joshua neustein texts
The Metallic Skid Marks Left By Invisible Engines
by Owen Drolet

In western culture, two primary epistemes have animated the discourse of intellectual investigation throughout its history; the Judaic primacy of interpretation and the Hellenic-Christian primacy of experience. In certain hands, these opposing thought models have worked in tandem, informing one another dialectically. More commonly, (and unfortunately) they have been deployed polemically in a battle over which camp owns the better mechanism for seeking truth. In the visual arts, where issues of representation and interpretation are always at the forefront, the proponents for both sides have found fertile ground on which to make their cases. The 1960's was, perhaps, the high point of this debate within the post World War Two era. And it is in this decade that Joshua Neustein first emerged as an artist, and like many at that time, his primary concern became the nature of phenomenal experience and its codification.

Before jumping into a discussion of Neustein's practice as an artist, it is important to understand the art world he was entering as a young man. The dominant figures in the post war period up to that point were obviously the American Abstract Expressionists, led by Jackson Pollock, and the governing critical voice of the time was that of Clement Greenberg. For these artists, a sensory immediacy was of paramount importance. Their goal was to shatter the possibility of interpretation by side stepping traditional codes, whether abstract or figurative, in the hopes of starting fresh at a physical level unburdened by the weight of a European culture that, by the end of W.W.II, seemed exhausted and obsolete. They attempted this by discarding the grammarian approach to abstraction as practiced by Mondrian and other artists of the 1920's, and by way of Picasso and the Surrealists, they created a new pictorial language in which the primacy of the physical gesture, as embodied in its residual brush stroke, held precedence. They did, in fact, create work of great force whose sensory immediacy cannot be questioned, but it was Greenberg's analysis of the Abstract Expressionist phenomenon and subsequent theorizing based on its precedent, that led to the protracted debates of the 1960's and 70's. What Greenberg recognized was that in their attempt to find a less encumbered form of expression, the Abstract Expressionists had chosen to deconstruct their medium, to utilize essentials such as gesture and mark and (by virtue of scale) to hyper-realize the plane on which this action took place. Greenberg advocated, in the wake of the Abstract Expressionists, a more thorough examination of the medium's principles, which, he then suggested, was the ultimate goal of the modernist project that began with the work of Edouard Manet.

While this history may be familiar terrain, it is worth repeating in order to understand the often misrepresented relationship between Greenberg and his historical adversary, Marcel Duchamp.[1] Duchamp's legacy, of course, informed the artists and thinkers who would come to oppose the Greenbergian schema, but there is an important concept that links these two titans of 20th century art. Namely, the notion that the best subject matter for art be a constant questioning of its own means. For Duchamp, this meant a playful analysis of presentation itself, including the cultural mechanisms that separated high from low, as well as the utilitarian from the purely cultural. His interest lay not in the integrity of objects but in their reception. In a world in which mimesis was no longer the goal of the visual arts, Duchamp realized that a new critical system was needed to justify any sort of hierarchy of objects. In his opinion, this was not determined by establishing a given object's inner quality, but by a necessarily politicized process of cultural consensus, in which a group (usually the bourgeoisie) decides, after recovering from an initial shock, to accept a new form of cultural production, invest in its mythology, and in so doing, raise its status to that of Art. The only material the artist can faithfully and reliably work with in this schema are the codes of consensus; the senses can no longer be trusted.

