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A Body of Work

A little more than a year ago I gave a lecture on Jack Goldstein, an artist synonymous, for most, with the Pictures Generation and the advent of postmodernism in the visual arts. Others also associate him with romantic failure, with his “disappearance” from the art world in the 1990s and his suicide in 2003. Myth and aura shroud Goldstein and his work—not only because of how difficult it is to understand his detached and hermetic art, but also because ideas of his persona have taken on a life of their own. After the talk concluded, I stood with a friend, still lost in the narrative I had just read, when an art historian I respect came up to us and asked me if I thought Goldstein was “a great artist.” I was caught off guard, and fumbled for a response. Eventually, I said with some hesitation, “I don’t know.”

Few questions are as vexing for those engaged with contemporary art as the greatness of an artist. There are mundane as well as art historical reasons for this. Part of the complication arises from the ubiquity of the word “great” in ordinary parlance. A word that originally described the size of something has morphed into a qualifier of quality. “Great” is also flexible, used for quick replies to emails and text messages. We pepper our conversations and correspondences with “great,” giving simple statements an enthusiasm that is hardly warranted. To be great, or so it is implied, is to be happy. But however much “great” is used in the casual discourses of art and everyday life, serious art writing avoids such empty proclamations. To declare an artwork “great”—or its opposite, “terrible”—is to make a distinction between good and bad. American art criticism from the 1940s until the late 1960s was filled with this kind of judgmental writing. Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried attempted to defend modernism from what they considered heretical assaults. Plenty of others from a variety of ideological positions let their opinions be known as well. Bold statements were easy to make when a writer could expect many of his or her readers to have already seen the exhibition under review. But things began to change in the late 1960s. The art world—from an American perspective—expanded beyond New York to Los Angeles, London, Düsseldorf, Rio de Janeiro, and elsewhere. No one could see everything. Criticism became a substitute for actual experience; it was as much about providing information as it was opinion. But shifts caused by geographic circumstances are just one factor in critics shedding a once accepted function. A constant pressure—exerted by feminist artists, artists of color, and artists outside normative conceptions of gender and sexuality, on account of the prejudices they persistently faced—made claims for “greatness” suspect, and this doubt, which came into play in the 1960s and early 1970s, was amplified by the introduction of poststructuralist and postmodernist theory. The proverbial “death of the author” framed greatness in essentialist terms, which has meant that, since the 1980s, serious art writing has, for the most part, treated art as if it existed in a slightly porous vacuum.

Goldstein wanted nothing more than to be great. John Baldessari, his teacher at CalArts in the early 1970s, remembers Goldstein as someone willing to cut off his arm for his art.1 And anyone who knew him over the course of his career was aware of his unrelenting drive. He was always on, always thinking about his art and other people’s art, the machinations of the art world, and how praise and criticism were meted out. To be great, as Goldstein saw it, was to be important enough not just for individual memories but for those who write the history of art.2 His mania perhaps verged on paranoia, an “us versus them” mentality, in which he was very much the lone wolf: hunted, persecuted, and sadly misunderstood. In the 1980s, at the height of his commercial success, he thought his peers made art constantly; so he vowed to work harder, to produce more. He feared that letting up meant being left behind. This may seem terribly self-absorbed—a misguided energy that loses contact with the art itself—but nothing could be further from the truth. Goldstein never saw himself as more important than art. In the words of Ashley Bickerton, who worked as Goldstein’s assistant in the mid-1980s: “Let me put this plain: Jack was, in a very real way, more of an artist than any other I have ever known, and I have known a few. Obviously [Goldstein was] a complicated and challenging personality, yet there was an absurd amount of yearning and idealism there, and an unadulterated artistic ambition commensurate in scale with the cinematic expanses of his great flaming skies.”3

It bothers me that when one calls an artist “great,” the comment almost always refers to the art and not the person: object stands for subject, the latter less significant than the former. This formulation is perverse; it is a denial of the often fraught, complicated, and contradictory ways art enters and exists in the world. I remember saying on the night of my talk, “I do not think Goldstein is great in the way Donald Judd is.” I love Judd’s work, I believe it is central for the history of art—but Judd the person, less so. This is not the case with Goldstein. His art and life seem equally important, equally urgent, but at the time, standing before my questioner, I could not explain why Goldstein is a great artist. If I could go back to that moment, this is what I wish I had said:

Art history has little interest in understanding why artists get up in the morning and push themselves to create something against daunting odds, trying to find a community, trying to find an audience in which their ideas will be received, shared, debated, and contested. There is not much concern for the act of making, or why someone believes in the redemptive powers of art, thinking with utter conviction that art matters, that it communicates in ways other forms cannot, and—in spite of one’s cynicism, frustration, and general disgust with the art world—that art is still meaningful. I should make it clear: I do not want the interpretation of works of art to begin and end with an artist’s biography. Instead, I think that the idea of an artist functions like an artwork. It is there to be interpreted, to have meaning extracted from it. We tend to construct images of artists, especially those we admire, in our heads, and they become models for our own practices. They help us think about how to live a life, not just as a matter of surviving, but also as one of comportment, attitude, and belief. I am of a mind that being an artist is different from other modes of existence, not in some clichéd way, but in the internal risks an artist takes: how one is willing to give up so much for a reward—to be thought great by history, for instance—that is intangible, ill-defined, and most likely, if not never coming, never satisfying. Greatness is the carrot at the end of a very long and abusive stick.

