When Jack Goldstein hanged himself last March, his death was both predictable and surprising to his family and friends.
The painter, who had been an influential student at CalArts and a star of the New York art scene in the 1980s, was known to be struggling with addictions to drugs and alcohol. Though his photographically derived canvases of lightning storms and World War II battlefield explosions had sold for $50,000 and up, at the time of his suicide he was unemployed and living without a telephone in a trailer behind his parents' house in San Bernardino. He had long suffered from depression and held little hope for his future apart from a single element: a forthcoming book about his life, "Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia," written by Richard Hertz.
Hertz had met Goldstein a decade before the artist's death, when as chair of the liberal studies and graduate programs at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, he hired him to teach a class. At the time, Goldstein was considered an important figure in a group of artists who were using photography to help create their work, among them David Salle, James Welling and Troy Brauntuch.
All were CalArts graduates who had moved to New York and gained critical recognition and some financial success during the 1980s. Hertz was pleased to have someone of Goldstein's stature to teach at the school, but at the end of one semester, the artist "disappeared," leaving neither a phone number nor a forwarding address.
In 2000, Hertz finally heard from Goldstein, who was looking for a job. Hertz had no idea that the artist's escalating addictions had eroded his finances and fame. He hired him to teach two classes. Then, over lunch one day, Goldstein told Hertz his uncensored version of his days at CalArts and of the New York art scene, with an emphasis on drug-laden parties and fast-flowing cash. Hertz, who had been at Art Center for more than 20 years, wanted to pursue writing. He suggested to Goldstein that they collaborate on a book about him and the era.
In 2001, Hertz took a two-year sabbatical from Art Center and compiled a series of oral histories with Goldstein and the artists and dealers who had been his friends and lovers. Goldstein contributed startlingly uncensored accounts, and Hertz dutifully sent the interviews to their subjects to check their veracity.
What emerges from the now-published book, brought out by Hertz's own Minneola Press, is a frank insiders' perspective on the making of a moment in contemporary art history and on one artist's brief but bright place in it. The accounts are variously insightful, amusing, painful, shocking and poignant.
Interviews in Chinatown
Seated in the living room of his Santa Monica bungalow, Hertz recalls that Goldstein "was not a self-reflective person. He wasn't especially good at being able to put his story together in a cohesive fashion. I took his memories and shaped them. He read everything I did and made adjustments. He was an insecure person and wanted to be revered. He was upset when people were critical of him, but he didn't take any of that out."
Once every three weeks at Full House restaurant in Chinatown, Hertz taped interviews with Goldstein about growing up in L.A., his violent father and his years at Hamilton High and at Chouinard Art Institute from 1966 to 1969, when it began its evolution into CalArts.
It was then that Goldstein entered the graduate program of what was to become a radically new form of art school, one that he said "changed the course of my life." As a performance piece there, Goldstein had himself buried alive with a breathing tube for air and a stethoscope measuring his heartbeat. Artist John Baldessari, who was teaching "Post Studio" art, calls it "one of the most risky pieces I have ever seen" but had little idea how prophetic it was. Goldstein was an artist on the edge, even in the company of students like Salle, Matt Mullican, Welling, Erich Fischl and Ross Bleckner, all of whom went on to success in New York.
Hertz was fascinated by Goldstein's accounts of his own life but realized they were not sufficiently detailed or accurate to make a book. With the artist's permission, he started interviewing Goldstein's friends and colleagues, among them Richard Longo, Baldessari, Mullican, Welling and writers Rosetta Brooks and Jean Fisher. Many did not want to cooperate. They included his immediate family and his art dealers, three of whom had been his lovers: Helene Winer, co-founder of Metro Pictures in New York; Mary Boone, also in New York; and Rebecca Donelson, his dealer in Chicago. Yet even without their cooperation, the book reveals how he was aided and influenced by these powerful women.