Kafka in Hollywood

John Haber
in New York City

Jack Goldstein and Robert Heinecken

Somehow, another remake of The Great Gatsby had me thinking not of East Egg but of Hollywood. It reminded me, too, of Jack Goldstein.

You know the story from F. Scott Fitzgerald himself later in life: the tarnished genius heads to Los Angeles for a fresh start or simply to forget. He finds the sunshine, but not the cash. He never quite makes it—or even knows whether he should. Maybe that lack of belonging, too, is the American dream, or at least it was for a Canadian who had his greatest influence in New York. Meanwhile another Southern Californian in those same years, Robert Heinecken, found even movies too highbrow for his photography, and for him, too, critique verges on obsession. Robert Heinecken's Are You Rea #1 (Jeffrey Leifer collection/Robert Heinecken Trust, 1964–1968)

The roar of the grease paint

Jack Goldstein was not really an exile. Born in Montreal in 1945, he moved to Southern California as a child, and he attended the California Institute of the Arts (the first graduating class, mind you). Still, he belonged there most by never fitting in. In his art, he is always the outsider looking on at a distant tragedy, never knowing whether he shares it. Imagine that Franz Kafka had survived tuberculosis, slipped out of Austria ahead of the Nazis, and studied with John Baldessari. Maybe he would have taken up tennis, along with Arnold Schoenberg and George Gershwin, and gunpowder, along with Ed Ruscha.

The Jewish Museum calls Goldstein's retrospective "x 10,000," after the "ten thousand Jack Goldsteins" that he said coexist in any phone book. I read the wall text and press release a dozen times each, and I still had no idea why the title, but somehow that, too, seems right. Nothing he did comes with a message, not even the overstatement, and almost everything plays over and over and over. He might have been the elder statesman of the "Pictures generation," if only he had spent more time in New York and felt its bitter irony. In his best-known work, the MGM lion roars for three minutes, shorn of any background but bright red—and then the video loop starts again. It does not claim to be especially entertaining or frightening, like a blockbuster or a wild animal, but it makes no denials either.

Goldstein did study at Cal Arts, like Ken Price and David Salle—although, ever the wild card, he insisted that Baldessari never liked him. And he did closely anticipate Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Robert Longo, and the East Village art of the 1980s, when he indeed lived in New York. He in fact serves as the bridge from one to the other. He has the readymade drama, like his paintings based on rocket trails out of Life magazine. He has the detachment, the kind that made him delegate those paintings to others, Ashley Bickerton among them. He has the obsession with pop culture, like his recordings drawn entirely from sound-effect catalogs. He puts himself on camera, like Sherman, without ever quite showing his face.

Still, he is closer to Baldessari's odd mix of coolness and sincerity than to anxiety and anger. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer parallels painting as product logo for another Cal Arts grad, Matt Mullican. Goldstein also sat for another classmate, James Welling, whose photographs of his studio close the show. His performances are short, to the point that one can take in all nineteen sound pieces and twenty-seven films in half an hour, easily, by ducking back and forth between two or three rooms. They are casual and thoroughly literal, like Rocking Chair or Swimming Against the Tide. Shane starts when the dog begins barking and ends when it runs out of gas.

Goldstein's literalness has its roots in Minimalism. Around 1970, he stacked plain wood blocks, with the top block painted black and an additional white block on the floor to the side. This is art in black and white. It is like bricks on the floor by Carl Andre, and it is held up by its own weight, like a prop piece for Richard Serra. Yet it runs vertically, and it is stable enough, thank you. Goldstein seems oblivious to threats, even his own.

The curators, Philipp Kaiser of the Orange County Museum of Art with Joanna Montoya of the Jewish Museum, see something else again. They speak of "the presence of uncertainty, chance, hazard, and mortality within the material solidity of life." They imagine that "a mere touch might send it tumbling to the ground." Maybe, and this is after all only a replica of a lost work, but what you see is still what you get. Goldstein was just playing around, from concept to execution, and it was up to him to take the work apart and to destroy it. Maybe that is why he lost patience with sculpture.

Ambient dangers

The same tension between darker undercurrents and the obvious runs throughout his life. When he shouts his own name in one video or rushes breathlessly through a text reading in another, the curators hear tensions and fears. When he runs in and out of a spotlight, they see him unable to escape into darkness. Maybe, but another eye might see him making the call and guiding the spotlight. When he stomps the floor beside a stack of plates, the noise of the projector almost drowns out the distant echo of danger. When he bangs a tabletop holding a glass, there is literally no crying over spilled milk.

Unlike Prince, he is laughing neither at you nor with you. Unlike Sherman, he dispenses with disguise. He shows little trace of politics, critique, or (goodness knows) feminism. When he puts his lips to a nail, he could be sucking a straw, and the four or five minutes seems to last forever. He appears truly fascinated by whatever he sees and whatever he does. He is just not sure whether to enjoy it.

After those first sound films comes Burning Window, from 1977. As red flickers behind a simulated window, the curators ask whether he is "safe or in peril," but the flames are within, where no human shadow appears. Goldstein has crossed for the first time from performance to voyeurism, and he likes it there. He soon hires boxers, fire throwers, and contortionists to stage the action, which he all but buries in text descriptions, like the society of the spectacle without the spectacle. His recordings come with ominous titles like The Quivering Earth and The Six Minute Drown, but the repertoire of knocking, burning, and roaring winds approaches ambient sound. He also displays the vinyl as part of the work, and he plainly likes the translucent colors.