Joshua Neustein entered this debate (and has remained) somewhere in the middle, both ideologically and procedurally. The early, large torn paper pieces of the mid 1970's, are similar in look and intention to much of what was happening in the heyday of Color Field, though they stand out in their refusal to ultimately fetishize paint or any other material. In these works, the paper has an obvious sensual appeal which serves to draw the viewer in and maintain his interest, but it is also clearly a means to an end, a problem solving tool not to be viewed as precious. In some ways, Neustein's early work fits nicely within the Post Minimalist movement of the time, with its throw away materials and ephemeral physical presence, but again, this comparison can only be taken so far. This is because the Post Minimalists also tended to become obsessed with their work's materiality, replacing the steel box of Minimalism or the unprimed, paint soaked canvas of the Color Field painters with wax, felt, rope and other such detritus that, while at first functioning as radical, soon became idealized and aestheticized. In the case of all of these movements, the material stopped serving the art because the art was too busy serving the materials. The result was a signature style decadence uncommon only in how quickly it surfaced in the life of each movement. Neustein never followed this road to decay because he was as equally influenced by the conceptual movement and the legacy of Duchamp as he was by the decidedly more materialist traditions stemming from Greenberg. Neustein is, you could say, a material based conceptual artist. With this I mean that he is an artist who has chosen a particularly physical approach to art making based on a conceptual investigation into art's current needs; a good example being the torn paper pieces mentioned above. These works took on the issues left by the Color Field painters, issues that had long since been discarded because they were assumed to be exhausted by most of the art world, and reformulated them via the tactile. As in the work of Jules Olitsky and Kenneth Noland before him, Neustein's paper pieces concentrated on the tension between the residual traces of a gesture (marking, staining, tearing) as both phenomenon in and of itself and pictorial element. Olitsky and Noland dealt with their paintings' ground, its support and their marks made upon it. Although the consideration of the paintings' supports allowed for the possibility of a shift in the viewer's relationship with the painting from something existing apart from the viewer in its own space, to an object that is part of the space that the viewer inhabits, the pristine nature of their support and ground never let this duality of perspective flourish. The visual tricks were too transparent, the separation between figure, ground and support too wide to be bridged. In Neustein's work the torn paper is the support, the ground consists of the spray paint on its surface, and the only gesture acted out is the tearing of the paper. What we are left with are torn edges that function simultaneously as traces of phenomenal activity and as drawing (pictorial convention). By way of condensation, Neustein better realized the project of the Color Field painters. Seeing that the "problem" at hand was the implied distance between ground and support, he simply brought them closer together and then literally tore them apart. Neustein has not worked out from his hands to his head, but has done the converse and yet, as the torn paper pieces demonstrate, the material does all the talking. The practice begins with an investigation into the nature of representation as well as perception. It is therefore grounded in both the physical and metaphysical.

Greenberg, like Duchamp, felt the need for a new critical language to account for the crises created by abstraction, but he chose to focus on internal, rather than external mechanisms. For both, though, the interest was in making transparent systems once clouded by complication and myth. What Greenberg called for was an art (painting) utterly, physically verifiable. If successful, this process of verification would be quick, almost instant; a sensory recognition so complete as to avoid the kind of codification and consensus that Duchamp had challenged earlier. The art would need no cultural mediation because the viewer would know, via his or her senses, that this was art, speaking clearly and on its own quite specific terms. Both Greenberg and Duchamp distrusted the primacy of authorship and the cult of personality and expression that informed their respective art communities.[2] Both intended to change the structure of how we engage art in order to move it away from these preoccupations. One did it by developing a deep distrust of all things represented, the other put his faith in perception and outlined a practice that he hoped would get beyond our mediated "reading" of pictures and allow us to "see" the art.

Today the Duchampian model is clearly favored over Greenberg's.[3] Greenberg sounds naive to our contemporary ears, as it no longer seems feasible to make unmediated pictures, and the inherent determinism of his viewpoint has long since been discredited. Duchamp, while more influential with our most current generation of artists, must also be seen with a degree of skepticism. The irony that animates this approach can too easily and too often does turn into a stultifying cynical relativism. The distrust of physical experience, while often prudent, clearly denies the nature of our day to day engagement with the world, an engagement in which modes of verification take on many forms. This is not to suggest that either tradition has lost any relevance, but that their dynamism relies on the play between the two. Today, we are still plagued by the utter separation of these two models, while occasionally being surprised by artists who sense the urgency of both. These somewhat rare individuals cannot accept the self-imposed limitations of either model in their more orthodox forms, but find value in both for their very different advocations of a practice guided by a concept of constant epistemological interrogation. While uncommon, they are not, however, a recent phenomenon, having surfaced as early as the debate itself. That it is still rare to encounter artists and thinkers with these inclinations, bears testimony to the complicated nature of the debate, as well as the allure of taking comfort on either side of it.

