One Sound After Another: Film and West Coast Minimalism
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One Sound After Another: Film and West Coast Minimalism

Morgan Fisher, Picture and Sound, 16mm, 11 min. 1973. © Morgan Fisher
Morgan Fisher, Picture and Sound, 16mm, 11 min. 1973. © Morgan Fisher

Morgan Fisher and Jack Goldstein—both featured in the exhibition Ordinary Pictures—belong to a small community of Los Angeles–based artists who applied structural critiques to the industrial Hollywood apparatus during the early 1970s. Both were employed for short periods within the studios themselves, drawing insider knowledge from their day jobs while maintaining a critical distance from cinematic production and a keen analysis of how this social phenomena, so unique to Los Angeles’s identity, could engage with and comment artistic production.

Fisher’s Picture and Sound Rushes (1973) is a documentary adaptation of Hollywood industry material. Introduced dryly by a monotone narrator seated at a nondescript desk in the manner of an ironic John Baldessari, Fisher explains that the film will demonstrate the “cases,” an industry term for three portions of production use film: synch (image and sound, both recorded in real time), MOS (an acronym for mit out sound or without sound), and wild sound (a filmed recording of only the sound element of a scene). Also presented is a final fourth option, “null case,” in which neither sound nor image is recorded; as this option has no industrial use, it is not part of the Hollywood lexicon. By working with film as a series of industrial, standardized units, Fisher contributed towards a West Coast adaptation of Minimalism.

Fisher has described his work in film as being in relation to the material limits of the medium: How do the intrinsic properties of film lend themselves to what is available for production, and what types of images can it support? Fischer would later summarize: “Film of all kinds is unified by its material facts.” Breaking down the film into its material properties sheds light on the systematic units of cinema production—the film itself and the strikingly non-cinematic way in which they were used in day to day studio functions. The utilitarian use of film, in which its status as material is laid bare, is what interests Fisher. The film is still taken as a single unit of a film reel. Mathematically precise, each reel contains the same number of stills. In the case of the Fisher’s Picture and Sound Rushes, each still can nearly be isolated as an entity; there is no narrative arc or unfolding of a drama. One image, one still, one object after another.

As Fisher has elucidated, this articulate attention to the material properties of film is tied to his study of Minimalism, of Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Walter de Maria, and Blinky Palermo. For him, the reel is a unit composed of a set number of units which have material properties in and of themselves. Picture and Sound Rushes presents the four cases in equal number. Examples of each are provided six times, all 27.45 seconds long to show that “each case is equally important.”[1] Or equally unimportant, as none of the cases contain significant footage—the work maintains an aspect of outtakes, or throwaway footage only maintained for daily memorandums and then soon left on the cutting room floor.

Jack Goldstein, Untitled, 1969-1971/ 2013. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum, © Estate of Jack Goldstein.
Jack Goldstein, Untitled, 1969-1971/ 2013. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum, © Estate of Jack Goldstein

In the 1970s, Los Angeles balanced the influence of East Coast Minimalism with a critical engagement in “throwaway” commercialism. In January 1971 Jack Goldstein, shortly before enrolling as a graduate student at Cal Arts, installed a series of stacked precut wooden blocks, resting one on top of another, at the Pomona Art Gallery. At once weighty and monumental, the sculptures equally bore a temporal fragility at one moment, with any gust of air they could fall, their existence impermanent as celluloid. “I am interested in the simplest relation of parts,” Goldstein would explain.[2] Like Fisher, Goldstein worked for a short time in commercial film production and embedded his practice with a critical fascination for the industry’s tropes.

 

Jack Goldstein, A Suite of Nine 7-Inch Records (The Tornado), 45-rpm records; pressed color vinyl with offset labels and sleeves, 1976. Walker Art Center, McKnight Acquisition Fund, 2014
Jack Goldstein, A Suite of Nine 7-Inch Records (The Tornado), 45-rpm records; pressed color vinyl with offset labels and sleeves, 1976. Walker Art Center, McKnight Acquisition Fund, 2014

Goldstein’s A Suite of Nine 7-Inch Records (1976) are brief recordings of wild sound—the audio effects of a burning forest, dying wind, wrestling cats, or a tornado. Loosened from their signified, the sounds become multipurpose units, which are at once generic enough to meet any range of uses and specific enough to convey, without viewing, a direct image. Goldstein did not record these sounds: they are appropriated sounds, re-recorded onto colorful SPs. Goldstein’s act of authorship rests in the critical reveal of Hollywood production, a laying bare of the disparate, absurd elements of how films are made.

Goldstein’s distrust of the finished cinematic product is consistent with Fisher’s close reading of the industry’s commercial and social power. For Fisher, pulling back the curtain on Hollywood’s facade was an innately political act, grounded in a Benjaminian distrust of cinema and the manufactured social experience. By creating a fourth possibility in Picture and Sound Rushes, a “null case,” Fisher allowed the cinematic construction to fail, ultimately contradicting the status quo of an industry from which it is derived. Coming of age as the motion picture studios began to collapse from the citywide giants of mid-century, Fisher provides a close read of the celluloid foundation on which these industries stood and undermines their possibilities for future expansion.

Carl Andre, Manifest Destiny, stacked bricks, 1986. Installed at Donald Judd House, 101 Spring Street, New York. © Carl Andre.
Carl Andre, Manifest Destiny, stacked bricks, 1986. Installed at Donald Judd House, 101 Spring Street, New York. © Carl Andre

Notes

[1] Morgan Fisher “Picture and Sound Rushes” in Morgan Fisher writings (Generali Foundation and Museum Abteiberg: Cologne, 2011), 38.

[2] Jack Goldstein quoted in Willoughby Sharp “Rumbles,” Avalanche 2 (Winter 1971): 8.

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