Jack Goldstein's Untitled (collection of Melva Bucksbaum and Raymond J. Learsy, 1981)The show doubles back to 1975 for more colorful films, like paper butterflies glued to his fingertips. Will they take flight as he wiggles? Of course not, but he does. In The Knife, a blood-red fades to white across metal, but it is only a butter knife. The Jump introduces glitter into live action, as he draws over film of his own leap, leaving open whether to call it a graceful dive or a fiery plunge. And then the bright lights take over for good in the 1980s, with the big paintings.

They move between the human spectacle, based on World War II photographs, and the spectacle of nature, in meteor showers and lightning storms. They have such crisp surfaces as to look all but indistinguishable from the original photographs. Yet they veer more and more toward computer imaging and abstraction. As they do, Goldstein seems to talk himself out of his art. Maybe he was caught all along between silence and noise, immediacy and distance, pop culture's prepackaged reality and the reality right at hand. Maybe, too, that is why he can never be fully engaged or fully apart from the spectacle.

As he reads aloud in that early film, he turns the pages and sets them on fire, so that his voice must stay ahead of the words vanishing before one's eyes. There are at least three time scales—in the breakneck pace of his reading, the movement of one's eye across the page, and the slow line of flame creeping across and down. None of them ever quite synchs up with the text, to the point that meaning is left behind. And yet each is the pace of the film, and everything from voice to paper to fire is all too close at hand. Back in LA, Goldstein retreated in the 1990s into reading philosophy books backward and compiling his "selected writings," concerned as much with font size as with meaning. He found a sad Hollywood ending, a suicide in 2003.

Clichés vary

Robert Heinecken must have watched a lot of television. His retrospective feels at times like a sports bar on another planet, but with every screen turned to daytime TV. A slide show serves up his collection of some two hundred images, with an uncanny fixation on vacuous talking heads. Nearby a photo emulsion on canvas curling off the wall serves up TV dinners. Another grid of photos in the corridor outside neatly sums up his irony, creativity, and obsessions. He called it, like the slide show, Surrealism on TV.

If anyone would recognize Surrealism on TV, he would. An eagle flies into a talk show, while another host is caught kissing a goose. A lion invades a family rec room, with everyone on the sofa, no doubt watching television. Lips on a baseball deliver an unheard sexual provocation, while a woman tosses fitfully in her sleep. Yet another woman levitates in the darkness of an old-fashioned magic act—not a bad metaphor for Heinecken's photography. The 1989 series includes not just screen captures, but also their frame in a vintage TV, for here the message is definitely the medium.

He cherished the medium enough to make it the center of a pretend living room, with his choices constantly on the air. One image lurks out from beneath another, and who is to say which is found and which is manipulated? The same applies to his "compromised media," a good thirty years of glossy magazines—with a strong helping of what another work labels autoeroticism and fetishism. Well before the show's end, one may be glorying in the variety of his imagery or weary of his insistent point of view. One may admire no end his ability to take the mass media apart and put them back together. Or one may wonder why he spent so much time watching TV.

MoMA's title, "Object Matter," sounds pedantic by comparison, but that, too, may have a point. In 1964 Heinecken founded the photography program at UCLA, where he remained until 1991. Clearly he had neither the time nor the inclination to teach the history of photography. Those years took Southern California from Pop Art and conceptual art to the 1980s. And with Heinecken the violence of James Rosenquist meets the detachment of John Baldessari, while the appropriations of Sherrie Levine meet the baby-doll poses of Laurie Simmons. His Baldessari side comes out in the text accompanying photographs for Lessons in Posing, while the implicit violence permeates almost every image of the female body.

And there are plenty. Not exclusively, for Heinecken also has his Tuxedo Striptease and two dozen blurred and bleached blue images of the Reagan inauguration. Yet his girls and women suffer the most and have the most authority, like a single mother as Shiva, the Hindu destroyer. A baby girl, posed on a cross as Buddha, could be presiding over the crucifixion or her own sexual education. Women also define another of Heinecken's obsessions—pushing photography teasingly toward other media. He called himself a "para-photographer," where the Web savvy today might prefer "meta," but it suits his stance between paratrooper and experimenter.

Heinecken died in 2006, but nothing dates later than his years at UCLA. The experiments start with echoes of Irving Penn nudes in Shadows of a Figure from 1961, perhaps the photographer's last reliance on a camera. They include hybrids of photography and painting, like the emulsions on canvas, or of photography and sculpture, like Shiva formed from ads for Tide, Sanka, Pledge, and Spray 'n' Wash. They include wood panels cut up and reassembled like a puzzle, the blistering whiteness of photographic negatives, overprinted color photograms from both sides of a magazine page, portraits assembled from fragments of light and darkness akin to the work of Chuck Close, and "vanishing photographs" arrested at successive stages of development. Heinecken can seem way too taken with the media, male leering, and his own cleverness—as with a series that puns on cliché verre, as Cliché Vary. Still, for all the cleverness and the clichés, there is also the variety.

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Jack Goldstein ran at the Jewish Museum through September 29, 2013, Robert Heinecken at the Museum of Modern Art through September 7, 2014, and at Petzel Gallery through June 21. The review of Heinecken first appeared in a slightly different form in New York Photo Review.


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