By the mid 1960's the conceptual movement highlighted the split between the epistemes by resurrecting Duchamp and playing him off of the legacy of Pollock and company. Usually, this was done in an effort to debunk the formalists, to show them the constructed nature of the so-called primary essentials they were revealing. The new trend towards semiotics in literary theory fueled and seemed to justify this process and tautology became a preferred device as an all purpose signifier of the confused nature of representation itself. But, within the movement there were those, such as Mel Bochner, who were unable to simply turn their predecessors into mere signs. While interested in external systems and languages and their effect on phenomenal experience, these artists chose to utilize not only the game playing strategies so suited to these preoccupations, but also the ineffable occurrences found within the purely visual. For these artists, language was powerful in the way it helped to structure our experience via its limitations, but it never came before experience. The strategy employed by these artists was to reveal the moments between seeing and reading, to make you feel both processes. In this sense it was a mere corrective to Greenberg, avoiding the excessive optimism of an art beyond interpretation, but grounded in attaining that instantaneous recognition of art's own modes of expression. It is often said that the artists on this side of the conceptual movement stem from the legacy of Minimalism, and while this is partially true, it is important not to underestimate the legacy of Abstract Expressionism, as well as the concurrent color field painters who followed Greenberg (perhaps too closely). What this combination of influences gave this particular strand of Conceptualists was a constant verification of the efficacy of the purely visual or experiential when practiced with self conscious rigor.

One of the most important conceptual findings that Neustein made early on concerned, not surprisingly, the role of the tactile within the world of the represented. Like Picasso, who solved the Cubist predicament of depicting depth without foreshadowing by replacing it with tactility, Neustein used touch as a conceptual/perceptual shortcut. In the debate he had entered, the fundamental problem concerned the seeing vs. reading dialectic, (i.e. how quickly does one read or interpret what one is seeing and when does the seen jump back into the discussion to re-inform what has been read.) While I have framed the terms "see" and "read" dialectically and labeled their relationship as such, as mentioned above, this was and is rarely done. In his effort to re-frame and render transparent the nature of these terms, Neustein chose to highlight the sense that falls outside of this dialectic. In fact, Neustein argues that touch is not a sense at all but a "doing before hearing, or making before seeing." In this sense, tactility has the radical claim to primacy that Greenberg had assigned seeing, and by utilizing touch, (within representation) Neustein has been able to undermine the primacy of interpretation (by invoking the unquantifiable), while further questioning the role of the sensory. The result is not so much a way around the see/read dialectic, as a way back into the discussion on terms that acknowledge squarely the problems that arise on either side of the argument. To better illustrate how the tactile functions, it may be useful to repeat a statement from Levinas that Neustein shared with me:

"The caress is a mode of the subject's being, where the subject who is in contact with another goes beyond this contact. Contact as sensation is part of the world of light. But what is caressed is not touched, properly speaking. It is not the softness or warmth of the hand given in contact that the other seeks. The seeking of the caress constitutes its essence by the fact that the caress does not know what it seeks." [4]

This "not knowing", this fundamental disorder, is the essential. This "not knowing" is what disrupts all stable systems, a revelation of momentary ignorance, an inability to reconcile incoming data and Neustein, in agreement with Levinas, utilizes touch as his vehicle to reach it. But it should be said, that this "not knowing" in various forms, is what both Greenberg and Duchamp were talking about all along.

