"I AM ALWAYS DISAPPEARING in my performances--it's strange how personal my work is."
Just as a serious assessment of the '80s is beginning, one of the period's most important and neglected figures has slipped from our grasp. The long-term significance of Jack Goldstein's artistic achievement is only now becoming evident. In his life and work, Jack, who committed suicide in San Bernardino in March at the age of fifty-seven, articulated the profound anxiety dominating an era of spectacle, as the open-ended Conceptual practices that characterized the '70s gave way to an appropriation-based return to narrative imagemaking. His films, 45 rpm records, paintings, text pieces, and performances formed a hinge between the end of one decade and the beginning of another, articulating elements of both while refusing to be contained by either.
Throughout his life, Jack's uncompromising directness was both disarming and precise. One of his last projects, Jack Goldstein and the Ca/Arts Mafia, is a memoir written with Richard Hertz and including contributions by a group of Jack's friends that reads like a who's who of the '80s art world (the book is slated for publication by Hertz's Minnesota Press this month). In it, Jack wonders where the refinement in his work could have come from. Perhaps, he conjectures, "it came from my father's military uniform, which was impeccable; everything lined up. You could see your face in his shoes. Maybe there is some sensibility I got from that. Whatever medium I work in, I always want a wonderful surface."
This desire for perfection was nurtured by his early training, from 1966 to 1970, at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, where the teaching emphasized craftsmanship and a thorough knowledge of materials and the faculty included several retired Disney animators. It was here that Jack came across the Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader and recognized early a difference between his own work and the prevailing performative climate. Reflecting on the fateful transatlantic boat trip from which Ader never returned, Jack observed that "the difference between Bas Jan and me is that I wouldn't have to take that boat trip; a flyer would have been enough.... I would have treated it as pure theater."
This approach to such Conceptual matters was developed at California Institute of the Arts, the legendary school established by Walt Disney in 1961. The period Jack spent at CalArts "changed the course of (his] life." It was there, under the tutelage of John Baldessari, that a group of students including Jack, David Salle, Troy Brauntuch, Matt Mullican, Robert Longo, Barbara Bloom, and James Welling emerged. Baldessari termed his teaching "post-studio" and encouraged the use of Super-8 cameras, photographic equipment, and the surrounding popular culture in his students' work. The new teaching philosophy, not to mention the college's proximity to Hollywood, provided a logical context for Jack's embrace of pictorial objectification.
Baldessari remembers being impressed by the uncompromising rigor of a performance by Jack in which he buried himself in the ground, his heartbeat measured by a stethoscope connected to his chest and amplified. "What a terror being buried like that must have induced. Jack said he was trying to give up something organic to make a symbolic statement." The core of Jack's thinking was already evident.
It was during his CalArts period that Jack met Helene Winer, then director of Pomona College Art Gallery and later a cofounder of Metro Pictures. She gave him his first solo show, in 1971, encouraged his move to New York, and played a central role in his life. Jack and Helene's move to New York in 1974, and Helene's appointment as director of Artists Space, marked the beginning of one of his most prolific and creative periods. Traveling between New York and Los Angeles, he made numerous short color films, records, and performance pieces, hiring Hollywood animators, trained animals, and special-effects experts to create singular, highly polished, tightly constructed statements that shifted the image from thought to object and back again. …