Circles of Light


“There’s too many people here,” artist Jack Goldstein deadpanned last Wednesday night, peering grimly through the houselights at the 70-odd spectators who had come to Angel Orensanz to see a re-creation of his 1979 performance Two Boxers. In the piece, a pair of real fighters duke it out under a strobe light, evoking the pugilist actualités of early cinema. The event kicked off a retrospective of Goldstein’s 16mm movies at the Whitney—the first complete showing of his films in New York (through September 22). It also marked the first time Goldstein had set foot in this city in two decades. By his own account, he’d spent the last 10 years in the desert with just his dogs, preferring their company to that of people.

Canadian-born Goldstein was part of the generation of New York gallery artists, including Sherrie Levine and Robert Longo, who boosted the critical currency of postmodernism in the late ’70s by appropriating mass-media forms, exploring technologies both high and low, and reviving representation through a post-Conceptual reinvestment in the image. Goldstein’s neon-colored airbrush paintings blew up stock photos of war and disaster onto massive canvases, achieving a flattened, cinematic effect. Some included sprocket holes, painted on the edges of the frame. His paintings eventually became part of other movies, appearing in the backgrounds of both the mainstream softcore thriller 9 1/2 Weeks and Leslie Thornton’s experimental Peggy and Fred in Hell. The Film-Maker’s Co-op catalog even lists a seldom rented 1987 short by Fred Worden entitled How the Hell I Ripped Jack Goldstein’s Painting in the Elevator. But the market for Goldstein’s art eventually waned. “At the end, I couldn’t give them away,” he remarked last week. In the past few years, however, retrospectives in Europe and on the West Coast have engendered a Goldstein revival.

Crafted with a glitzy disco-era glam, Goldstein’s 22 mini-movies seem ripe for rehabilitation by an art world that has already embraced the witty confections of artists like Rob Pruitt and Fred Tomaselli. In Goldstein’s shorter films, ranging from 19 seconds to five minutes, various objects enact simple, sometimes repetitive motions over monochrome backdrops, creating enigmatic moving-picture icons. In The Chair (1975), a rain of multi-hued costume feathers slowly covers a black wooden seat. A hand against an electric blue background waggles tiny paper butterflies on each fingertip in Some Butterflies (1975), evoking proto-cinematic puppetry. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1975) loops a rotoscoped image of MGM’s roaring Leo, floating in a pure red field; the image, faintly camp, recalls a ’70s fascination with Hollywood’s distant golden age. Shane (1975) refers to old Tinseltown in title alone, the image here being an attentively barking German shepherd. Collectively, the films play like Zen commercials for nothing, or modern-age mandalic objects of meditation.

Two programs of longer performance films fill out the exhibit. Like efforts by Richard Serra and William Wegman, these show Goldstein acting out arcane studio theatrics. In A Glass of Milk (1975), he pounds on a card table until the titular object finally spills. A similar destruction overtakes a crockery stack in Some Plates (1972). At least one performance draws on Goldstein’s showbiz predilections: A Spotlight (1972) features him pursued around a dark room by an aggressive circle of light. The centerpiece is The Jump (1978), a 26-second loop in which a high diver made of scintillating gold sparkles leaps and plummets endlessly, its gleaming facets bursting against a dead-black sky. Ghostlike and robotic, The Jump is an alluring image of cocaine-sharp decadence. It’s the epitome of Goldstein’s film work, a bodiless moment of unattainable beauty, too perfect to be anything but a dream of pure light.