The Magnetic Drawings, in which pieces of magnetized linoleum are adhered to the back side of a sheet of paper in arrangements designed to create simple images on the front side when metal filings are spread across its surface, play upon all of the contradictions of our condition as perceiving agents. What we can "see" on the surface of the drawing, (the metal filings) we know are there because of a field we cannot locate or verify, except as an explanation of the suspension of the seen information. Here, self-reflexively exists, the duality that animates our experience of the world, presented via a questioning of the object's own adherence to the category of art to which it belongs. We are forced to begin a Greenbergian line of questioning. Is it a drawing? What aspect is drawn, the magnets adhered to the back of the paper that were in fact composed by the artist, or the filings that create the depicted image that we see, or is it the magnetic field itself? In this situation we have a physical and tactile element that give the work its speaking body, but a voice that emanates from the invisible field that binds them. As to which element constitutes the drawn (the active or animated) there is no clear answer, though the least satisfying conclusion would be the metal filings. Despite their being what we can see (and possibly touch) they are the least satisfying as the element of ultimate communication.

Despite his having limited control over the magnetic fields, other than utilizing them as a phenomenon, they are the closest thing to the "drawn" or "drawing" in Neustein's drawings The brilliance of this work is that its medium (magnetic fields) functions so completely in every sense of the term; it is the fluid carrier of both physical substance and metaphysical information. By using invisible engines to generate their meaning, the Magnetic Drawings highlight our necessary leap of faith into an unknown that is verifiable (however loosely) only by recourse to a physical residue. This is what many painters of late have also attempted, trying to create a residue that "lives" with the energy that generated their paintings' now static existence. This work addresses the slippage that occurs between doing and observing, often referencing media imagery and its attendant gaze in an attempt to explicate the nature of contemporary perception. The results, while often convincing, suggest a world of exhausted energies, media memories, and sensations along with a built-in distance that serves to verify, rather than challenge their status as representational vehicles. The Magnetic Drawings, on the other hand, are literally alive, their static elements a trace of dynamic forces still at work. This built-in contradiction addresses the same issues regarding perceptual slippage by making its occurrence transparent, rather than referring to the external conditions that may help to precipitate it. So while many painters have begun to represent this process of sensory enlightenment, Neustein has created it via representation.

The images actually depicted in the Magnetic Drawings, that is, the pictures created by the metal filings, are crude renderings of subject matter specifically given to flat depictions (such as the knot and broken bands or bars). There are also alphabet-like formations, imagined utterances of a yet unformed language, clearly deployed to make one think in terms of exposition and the struggle to form meaning. All of this imagery serves to heighten the sensual and intellectual pleasures of the encounter. The magnetic fluid that is printed onto the linoleum fragments is done so in a stripe formation. (The material is the same as that used for refrigerator magnets, and comes from the factory printed this way. It is in this sense a ready made material.) The result is an image made of very thin rows or stripes of metal filings. Neustein uses this formation as a tool for depiction, creating illusions of depth etc. by placing the magnet stripes at opposing angles. In doing this Neustein further moves what is "there" into another realm. This, as Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe has observed in the torn paper pieces, "injects a mimetic ambiguity into its relationship with its audience" [5] that serves to further dismantle the work epistemologically. The deception or inherent failure of representation is referenced as another energy capable of dialectical correspondence with the magnetic field and its meanings. The depicted images become, then, another issue to complicate as well as reinforce the dialogue between the viewer and the art. In this sense "form and content (rhetoric and narrative) are unified."[6] Neustein refers to these side discussions within the work as "play". This does not refer to "play" as in the opposite of work, but rather the slack given by a rider to the reins of a horse that allows the rider a degree of control without constricting the animal. Without play in the reins the horse doesn't move. Within the context of art, "play" becomes the added element of complication that prevents the work from becoming ideologically pigeonholed. That Neustein uses a term of such duplicity to describe this component should come as no surprise.

