November/December 2010
C. S. Leigh

The Ghost Who Refused to Die

Remembering and Forgetting Jack Goldstein

“I never look at the last thing someone did for me; I look at the big picture.”

—Jack Goldstein, quoted in Jack Goldstein
and the CalArts Mafia by Richard Hertz

Toward the end of John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation, society matron Ouisa Kittredge rebukes her husband for animatedly telling their dinner guests about a con man who inserted himself into their lives, claiming to be Sidney Poitier’s son. Ouisa is appalled that her husband would recount this humiliating, hurtful story in order to entertain and amuse their friends, when the man, in fact, had come to mean a lot to them. As she says, “We become these human jukeboxes spitting out these anecdotes to dine out on like we’re doing right now. Well, I will not turn him into an anecdote. It was an experience. How do we hold on to the experience?”

This precise dilemma presented itself often as I sat down to write about the artist Jack Goldstein.I knew Jack in the ’80s in New York, when his short-lived era of good fortune was already on the wane.I intended to share amusing or unnerving anecdotes about Jack, ones that his friends and/or enemies love to tell in glorious, bitter detail. They’re good stories; some of them may even be true.(My favorite turned out to be wholly false.In the midst of a Whitney Biennial party held at the home of a famous and self-important collector couple, Jack purportedly forced his hosts to move one of his paintings to a choicer spot in their Upper East Side townhouse.) Yet writing down these stories felt potentially more exploitative than celebratory or usefully revealing. Wouldn’t it be preferable to experience Jack’s work directly, rather than viewing it through the lens of the tittle-tattle and gossip, even if so much of the mythomania came from his own mouth, even if so much of it was a part of his persona as an artist, and responsible, to some degree, for his fame?

Thinking about Jack Goldstein, it turned out, was not much easier than knowing him.

Though most people remember Jack Goldstein as a failure, he was, for a brief period, a very successful artist.

Jack was born in Canada in 1945 and moved to Southern California as a teenager, where he would later attend CalArts’ hallowed post-studio program, headed up at the time by the conceptual photographer John Baldessari, who soon became Jack’s mentor. Jack’s early work was temporal and fleeting, and was best represented by his performances and films (a film called Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer shows the MGM lion roaring on a continuous loop, ad infinitum, appearing ever more powerless, even ridiculous). Jack moved to New York and soon thereafter he turned himself into a painter, in partbecause paintings sell and Jack needed money. He created canvases that feature images appropriated from wartime photographs of explosions and other disasters, works that sought to capture what he called the moment of the “spectacle” or “the spectacular instant.”

These were sold mostly by Helene Winer, his “woman” from the CalArts days and also one of the founders of the influential New York gallery Metro Pictures. As Metro’s power grew, Jack became the epitome of the ’80s Male Art Star (first-generation model). He was a womanizer, heavy drinker, party animal, serial self-promoter, and loved a good bust-up—physical or otherwise. He took the image of the Great Male Painter, embraced by the New York art world for decades, and added the egocentric patina of the ’70s conceptual artist. He was Franz Kline and Michael Heizer rolled into one. He was fiercely competitive and used his hostility in the same way that Jackson Pollock used his, as a means for creating large works that could epitomize a cultural moment to the nth degree.

Eventually, however, Jack self-destructed.He stopped going to his studio, relying on his assistants to churn out inferior work with his name on it; one by one, he alienated his allies, eventually turning them into enemies. His drug habit became uncontrollable and he started looking ill.Nobody wanted to talk to Jack; many people, including myself, would cross the street to avoid him when he was in a bad way.

Then Jack abandoned New York—but he didn’t just leave the city, hedisappeared. It became something of a game for a while to try to figure out where Jack was. Most people figured he was dead, but then we’d hear that he’d been spotted at CalArts auditioning in his hustler way for a teaching gig, or trying to sell paintings to his old and once-dedicated collectors for a fraction of the price his works had commanded when things were going well. A mythology of failure, fueled in no small part by the schadenfreude of the many wronged people he’d left behind, filled Jack’s absence; very soon this mythology replaced whatever truth there was left of the artist he’d once been. No one was interested in his work, which was being sold on the cheap and was rarely if ever written about or discussed. He had no dealer—at least not an art dealer—and his works were taken down at museums and placed in storage to gather dust.

In his own words, Jack was “a ghost who refuses to die.”

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

C. S. Leigh is a writer and filmmaker.

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