"Jack," a short 1973 film shown on a quietly clattering projector near the start of the fascinating Jack Goldstein retrospective exhibition at the Orange County Museum of Art, is uncomplicated — a work of strict Minimalist construction. Yet it surreptitiously unfolds into something emotionally moving.
The film begins with a full-frame close-up of the artist's face. "Jack," he says. The camera takes one step back.
"Jack," he says again, a few moments later. The camera takes another step back.
"Jack," he repeats, and the camera steps back once more. This simple format continues unchanged for the film's full 11 minutes and 24 seconds, until eventually the artist is but a speck in the ever-widening distance between viewer and viewed.
The film was shot outdoors in unexceptional color. The landscape — a desert expanse backed by hills — comes into view, and its emptiness seems to swallow him up. At some indeterminate point in the process it dawns on a viewer that, even as the camera continues to step back, the artist's voice can no longer be heard. His recitation of his name moves beyond the threshold of audible perception. Slowly but steadily, Jack disappears inside his art.
Minimalist art is just about the last thing one expects to be heartbreaking, but "Jack" is. The more Goldstein asserts his identity, the more remote he becomes. The more he declares his subjectivity, the more he is erased. The more he claims a place in the world, the more the world engulfs him — in all its bleak and indifferent splendor.
The film's repetitive structure also means that, long before it's over, you know what's coming. As an artist's self-portrait, it radiates a deep awareness of mortality.
Goldstein was only 27 when he made it, just out of grad school at CalArts. (He studied with John Baldessari.) The crisply made work is anything but sentimental, but the artist's suicide in San Bernardino before he turned 58 can't help but color our perception of the film now.
"Jack" owes an obvious debt to Michael Snow's famous experimental film, "Wavelength" (1967), a 45-minute, non-stop zoom across a big, cluttered room. After four almost imperceptible edits (and intimations of an off-screen death), Snow's film eventually closes in on a still photograph of a placid sea that hangs on the opposite wall. "Wavelength" is a masterpiece of the structural-cinema genre.
But mordant humor also nibbles around the edges of Goldstein's movie, complete with its own disappearing act. It made me think of Pop art and its meditations on deathly fame.
Specifically, it brought to mind the celebrated 1969 Esquire magazine cover of Andy Warhol drowning inside the swirling vortex within a can of Campbell's tomato soup. Unlike the traditional way a painter makes a painting or a sculptor produces a sculpture by carving, casting or assembling found objects, Goldstein adopted a Hollywood idea of art. He's the artist as director.
"Jack" is a movie and Goldstein, as its leading man, did not physically make the art in which he stars. Someone else shot it. An impersonal company processed the reel. In the museum, it is projected on a wall as a continuous, mechanized loop.
But he's no auteur. The disappearing artist isn't the singular author of a personally expressive creative voice that shines through movie-making's collaborative process of production. Additional films show Goldstein drawing on a variety of sources in L.A. art, including the work of Chris Burden, Hirokazu Kosaka, William Leavitt, Allen Ruppersberg, Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha, William Wegman, Baldessari and more.
Goldstein's films are a big reason to see the show, since they are rarely shown. (Before now I had only seen two.) The one that is most-often screened — "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer" (1975), with its incessantly roaring MGM lion — remains a standout. The king of beasts and the movie studio's Latin slogan extolling art-for-art's-sake drown in a field of blood-red color.
Philipp Kaiser, guest curator of the OCMA show, astutely notes that Goldstein once identified his intention to burrow down into "the gap between Minimalism and Pop art: the objectness and autonomy of Minimalism and the subject matter from our culture that's in Pop art." Many artists who came to attention in the 1980s shared that aim. Nowhere was he more successful in doing so than in his paintings.
As with the movies, he's also the painter as director. The show includes 20 paintings, a medium he turned to almost exclusively between 1979 and '93. (Goldstein claimed to have made 500 canvases, about one every 10 days, though the outlandish exaggeration largely speaks of the degree of his artistic ambition.) The paintings, like the 21 mostly early films that dominate the show's first half, were also fabricated by others according to the artist's designs.
Big, brash, frankly glamorous canvases in black and white or rich, acid colors are often cinematic in flavor and imagery.
Some reproduce spectacular World War II photographs of aerial raids, like newsreel photos of the London Blitz orMargaret Bourke-White's pictures of the 1941 Kremlin bombing. Later they show dramatic bursts of lightning above vast Western landscapes.
The German word "blitz" means lightning. These early '80s works recall the 1980 publication of striking photographs of "Lightning Field," Walter De Maria's environmental sculpture in New Mexico, printed in Artforum and later,Germany'sStern magazine. The press coverage again crossed Minimalism and Pop.
They also infer the stunning return of German painting to international prominence in those years. It's as if Goldstein's photo-based works chronicle the upheaval caused by mesmerizing mass media, the daily blitz of modern life.
Others show galactic, nuclear and subatomic light phenomena. Their searing, mottled colors against black and indigo backgrounds look like what happens when film sticks in a projector and the heat from the lamp incinerates the frame. Many are also flanked with color bars in heightened hues, or they're painted on canvas stretched over unusually deep stretcher-bars, which undermine their status as conventional pictures and emphasize their status as fabricated objects.
The bright acrylic color is smooth, the organic shapes crisp and hard-edged. The result is a flat, patterned surface that recalls commercial paint-by-numbers works of the kind lampooned in the '60s by Andy Warhol.
OCMA's show was originally planned for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, where Kaiser was on staff (he recently departed to direct the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany); after MOCA canceled it, OCMA picked up the ball, for which we should be grateful. It will travel next year to the Jewish Museum in New York.
The show is not voluminous, but it also includes sound works, two theatrical installations, large drawings of tiny astronauts and paratroopers adrift in space, a late film of undersea exploration and a large display case filled with the artist's writings. These are especially of interest as context.
But the films and paintings constitute the artist's primary legacy. The retrospective's title, "Jack Goldstein X 10,000," sets the tone for an artist whose art can't be reduced to one thing. Like the narrator of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," it contains multitudes.
"Jack Goldstein X 10,000," Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122, through Sept. 9. Closed Mon. and Tue. http://www.ocma.net