The 1990s were difficult for Goldstein. His galleries struggled to sell his paintings, and he found himself broke by the end of 1992. He returned to Los Angeles, where he had family, and settled in El Sereno, living in a trailer home that regularly lacked electricity and running water. He took on odd jobs to make ends meet and, as throughout much of his adult life, he battled his drug addiction. He did not paint, nor work in film, or any other medium he had employed in the past, but spent his time composing an autobiography taken from quotes lifted from philosophical texts he read backwards. Things started to change in the early 2000s. Critical and curatorial interest once again came his way. He was on the cover of Artforum, began showing with galleries in Los Angeles and Cologne, and had exhibitions at the Whitney and several institutions in Europe. The success did not meet the exacting standards he set for himself. It bothered him that so many people would call him a “legend,” telling him how much he influenced their art. Where were they, he thought, when he was alone in his trailer? It was little comfort to be called “great” when a peer like James Welling was buying a house close to UCLA.4 These laments are tinged with bitterness. They also reveal an engrained sadness: the fact that outside praise does little to soothe the restless ambition of someone in pursuit of an unattainable ideal.

I have wondered lately how, twenty years from now, I will write about the art made today. There are many immediate challenges to historicizing the present moment: the sheer scale of the art world, the many different communities that inhabit it, the various critical discourses that more often than not run parallel to one another rather than intersect, the lack of polarizing figures artistic or otherwise. The market is the most obvious villain; but casting blame on a nebulous system that at first seems simple, but is remarkably complex does little to improve the precarious situation most artists face on a daily basis—especially in New York, where the cost of doing business is prohibitive. And yet demoralizing economic conditions may not be the biggest challenge artists face. There is the problem of staying relevant in the face of weakening attention spans overwhelmed by the truly immense amount of art on view. From major retrospectives and museum exhibitions to biennials and art fairs, shows at galleries and non-profit spaces to a slew of other events, happenings, and projects, there is too much for any one person to see, let alone be aware. So much good art, and so many good artists, are lost in the shuffle. As Goldstein said, when reflecting on his career and those of his peers, it is an utter “mystery” as to why some were successful and others not.5

I am not willing to say that greatness today is arbitrary or the result of a capricious market. This would diminish the achievements of many deserving artists, but when I think about the current zeitgeist, at least here in New York, it seems to me that our moment is defined by a dull, murmuring sadness. It is not a deep despair but a steady state of melancholy, a resignation to the imperfect art world in which we consciously take part. Almost everyone knows they will never get a fair shake. Even success, whether critical, financial, or both, is tempered by reservations about the longevity and sincerity of it all. Maybe the most daunting factor is that for every “great” artist there are thousands more scraping by, on the outside looking in, disappointed, bitter, a welter of emotions possible and justified. Many maintain their careers through perseverance and commitment. Maybe recognition will come, maybe not? Others give up art but still live artistically, decamping for upstate New York or somewhere outside the city— different passions, different pursuits. Family might become more important, energies focused elsewhere, meaning discovered in unexpected places. The sadness, though, accrues by the day. It is everywhere, if one looks hard enough.

I want to be more specific. I want to describe the situation without it seeming like it is a tale of winners and losers. Any narrative organized around traditional notions of great artists turns the story inevitably into an either/or conception of history defined by progress and rationality. The world has never existed in black and white. It is an infinite amount of gray. My suspicion is that for anyone who wants to comprehend contemporary art made today in New York and places within its gravitational pull, one must come to terms with our moment’s particular brand of sadness. One must be able to understand greatness in Goldstein’s matter-of-fact observation, “In a way, I ruined my life, but I did a body of work and for that body of work, it was worth ruining my life.”


  1. Richard Hertz, Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia (Ojai: Minneola Press, 2003), 65.
  2. In 2001, Goldstein said his internal motivation for greatness came from his longtime fear of disappearing. See, Meg Cranston, “Over Here: Interview with Jack Goldstein,” in Jack Goldstein x 10,000 ed. Philipp Kaiser, (Munich: Orange County Museum of Art. DelMonico Books, 2012), 206.
  3. Ashley Bickerton, “Jack ’n’ Me,” in Where is Jack Goldstein? (New York: Venus Over Manhattan, 2012).
  4. Hertz, 202.
  5. Hertz, 202.
  6. Hertz, 202.


Alexander Dumbadze

ALEXANDER DUMBADZE is an Associate Professor of Art History at George Washington University. He lives in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2015

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