Jack Goldstein has been called the most important “artist’s artist” of the last 30 years. A key “missing link” between 60s and 80s art, his work spans performance, film, painting and poetry. He even made 45rpm and 33rpm records which he presented as sculpture. All of these are represented at Nottingham Contemporary, in his first solo exhibition in the UK.
Goldstein’s roots were in minimalist sculpture, he has said, but he allied this to an ironic, pop-cultural sensibility that questioned the originality of art by focussing on mass reproduced images. Made in Los Angeles in the 1970s, his films lift images and stylistic devices from the burgeoning media technology of the era, as well as the history of the Hollywood movie industry and its place in America’s image of itself.
“Art should be a trailer for the future,” he famously wrote. Seen in that light, his work is a series of intense psychodramas that hint at apocalyptic narratives.
His series of immaculate 16mm films feature haunting motifs that play with the meaning those images have acquired – a glinting knife evokes Hitchcock, MGM’s incessantly roaring lion signals the start of a story, a trained dog barks senselessly on cue, a gradually tarred and feathered chair alludes perhaps to the endemic racism of early Hollywood.
He also drew on Hollywood’s technicians and the craft of big budget film making, in particular on lighting and sound, to recreate the seductive allure of mainstream cinema and to orchestrate suggestion. Here though, the image itself is isolated - his films are only a few minutes long. Meaning becomes ambiguous. He was, he said “letting you experience the sense of an extreme situation, but at a distance, so that you can control it.”
Like the Hollywood disaster movies made in the same era, his work hints at catastrophe, particularly the later paintings made by graphic artists using the glossy airbrush technique that then pervaded popular culture. They do not reflect the prevailing movie version of the future – seen in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, George Lucas’s Star Wars series or Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner. Instead they revisit America’s history, particularly the 30s and 40s. His paintings appear to portray the world’s last images, following natural cataclysm perhaps – yet they are scenes of destruction from World War II. Even here, meaning and image are coolly parted. “An explosive is beauty before its consequences,” he wrote.
Although his art is not directly self-expressive, it does give a sense of his own life too. The artist often disappears, sometimes literally, whether avoiding a spotlight in a film of an early performance, or finally in absenting himself from the production of his art works altogether - his later paintings were carried out entirely by assistants. Goldstein’s own life was turbulent, and apparently rancorous. After falling from favour in the art world, he disappeared throughout the 90s, perhaps to his trailer in the desert where, despite a renewed interest in his work with a retrospective at New York’s Whitney Museum in 2002, he took his own life in 2003.