James Welling, Jack, Pacific Building, Santa Monica, 1977. Courtesy of James Welling.
I was always a little crazed; and I knew there was no safety net for me
In 1974, after Helene quit her job at Pomona, we went together to New York; after a few years she became the Director of Artists Space. Since graduating in 1972, I had been going back and forth between L.A. and New York; that continued for another couple of years. Artists Space was a nonprofit place where many of us exhibited before we went to commercial galleries. I did my first performances in New York there, as well as showed my films. Irving Sandler was on the board of Artists Space, and Helene used to argue with him; he was an art historian who was extremely conservative in what he considered good art. Even so, it became the most important conduit for work of young artists until the new commercial galleries opened up. Metro Pictures opened in 1980, and that was the big cut-off point.
Douglas Crimp and Craig Owens would come over to the place where Helene and I lived. They were into post-formal-ists like Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, and Richard Serra, but slowly they came around to what the CalArts crowd was doing. They formed their careers around our work. It was first defined by Crimp in “Pictures,” which was a show at Artists Space, and an influential article that announced a new sensibility. At first Doug would hardly even speak to me. On different occasions, I showed him a number of my films, but it took a long time before he understood what I was talking about. He slowly accepted the fact that you could borrow and recontextualize images from anywhere, not only popular culture but from political ideologies and history books and fashion magazines.
“Appropriation” became the catch phrase; some did it well, while pretty soon most started copying and repeating themselves. Baudrillard became an art guru for five minutes with his idea of simulation, where what is pictured becomes more important that what you are supposedly representing—it takes on a life of its own apart from any apparent signifier. We learned that we weren’t representing anything, or at least nothing stable and fixed. It was just like the television screen.
We were playing with the signs and images of the commercial world, which had formed all of us as we grew up watching television. We were the first generation of “raised on TV” artists, so the art changed from being something weighty and formal and self-important to art that was more playful and decorative, fast, ironic, even cartoon-like.
Around 1976 I found and lived at the Pacific Building on Santa Monica and Fifth. It was $60 a month; I put an old mattress into the office and slept on it. I went to Santa Monica to shoot films and work while Helene kept the fort in New York. I could make my films and get my props cheaper in L.A. than in New York. For example, the barking dog I filmed was found in a special place. He was a trained dog, a TV dog, a star; so was the bird. I hired them. The guy who had the bird and the dog trained all the rats for the movie Ben. He used peanut butter to get them to move. The bird going around and around the bone china was done with an animator in L.A.
Regina Cornwell, who is a film critic, said that I had to meet a filmmaker named Morgan Fisher. I met Morgan at Pratt, where he was giving a lecture, and he subsequently interviewed me for the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art Journal [the LAICA Journal], where my work was on the cover. When I first met him, I thought he was so pedantic; when you get to know Morgan, he is the nicest guy, but if you don’t he is real snooty. I gave Morgan a lot of room just because I thought he was so smart; as an artist, I was always careful to know when to back off. Egos get in the way of being an artist. But it’s your superego that is important, not your ego. The superego represents your ideal, and that is what whipped me, that is what destroyed me. I never measured up to what I wanted to be.
During the twenty years I spent in New York, I lived in funky warehouses and sweatshops in all the boroughs. I could never afford to live in Manhattan like my peer group. My first studio was under the Brooklyn Bridge, on the top floor of a building next to the “Watchtower.” At night it was empty, since all of the sweatshops were closed, so I had my dog Jack run in front of me in case someone was hiding to mug me. The studio was over the water, where the Mafia would drop off dead bodies. The only other artist working nearby was Vito Acconci; sometimes at night I heard the squeaky wheels of his suitcase and I knew he was coming home from a trip.
In the seventies, I spent five or six years living and working there. Troy Brauntuch always ribbed me about living in such strange, out-of-the-way places. He had not hit on hard times yet; they were to come for him, but I was not about to gloat over them. “You see, it can happen to you as well!”
Jack Goldstein (right) with David Salle, 1975. Courtesy of The Estate of Jack Goldstein and 1301PE.
In 1979 I started painting; by that time I had already made the films and the records. Metro Pictures opened up and I knew I had to make two-dimensional work. Helene would have shown a film here and there, but I knew it would have received very little play. I didn’t want to be known primarily as a filmmaker. Collectors don’t care about films and wouldn’t want to come over to my studio. That’s why that work got lost, and that’s why it’s coming back now. Another reason I started painting was because of David Salle. David and I both were teaching at the University of Hartford; one day when we pulled into the parking lot and he said he was going to stop teaching and devote all of his time to making art, I knew I had to do the same thing.
