Too much work in large gallery retrospectives of the art of the 20th century can seem exhausted as well as exhaustive, as if every breath of life in the work had been sucked out through decades of canonization. What was once radical and fresh in the work of the generations of artists that preceded the advent of postmodernism in the early 70s can too often be buried under layers of received wisdom. That coating can make the work almost impossible to see as anything but an item to check off your bucket list.
It’s the challenge of curators to overcome that, of course, but it certainly helps when the work under consideration still seems to speak directly to issues and ideas that are relevant to our present day. The 70s, it seems, in some interesting way, may still be the present. Perhaps this is the case because postmodernism, in its earliest manifestations when its practitioners were concerned with the issue of representation itself—especially in how representation worked at the moment of viewing (rather than in the larger politics of representing)—addressed the interfaces between the image, technology and us in a way that now seems almost prescient.
Postmodernism’s first generation, the Pictures Generation, got it right. The Montreal-born Goldstein, of course, is one of this group, along with his CalArts contemporaries Troy Brauntuch, Matt Mullican, David Salle and James Welling, as well as artists from New York such as Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine and Robert Longo, among others. Originally lauded for his films and audio works, he also is known for his paintings, which, if one only has a cursory knowledge of this artist, may seem very different from the earlier work. In “Jack Goldstein x 10,000,” however, guest curator Philipp Kaiser makes the case, successfully I think, for the paintings and the later, much lesser-known text-based works as part of an almost seamless progression.
The exhibition is laid out chronologically, and it begins with a room containing an early sculpture from 1969 to 1971 made from blocks of wood, a stacking piece very much under the influence of the minimalism of the day, and films from 1971 to 1973. Projected in loops from two 16-mm projectors, these works vary in length from under 3 minutes to 13 minutes.
Five of these early films are black and white and feature some sort of performative action. In A Nail, for instance, we see the artist’s hands as he pounds a nail into a board, and then the remainder of the film consists of the artist trying (eventually successfully) to dislodge the nail using his mouth. In A Glass of Milk, we see a small card table with a full glass of milk as the only item on its surface. A seated figure (the artist) methodically pounds the same corner of the table, making the glass jump and the milk spill. The film ends when the glass tips over. A similar conceit functions in Some Plates, from 1972, where a stack of ceramic plates is piled about three feet high. A figure (again, the artist) jumps next to the pile, causing it to rock and shiver. Expectedly, the film ends when the stack falls.
These works, based in performance, have many parallels with early video work, such as David Askevold’s Fill or Catapult. The artist sets up a scenario and then records the consequences of action on that scenario. It was a common enough approach to the use of both film and video in the early 70s and despite its predictability and overt simplicity, it can lead, as the method surely does in these films, to something eminently compelling.
His sound works, pressed on 45 rpm and 33 1/3 rpm vinyl records, are entirely created from the archives of stock sounds utilized in the film industry. In the exhibition these are displayed as discrete objects with headphones where one can listen to a loop of the pieces in a particular vitrine or wall display. Admittedly, in a museum context, it would have been impossible to have a series of record players for viewers to interact with, but the sound works would have been much better served by separate headphones for each record.
Goldstein’s paintings are well represented in this exhibition, both his first images, drawn mainly from Second World War photojournalism, and later work based on found images from astronomical, meteorological and medical imaging. Most of these paintings share the same technique, which is that they were painted by assistants using airbrushes.
The final room of this exhibition contains what are largely regarded as Goldstein’s last works: text pieces entirely made from aphorisms and quotes from other authors, graphically rendered in early computer text programs and printed at a copy shop. Sadly, Goldstein killed himself in 2003, before these last works were ever shown publicly.
“Jack Goldstein x 10,000” is impeccably researched and contains all the works one would hope to see to make a case for this enigmatic, underappreciated and quite brilliant artist. It suffers from some technical limitations (the films, for instance, have sound bleed issues where it can be quite difficult to hear the soundtrack of one film because of the sounds emanating from others, especially as too often the only speakers are the ones on the 16-mm projectors themselves), but it succeeds in reminding us of how important this artist was, and it makes the case for the work, which remains important and relevant today.
The image and our relationship to it is still a problem, and the means of addressing that problem—that is, the strategies for turning images, sounds and gestures into objects that were pioneered by Goldstein—remain the tools utilized by artists the world over to step back from our culture and look at it again, and again, with ever-fresh eyes.
Ray Cronin is director and CEO of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.