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If you are looking for a book to animate the scholarship on the group later known as the Pictures artists of the 1970s and 1980s, Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia by Richard Hertz could prove to be an essential text. Produced by the editor of Theories of Contemporary Art and Twentieth Century Art Theory: Urbanism, Politics, and Mass Culture (with Norman Klein) as well as the author of the boundary-busting Desiring Machines,1 the interviews in the volume under review provide surprising and unusual insight into an otherwise closed association of California schoolmates who transplanted themselves to New York City as they endeavored to shift the trajectory of contemporary art.
In form, Hertz’s book is what Rosetta Brooks calls in her introduction a “third history”—one apart from “the grand narratives of art history and the often prescriptive histories of art critics” (11). This book is a dramatized oral history, organized around the enigmatic figure of the late Jack Goldstein and containing skillfully edited interviews that leave little to the imagination. The contributors, particularly Goldstein himself, offer up bombshell art-world revelations with all the detached irony typical of the times. The book’s increasingly commonplace but still somewhat unorthodox form seems unusually appropriate to the messiness of its subjects. As a historical text, it is juicy, mesmerizing, and at times wobbly—as any account of power, ambition, and talent might be when told by its agents in the first person, resting on memories that stretch across ten, twenty, or more years. And these recollections are given from the irrefutable position of “I.” As such, the historical narrative the book produces is pointed, constructed of the memory shards that cumulatively circumscribe the book’s central subject and myriad subtexts.
Hertz himself occupies a position that makes him uniquely qualified to facilitate these interviews. As a former teacher at CalArts and former director of graduate studies at Art Center College of Design, his occupational and geographic position allowed him personal access to most of the participating figures, and his experience as an intimate witness enabled him to extract some of the most unguarded art-world testimony in print. Hertz craftily steers the interviewees’ focus to the role of the social—as opposed to sociology—in art. Through this emphasis on the intimate, he forces the question: To what extent is an artist, his or her career, and his or her artwork a product of interpersonal relationships? Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia lays bare many of the vices and devices deployed in cultivating these relationships as integral to cultivating a career as an artist. Thus in form and content the book both navigates and constitutes an ethical morass, yet this is part of what makes it extremely engaging and eye-opening, if not essential, reading.
Threaded between ten interviews by artists such as John Baldessari, Robert Longo, and Matt Mullican and one previously published article by Meg Cranston are Goldstein’s frank, raw, and unsparing accounts of both himself and his colleagues. Overall the texts reveal an artist whose aesthetically (if not also morally) uncompromising nature would simultaneously be his undoing; Goldstein’s shoot-from-the-hip attitude was part of the reason for his marginalization and is a compelling one for his current resurrection.
On the surface, the cumulative effect is an immoral morality tale of sorts. Goldstein comes off as a diamond in a sordid setting, an artists’ artist who was true to his convictions and suffered for them—too invested in his work to invest in polishing his social skills or to develop an understanding of money beyond the pedestrian. He is often contrasted with his schoolmate David Salle, who had “tremendous social skills” (109) and who used them to climb into the spotlight and make himself a wealthy artist. Although interviewee Jean Fisher recalls Goldstein as “one of the most uncompromising and ethical artists I met during the 1980s…” (186), Goldstein complicates the issue with such admissions as: “All the way through I had trouble selling my work while I was making it; sometimes sleeping with someone would help sell it” (99). In this disclosure lies the power of the personal, the “I” narrative, for it impeaches just as it redeems in a complicated double action.
Bedeviling any response to the book even further is the peculiar space Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia has unwittingly come to inhabit: that of a final confession. It describes and contains the last recollections by and about a ragged, self-exiled, and often misunderstood soul. Goldstein set the record as straight as he cared to before hanging himself eleven days after the completion of this book.
Nancy Chunn’s contribution is pivotal to the shape of the book, adding another dimension to the extant demarcation that gender played in the social context of the time. As one of the only female contributors and one of the few women even marginally inside the mafia’s circle, Chunn raises the troubling subtextual question about the extent to which the prominence of an artist depends on his or her relationship to the “scene.” She speaks from her experience as an art student, and later from the position of an administrator who admitted future members of the mafia as students to CalArts, the famed art school of the book’s title. Chunn acknowledges that “I didn’t have any women teachers; not only that, I didn’t realize that I didn’t have any women teachers. That’s the way it was. Unless the guys wanted to fuck you, they did not pay any attention to you. I wasn’t one of the more beautiful young girls so I didn’t get much attention” (71). But the intimation is that this predicament carried beyond art school—or worse, that perhaps an elite advanced education was where these attitudes, this notion of privilege and (gender) exclusivity, were cemented.
Recalling female art students of merit equal to male art students, especially such tremendously talented student artists as Branca Milotinovitch, Chunn notes that Milotinovitch “wasn’t really let into the circle” (80), and thus that artist despised the mafia, intimating that her lack of access to it, and the absence of any equally powerful alternative art-world network, doomed her career almost as soon as it began. And Chunn does not spare the small cadre of feminist artists who also taught at the school, characterizing their approach as “dogmatic” and thus alienating many in need of different approaches. Exposing the painful and at times pathetic paradox underlying all these disclosures, interview after interview underscores both Goldstein’s and the mafia’s debt to a number of women (dealers Helene Winer and Mary Boone, for example) who would make and unmake these men’s careers as artists.
In totality, Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia is a work packed with revealing disclosures about the interpersonal machinery that determined the success of artists and artwork during the 1980s. But in the end, the aspects of those generative forces that actually matter can only be found in the length and durability of the shadows these artists cast into the years ahead. Still, this book will remain an essential contribution to an understanding of the artists and the moment it seeks to describe and contextualize. And like the gossip its contributors appear to savor, it is a biting, controversial, contradictory, hilarious, and riveting read—while on the library bench or at the beach.
Adjunct Professor, Department of Art and Art Professions, New York University
1 Richard Hertz, ed., Theories of Contemporary Art (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1993); Richard Hertz and Norman Klein, eds., Twentieth Century Art Theory: Urbanism, Politics, and Mass Culture (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1990); Richard Hertz, Desiring Machines (Ojai, Calif.: Minneola Press, 2003).
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