A Swim Against The Tide

On Thursday Jean Fisher gave a lecture on Jack Goldstein’s work in The Space under the title A Swim Against The Tide – a reference to his own 7″ record featuring the sound of a swimmer trying to push against the current of an ocean. It proved an apt heading, partly because during Morgan Fisher’s talk last month he’d noted that Goldstein had at one point been obsessed with the idea of recording the process of drowning, and the record featured in A Suite of Nine 7″ Records (1976) had been a close approximation of realising that ambition, but also because, as Jean Fisher pointed out, Goldstein’s own art had a tendency to swim against the currents of its own time.

Fisher began by noting that her interests had long strayed from the kind of work made by Goldstein, and while she’d known him well in New York during the 1980s, and been responsible for compiling a catalogue of his output up to that time, in more recent years she’d moved into working on post-Colonial art and so hadn’t been close to him during his later years: during the 1990s, he’d largely vanished from the art world’s radar, and only in the few years leading to his suicide in 2003 had he begun to be reassessed and shown new paintings, films and performances in the kinds of high profile places he’d occupied for much of the 1970s and 80s.

With that in mind, however, Fisher felt that the gap since her last direct involvement with Goldstein and his work meant she’d come to it fresh when preparing her talk, and her return to it convinced her that much seemed prescient in terms of how Goldstein’s interests intersected with many current issues in art, something that his tendency not to fit in with the dominant currents during the 70s and 80s had only made clear with hindsight. Why hadn’t Goldstein been more appreciated at the time? Fisher suggests that while he was always well-respected by other artists – and certainly influential – various factors had conspired against his wider acceptance.

The main one required us to understand a key distinction between the art world’s various spheres, since while critical attention and influence are factors in building reputations, the kind of artist whose work is written about in serious journals is not always the kind of artist whose work is popular with the wealthy collectors who ensure that critical and financial success operate in tandem: Goldstein may have won respect and been closely studied, but he was never more than tenuously successful in terms of selling work to collectors and institutions, which led to financial insecurity throughout his career.

One particular blow came from Charles Saatchi, who vocally dismissed Goldstein during the 1980s  – a blow that only mattered because an already tenuous hold on financial self-sufficiency was at the very least made more tenuous: as Fisher noted, when your position rests on a fairly narrow margin of profitability, a public denunciation by an influential figure like Saatchi can easily sway less independently-minded collectors. Goldstein retained a core of interested collectors, and was always well respected by curators and critics, but he almost certainly lost out by having been given a kind of ‘black spot’ by Charles Saatchi at a time when his opinions carried a lot of weight in the markets.

Fisher also noted that his reputation was slightly damaged by the way that some of Goldstein’s former assistants – mainly the Neo-Geo artist Ashley Bickerton – made public claims suggesting they’d essentially made Goldstein’s 1980s paintings on his behalf. While it was no secret that these works were airbrushed by assistants – indeed, it was part of their raison d’etre, and an important distancing device – Fisher explained that she knew the process of their making well, and outlined the process of the paintings’ making in detail.

First, Goldstein would select the image – usually a photograph, and often with echoes of the Romantic sublime (burning cities during wartime, lightning strikes, images of eclipses and stars) – then hand-build the canvas stretcher and stretch the canvas to the required size. Next, he’d carry out a long and detailed process of preparing the surface: primer, followed by layer after layer of acrylic, each time sanded back until the surface was ready. Only when he’d achieved a perfectly smooth finish would the canvas be handed to his assistants, whose role was to transfer the image (as cropped by Goldstein) in as neutral and mechanical a manner as possible to that surface using commercial airbrush techniques.

Fisher’s talks with Goldstein at that time, she explained, led her to understand that while he was essentially a kind of late Romantic in terms of his interest in the sublime, his interests were not expressive but philosophical: the idea of the artist’s vision being realised through some kind of mechanical or detached means lay at the core of his thinking, though as the laborious preparation of canvases by Goldstein himself shows, the idea of hand-making also played a part, but with the usual relationships inverted. In Goldstein’s studio, the artist had the vision, and controlled the outcome, but worked to ensure that the traces of his own hand were concealed rather than foregrounded in the completed work.

It also seems clear that Goldstein adopted the role of the traditional assistant, carrying out the behind the scenes jobs of constructing and preparing canvases himself, a curious twist on the usual studio process. As the talk drew to its close, Fisher built further on the idea of the sublime in Goldstein’s art – and its sense of theatre – by discussing his use of solar and astronomical imagery in many later works, relating his fascination with subjects that lay on the edge of possible expression. She noted that he was generally attracted to images that were only accessible through the medium of photography: historical images (usually from World war Two), phenomena like lightning or eclipses that were not reproducible through conventional observation but only available to be scrutinised because the camera could ‘freeze’ them into split-second slices of time to be examined at leisure after the event.

She related this to his interest in the French strains of philosophy that were being translated into English during his time, and noted that he’d spend hours discussing the ideas about the relationships between language, image, reality and identity in the works of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and others: his work’s tendency to press at the limits of his own experience were certainly related to this, as were his various strategies to frustrate traditional efforts at reading and interpreting his work by way of a biographical understanding. This was, it seems, Saatchi’s objection – that Goldstein’s work didn’t include ‘the hand of the artist’ – though for Fisher, that relationship (as Goldstein’s hands-on role in crafting the supports of his images showed) was more ambiguous than Saatchi knew.

Playing out with slides of some of Goldstein’s Untitled cosmic paintings and two of the musical scores (constructed from sound samples) in his 1984 work The Planets, Fisher wrapped things up with an enlightening question & answer session. Since it had intrigued me through all the time I’d spent looking at these exhibitions, I took the opportunity to ask someone who had known Goldstein well about the way his selections of images related to the history and character of the man: it certainly feels that these images have a personal resonance for Goldstein in a way that most ‘appropriated’ images in art don’t for those using them, so I wondered how he’d have felt to have that observation put to him.

Fisher’s reply was – as I’d expected it would be – complex. Goldstein would not have wanted anything so crass as an attempt to psychoanalyse his work, because his interest was in larger philosophical questions. But within that, it seems his instincts about the effect art might have on a viewer were broadly Romantic in nature: he wanted to convey something of his own awe and wonder at the things he presented, and that probably does say something about him, and his particular belief in how art functions. He was interested in philosophy rather than expressing himself, and used many strategies to frustrate any equation of the image and its mode of representation with an artist’s personal experience.

She concluded with a story. Whenever Goldstein completed a new painting, he would have it in his studio, and spend days on end looking at it. He’d have been through a long process of finding the image he wanted, building the canvas, communicating detailed instructions on how it should be realised to his assistants, and now he’d be in his studio with it, looking at it in a very intense way. Then he’d emerge, convinced that this wasn’t enough. Every image, he seemed to hope would be the image, the work that did whatever it was he wanted it to, but every image would fall short, and push him on towards making the next. In the end, Fisher said, it seemed he was looking for something that he knew – philosophically – could never be achieved.

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