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Should replicas of destroyed sculptures be in a museum show?

February 6, 2012 | 12:14 pm

Jack Goldstein, "Untitled" and "Untitled"
Let's say a sculpture has been destroyed and the artist who made it is no longer alive, but a museum has the capacity to make a reasonable replica. Should the copy be included in an exhibition?

That knotty question arises in the case of Jack Goldstein, an admired artist whose sculptures are currently included in "It Happened at Pomona: Art at the Edge of Los Angeles, 1969-1973." The show is on view through Feb. 19 at the Pomona College Museum of Art. Goldstein, who died in 2003, is known today primarily as a painter, although he made films, photographs, sound pieces and other works as well. But as a graduate student at CalArts he also made a few sculptures, some of which were shown at Pomona 40 years ago. None survive.

That posed a dilemma for the current show, an excellent Pacific Standard Time accounting of the ambitious program of new art advanced by the college museum between 1969 and 1973. (My reviews of its first two parts are here and here.) Back then, Goldstein had a solo exhibition that consisted of eight sculptures, all long-gone. How could he be represented now?

The museum decided to make two sculpture replicas.

The sculptures Goldstein made grew out of Minimalist art. Their primary element was the repetition of identical wood blocks. (Think of Carl Andre's wood sculptures, which are an obvious source for Goldstein's work.) Nothing intrinsically special could be said about those blocks. They were neither carved nor joined in the manner of traditional wood sculpture, although a few were painted flat black or white. Instead, they were just standard issue -- the kind of thing you could go down to the local lumber yard and order up.

What happened to the sculptures? Goldstein's CalArts teacher, John Baldessari, wasn't especially impressed when he saw them. Then, as the original Pomona curator, Helene Winer, also explains in the current catalog, storage space likely became an issue for Goldstein, once his show at her small museum was over. Having left sculpture behind to move on to paintings and films, like the 1975 "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer" installation now being shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the artist wasn't especially concerned with their fate. Eventually the blocks got tossed.

At least one block is still around; it's included with other reference materials in the show. The block provides a confirming, partial template for creating replicas. Rebecca McGrew, who co-organized "It Happened at Pomona," told me that Goldstein's former studio-mate, performance artist Hirokazu Kosaka, is the one who retained the original block. (Documentation of a 1972 Kosaka performance is in the show.) He also consulted on the replicas, and the artist's estate signed off on the finished versions.

Part of the reason the museum went forward, McGrew added, is that at least one sculpture had been remade for a Goldstein retrospective in France in 2002 -- a year before the artist died. That means he had no apparent objection to the general concept of a re-created work.

One of the two sculptures now on view in Pomona is a stack of 13 unpainted blocks topped by one black block, with a white block on the floor in front of it. The other is a pair of towers 14 blocks tall,  with one white block wedged on the diagonal between them, as if it had fallen and gotten caught. The arrangements underscore the precarious, temporal nature of immediate experience that Goldstein's art explores.

Simple to re-create, no? Well, it's certainly simpler than what can happen with other art.

Take Degas. His bronze sculptures are in museums all over the place, but he never laid eyes on any of them. Virtually all are casts that were made after the artist's death. How many museum visitors know that the Degas bronze they're looking at wasn't actually seen by the artist?

Or consider the Russian avant-garde. Vladimir Tatlin's famous visionary model for an enormous tower did not survive the tumultuous 20th century, but replicas made from photographic and other original documentation have been included in various museum exhibitions over the years. Is that a disservice? Or is it just similar to looking at a photographic reproduction of an artwork in a book?

Jack Goldstein, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1975, film with projector 2For Goldstein, even more than for Degas and Tatlin, I'd say the answer is equivocal. When he left sculpture behind, he went on to appropriate images from existing films and photographs to make dramatic paintings and theatrical installations like the one shown at MOCA. Goldstein, one of a group of artists who came to be known as the "pictures generation," made art that investigates how human experience is always mediated through a dense tangle of representations and repetitions.

In the ancient world, that mediation might come through recitations of epic poetry. In the 17th century, engraved copies of paintings could do the trick. Today, when camera reproductions and digital ghosts are ubiquitous, mediation of lived experience is the norm.

At Pomona, the replicas were made with evident care and deliberation. I'd only suggest one small tweak. The object labels on the wall and in the show's catalog provide all the essential information, but adding it up could be made easier. Goldstein's dates are given -- born 1945, died 2003 -- and the wood sculptures are dated 1969-71/2011. Jumping from one to the other, you can figure out that these sculptures are posthumous re-creations, made nearly a decade after the artist died.

For an inveterate label-reader like me, that might be enough. For a casual audience, it might not. Potential confusion could be easily avoided with straightforward candor: "Untitled," (1969-71), wood and paint [destroyed]; posthumous exhibition replica (2011).

A retrospective of Goldstein's career will be at the Orange County Museum of Art in June. At least one of the two Pomona reconstructions is expected to be included. In Richard Hertz's 2003 book, "Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia," a collection of taped reminiscences assembled just days before Goldstein's suicide, the artist says, "Presentation is everything." He's right.

ALSO:

Art review: "It Happened at Pomona, Part I"

Art review: "It Happened at Pomona, Part II"

Art review: "In Wonderland: The Adventures of Surrealist Women Artists" at LACMA

-- Christopher Knight

@twitter.com/KnightLAT

Photos, from top: Jack Goldstein, "Untitled" and "Untitled," (1969-71), wood and paint [destroyed]; posthumous exhibition replicas (2011). Credit: Pomona College Museum of Art.

"Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer," 1975, film with projector. Credit: Museum of Contemporary Art.


 
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