing the work himself, thereby maintaining a strict distance from his own production. This removal allowed the act of selection and formal decision to trump traditional ideas of authorship in painting.
Goldstein’s work from this period often stems from turbulent natural phenomena and catastrophic events, such as storms, bombings, burning cities, and vast expanses of threatening sky. Goldstein employed an airbrush technique that resulted in an illusion of photographic transparency, which New York Times critic Roberta Smith claimed “fine-tuned Photo Realism to a celluloid-thin elegance.” (1) In the late 1980s Goldstein turned from photographic to digital sources, producing colorful, amorphous abstractions that he called “nuclear,” whose referents are nearly impossible to divine.
This untitled work comes from Goldstein’s series of nuclear abstractions. Its nebulous central blue glow is bracketed at left and right with hard edges of black and electric green and pinned down by four black circles arrayed across the bottom of the canvas. Though the canvas is purely abstract, its ominous yet captivating atmospheric haze recalls the more recognizable subjects of Goldstein’s earlier work. The array of color across the canvas resembles a glowing heat map, measuring out a mysterious source that will never be revealed.
Goldstein essentially disappeared from the art world in the 1990s, choosing instead to isolate himself in the California desert. After a brief return to work at the turn of the century, he took his own life in 2003, ending a decades-long battle with depression and substance abuse. A renewed curatorial interest has grown around his work in the decade since his death, including a new focus on the works on canvas from the 1980s. In 2001 Artists Space restaged Pictures, introducing a new generation to that pivotal exhibition. Major retrospectives were staged in 2002 at the Centre National d’Art Contemporain de Grenoble and in 2009 at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt am Main. In 2012 Venus Over Manhattan presented Where is Jack Goldstein?, which featured thirteen key paintings spotlighted in a dark gallery. In 2012-13, Jack Goldstein x 10,000, the artist’s first American museum retrospective, traveled to the Orange County Museum of Art in Los Angeles and to the Jewish Museum in New York.
1. Roberta Smith, “Jack Goldstein, 57; Helped to Explore Post Modernist Art.” The New York Times, 19 March 2003.
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