Besides creating the images, Neustein's "involvement" with the Magnetic Drawings is minimal. They cruise on cultural and physical auto pilot allowing them the opportunity to sidestep questions of style or taste. The result is a series of works whose existence is less rarefied than typical aesthetic objects, rejecting the notion that art need be a separate category of experience. However, the content of these drawings and of all of Neustein's work remains abstract as opposed to instrumental. There is no practical problem solving and none of the easy satisfaction of "getting it." Rhetorically, this work is convincing. It speaks clearly of its own mechanisms of meaning (Greenberg), mechanisms ultimately illustrative, not of given ideologies, but of the "fundamental disorder" of "not knowing" (Duchamp). Having further complicated the dual foundations of our experience with the world by revealing their dependence upon one another, Neustein has bridged the gap between experience and its codification. This bridge is necessarily short, in duration not space, for it is in time that these debates take place. The sensation of having crossed it, however intense, is short lived because this bridge is an ever moving field, a force between two static points in a very old conversation. In this work, meaning is discursive, and like the magnetic fields themselves which will one day lose their charge, it is impermanent. For Neustein the phrase Ars Longa Vita Brevis must be reformulated to read Ars Brevis Vita Brevis. In literally registering his art mortal, in keeping it short, he has further underscored its propositional character. In this work transformation is conditional rather than absolute, there is no realm to which activity aspires, no ideal. To understand this work is to experience it, to become that temporary (physical) medium through which so much will pass.


Owen Drolet is an artist curator and critic contributing regularly to Flash Art.

[1] While there is no definitive resource regarding this history - much of it being anecdotal and therefore found in countless interviews and conversations conducted by its many participants - there are three sources that may be specifically useful with regard to my text. See Martin Jay Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Los Angeles, 1993), Yve-Alain Bois introduction to Painting as Model (Massachusetts, 1990) Resisting Blackmail , and Donald Kuspit The Dialectic of Decadence (New York, 1993). Each of these texts while not necessarily outlining the "art world" history of these paradigmatic positions, do much by way of referencing, to explicate the politics contained within the debate. Each author treats the division of sensation and interpretation as an unnecessary split that needs to be bridged dialectically, (this is what I am attempting to do and what, in itself, distinguishes these texts from others on the subject), though all three are plagued by their various allegiances to one side or the other.

[2] I realize it can be argued (quite validly) that Greenberg did much to promote Jackson Pollock, and later Jules Olitsky, in ways that led to precisely the kind of cult of personality I am claiming he was opposed to. But this promotion, as dubious as it was, was grounded in his belief that these were the artists making the best work at that time. This is to be differentiated from promoting artists for special qualities they supposedly posses (as was the habit of the critic Harold Rosenberg whom Greenberg criticized sharply) that allow them to make good work. It was not the artists' qualities, but the quality of the art, that led to Greenberg's, sometimes inappropriate, praise. As for Duchamp, his cult-like status today is more the result of our cultural mechanisms of fame and celebrity, than of any strategies taken up by the artist himself.

[3] While the legacy of Greenberg is still alive and well in such major figures as Brice Marden and Gerhard Richter, as well as in Richter's lesser followers in America including David Row, Stephen Ellis, and John Zinsser, they make up a small and often isolated percentage of the art world. It is the Duchampian model however, that informs the neo-conceptualist strategies of a whole host of artists that includes Matthew Barney, Damian Hirst, and Rachel Whiteread, along with the majority of feminist and political artists. These are the artists being covered widely in today's art journals. Any return to the "Modernist" practices favored by Greenberg, such as the art magazine Tema Celeste's attempts in the early 1990's to resurrect abstract painting, appear dead on arrival, like still-born children.

[4] Emmanuel Levinas, "Time and the Other," The Levinas Reader, ed. Sean Hand (Oxford, 1989), p. 51

[5] Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe Joshua Neustein: Fragile, Massive, Gray, Torn, Impermanent Artforum, (Summer 1978), p56.

[6] Ibid., p.55.