I stayed on at Hartford for another year and a half because after I quit, the Dean called me back and told me that the students were in an uproar. The students said that if I were gone, they would not be returning. Ed Stein was Dean at the time and begged me to stay; I didn’t want him to beg, so I said, Okay I’ll come back. The school had to wait a couple of years until the students who were upset graduated, and new students came in who didn’t know what they were missing; then the fuss would die down. That is exactly what happened.
The early paintings I made in the 1980s were in black and white because that is how I found them in the history books. Another consideration was that no one since Franz Kline had made large black-and-white paintings. My biggest problem was how to get a flat black background. I went to all of the museums in New York to study the paintings of Ellsworth Kelly, Barnett Newman, Brice Marden, and others. When I got up close to their surfaces, they had surface incident. They were not flat at all since they were painted with a paintbrush, while, coming out of California car culture, I was using a spray gun. I always said, Presentation is everything. That irritated lots of people, but for me content and presentation are inseparable.
I remember calling up Chuck Close, Gary Stephan, even David Salle; no one knew how to create a surface without incident. I finally figured out that when the painting is finished, you need to put down a matte medium. It’s a white varnish but sprays on clear. It took me so long to figure that out. I worked from early in the morning until midnight to learn tricks like that. To make the lines in the tracer paintings from World War II, I again turned to car culture and the way pinstripes are made. I used a gravity-fed bottle with a wheel at the bottom; the wheels come in different sizes to determine the width of the line. For the burning city series, I discovered that I could spray paint through cotton to depict smoke.
I directed all of my work; my performances, my sculptures, my records, my films, the choreographed pieces, the burial pieces. When it came to my paintings, I was the one who had to figure out how to make them. I didn’t call someone and say, Make me a painting and I’ll see you at four o’clock. I had to figure out all of the methods of making the paintings, not to mention what was going to be painted.
On the other hand, it is also true that I tried to disappear by hiring actors and by hiring others to manufacture my paintings. The movies and performances and paintings became symbolic of my disappearance, just as in my final show at CalArts I was buried. All anyone saw was the blinking light, which was symbolic of my heartbeat.
In the early 1980s, when I went out to CalArts for a lecture, Ashley Bickerton came up to me after the talk; he said he was graduating in a few months and wanted to work for me or Robert Longo. A couple of months later, he knocked on my studio door; he said he had a lot of experience with airbrush and could speed things up for me. The process of making the paintings did speed up, and I could even turn part of it over to him. He argued continuously with me about using tape and paper templates for the Neo-Geo work. He said the work would have a graphic look and I’d reply, So what? What’s wrong with a graphic look? That’s what I want!
When I received my $25,000 NEA grant, I bought him a car to get to work on time and even found him a loft not far from me. Ashley told me that he used to paint for Pat Steir. I said, What? I couldn’t believe it because she is a semi-Expressionist painter. How could you paint for her? She has such a personal style. Pat would tell Ashley that she wanted some lines that “looked like this,” waving in the air. So Ashley would try to paint some lines. She’d say, No, I want lines like this—waving some more in the air—lines like this, not lines like this; lines like this. Ashley would laugh hysterically and I would be rolling on the floor as he related the story with appropriate gestures.
After some time we had too much ego conflict. Besides, Doris and Charles Saatchi started to buy his work; he went to Sonnabend, after a while making more money than I was. From then on I hired people who were not artists, mostly Puerto Ricans, who would work hard and needed the work. They also went with me or went for me to get drugs. They didn’t argue with me and they didn’t need to know anything; I could teach them airbrush. I could tell by how they touched things, how their nails looked, how clean they were, how they turned the pages of a book and spoke whether they would be helpful. At the high point in my studios, I had six or seven assistants taping for me; it was like knitting. It took two people a complete day to get all of the tape off one painting. It was like opening a Christmas present: I didn’t know what it was going to look like. My colorist mixed the colors in jars; we started taping from the edges. By the time we got to the center of the painting, it was completely taped. It was like working blind. The results were stunning to me. But I only looked for about a minute and then had them wrapped; I didn’t want to become too attached to them. The paintings did not look like anyone else ’s; as a consequence, no one knew what to think of the work.
This essay was originally published in Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia (Hol Art Books, 2011). For more information about the book, please click here.