Excerpt from Jack Goldstein’s Sculpture: Image Before Its Consequences by Marie Shurkus

In January 1971, the Pomona College Museum of Art became a very dangerous place. Entering the gallery meant sharing space with five Jack Goldstein sculptures, which were constructed of eight-by-eight-inch blocks of wood stacked approximately nine feet high. The wooden blocks were freshly cut and mostly unpainted. Accordingly, the wood dried and shifted over the course of the exhibition. The effect enhanced the sculptures’ instability while also animating them, as the invisible forces of heat and humidity announced their presence with audible cracks. In short, the sculptures confronted viewers with a palpable sense of danger.

Since the only armature holding these towering structures in place was gravity, the danger was neither imagined nor symbolic, but rather a potential held in suspension like the deadly weight of Richard Serra’s Prop pieces, initiated only a few years earlier. More to the point, Goldstein’s friend and roommate Hiro Kosaka recalled, the danger was real; they fell down in the studio almost every day. During the actual exhibition, however, they only teetered. In fact, the height of the vertical sculptures was determined by the size of the components and their ability to remain upright and maintain balance; taller stacks would have required larger blocks, Pomona curator Helene Winer explained. Pushing toward the impossible, Goldstein’s sculptures marked the edge of gravity’s power over composed shapes as well as the edge between actual violence and its threat. Like a video image placed on pause Goldstein’s physical objects thus contained and held both movement and danger in suspension,. Indeed, as Goldstein once observed: “An explosive is beauty before its consequences.”

Violent imagery and other forms of implied danger and overt spectacle populate Goldstein’s entire oeuvre, which encompassed sculpture, performance, film, photography, sound, painting, and prints. Nevertheless, Goldstein repeatedly insisted that his work was never about violence. Instead, Goldstein treated danger as a material that he used to craft a sense of anticipation and thereby enhance his viewers’ awareness of how representation operates. As Goldstein explained, “If there is a dangerous aspect, it’s because of what happens to an image when it anticipates, and so that moment before its fragmentation is gonna be violent, no matter what it is.” Goldstein’s 1972 film Rocking Chair specifically depicts this effect: after building a tense rhythmic rocking, the figure abruptly gets up and in one swift movement exits the frame, leaving the deserted chair to continue rocking wildly in his wake. Where Rocking Chair demonstrates the fragmentation of the image, Goldstein’s sculptures dramatize the moment before departure, when it appears in the violent tension of rocking or teetering, as only a threat, calling viewers to anticipate the potential consequences.

Although Serra’s Prop pieces offer an insightful precedent, Goldstein’s inspiration primarily came from Carl Andre’s “stacks.” This influence becomes especially apparent in Goldstein’s next series of sculptures, exhibited at New York’s OK Harris gallery in December 1972. Like those at Pomona, these sculptures relied entirely upon a balance negotiated between the material components and the ever-present force of gravity. However, the newer sculptures were composed of long, two-by-four planks that presented more complex and elegant forms. One critic even described their spiraling shapes as “miraculous”; for once again they seemed to defy gravity without the assistance of nails or other bindings. Nevertheless, one strong vibration—like a fist pounding on a table or some one jumping nearby—and these sculptures would crumble, their elegant shapes fragmenting, leaving a heap of planks scattered across the floor. In fact, Goldstein demonstrated as much in his films—A Glass of Milk and Some Plates—produced during the almost two years that elapsed between the Pomona and Harris exhibitions.

Although Goldstein’s work has been the subject of numerous exhibitions and essays, little has been written about his sculptures. None of the originals exists anymore, which partially accounts for this critical reticence as well as their absence in the recent retrospective mounted at the Museum für Moderne Kunst. Moreover, after 1972, Goldstein gave up making sculpture to focus on his better-known film work, which Winer said was a direct outcome of the sculptures he exhibited at Pomona. Nevertheless, Goldstein always situated his artistic practice in terms of Minimalist sculpture. His focus, however, was not on the medium per se; rather, he latched onto Minimalism’s theatricality, which appeared initially in his sculptures as a dangerous discourse with gravity, and was later developed as a more pictorial value.