Vibrating Still Lifes: Jack Goldstein at The Jewish Museum
JACK GOLDSTEIN x 10,000
The Jewish Museum
May 10 to Sept 29, 2013
1109 5th Avenue
New York City, (212) 423-3200
JACK GOLDSTEIN x 10,000 speaks to the high voltage intensity that one artist can generate over the course of a lifetime. The exhibition at The Jewish Museum arrives by way of the Orange County Museum of Art in California where the show opened last year as the first American retrospective for the Canadian-born Jack Goldstein (1945-2003). Works featured include Goldstein’s infamous short 16mm films from the 1970s, experimental soundscapes on vinyl, epic 1980s paintings of dynamic weather, and his final philosophical writings exhibited in seventeen bound volumes.
In Goldstein’s performance-based 16mm films, such as A Glass of Milk (1972) and Some Plates (1972), we witness the artist first coming to terms with the kinetic dynamism of still life objects. These early films, along with four others, are projected onto a wall for forty minutes on a continuous loop. With the help of a charismatic projector, Goldstein’s films are bewitchingly charming, resembling a middle school reenactment of Isaac Newton’s first Law: an object at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. In A Glass of Milk, for over four minutes, a fisted hand rhythmically pounds against a table upon which there sits a vulnerable glass of milk. Similarly, in Some Plates, a precarious stack of plates is as motionless as a still life on a table, until an outside force (the artist) enters. In the background behind the plates, a pair of legs begins to stubbornly stomp and jump. After about three minutes of stomping, the stack of plates, like the glass of milk, crashes, as we expected it to. Although these films are, to put it bluntly, experiments, Goldstein successfully captures the integrity of his objects as they act alongside and against the artist as force, or outside agent.
In A Spotlight, another film made the same year, Goldstein takes his place among his objects, challenging his own endurance over the course of eight minutes, running back and forth trying to escape the spotlight that pursues him. In one sense, Goldstein’s stomping, pounding, and fleeing can be understood as the common, eccentric gestures of a frustrated artist. As early experiments, these films exhibit one of Goldstein’s life-long, humbling preoccupations: How to breathe life into the still life? It is Goldstein’s sensibility, his way of regarding the stack of plates, the glass of milk, or himself, that comes across as the main subject of the film work. At times, this sensibility carries with it Baldessari-like inflections of Cal Arts humor, but ultimately, what sets Goldstein apart is his sense of profound disappointment as he perpetually discovers objects, like characters, will and do endure, with, or without us—like Samuel Beckett’s characters, they go on.
The experience of the silent films is complimented by the overlay of Goldstein’s sound effects records compiled from Hollywood audio archives. In Two Cats Wrestling (1976) the distinct and disorienting sounds of cats fighting can be heard throughout the exhibition via overhead speakers. Among Goldstein’s Suite of 9 Records with Sound Effects (1976) the purple 45rpm, The Tornado, is simultaneously the least intrusive as well as the most haunting. As a soundscape, The Tornado’s howling winds successfully foregrounds the foreboding, moods one might experience alongside the artist’s later paintings made in New York during the 1980s, visible in an adjacent room.
Goldstein’s depictions of lightening storms, meteor showers, and volcanic eruptions, airbrushed to perfection by his assistants may strike a viewer initially as out of place. In their celestial aspirations, they appear overtly ambitious, especially in comparison to the memorable Mickey Mouse simplicity of a film like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1975), a three minute portrait of the company’s famous roaring lion head logo. Given the heavily emphasized LA art context of the show (pop red and yellow painted gallery walls), these New York paintings appear especially strange, and saturnine with their high-contrast explosions, stormy weather, and apocalyptic undertones. The scale and High Definition-like quality of Goldstein’s appropriated nature scenes boasts in his untitled works a commercial presence in so far as they appear pristine, as well as pricey. What is fascinating to me is that they complicate, and contextualize how the commercially vibrant art world of the 1980s existed alongside the intellectual ambitions of the so-called Pictures Generation of the late 1970s. Within Goldstein’s oeuvre, the later paintings share in common with the earlier films the urge to add energy, momentum, and a sense of kineticism to the still life. Not unlike the final philosophical texts Goldstein was composing toward the end of his life, these darker works depict the torpor of being alongside the drama of exile.
Consistently across mediums, Goldstein uses found images, sounds, pets, and texts in order to interrogate the cosmic fact that our fragility, like the stack of plates, is our livelihood, our vitality. Perhaps that is what the 10,000 of the retrospective’s title speaks to. Ten thousand is a quantitative measure of Goldstein’s capacity, his wattage, so to speak. Or, perhaps 10,000 suggests the number of times, turns, and transformations it took for Goldstein to make the final artistic leap–as he did in his last film, The Jump (1978) moving from incandescence to something else. For the artist who seldom signed his paintings, that, it seems, would be Goldstein’s signature: trademarked transubstantiation, the movement from light into pictures and then from pictures into ether.