joshua neustein texts
Marking and Disclosure: Neustein's New Paintings
by Joseph Masheck

The format of Joshua Neustein's paintings has long seemed rational and yet at once practically eccentric. It has been a means to paint paintings and not just to generate miscellaneous sculpturesque things made out of canvas or paper. Folding the painted sheet, with one color to a side, kept clear a whole topology of something torn and rearranged, thanks, directly, to painted differentiations of color together with exposed raggedly torn paper as sheer substance. Tearing into what was already painted, then folding or unfolding what was left, was nevertheless a violent way for a painter to proceed. One might consider "rending," in the also violent biblical expression, as akin to flailing, and suggestive of grief or penitential rage, if not radical purification or reprobation (as for idolatry); so too with violence as obverse and concomitant to constructive making, in the sense of "a time to rend and a time to sew." By the same token, Neustein's dark, rent paintings of the 1970's partook poetically of a certain gloom that seemed to hang over the art of painting itself, as though it only remained to paint the negativity and then tear it too; and still, doing so might produce a painting. More recently, torn or cut parts began to get rejoined in scar like welts. In overpainting the surface after the mutilation a more affirmative possibility announced itself. Everything in the painting that is torn, cut or folded away remains intact within the body of the painting, even if the part is out of sight. We know that we could restore all the parts, if not "repair" the rends. We also know that only in revising what is given in the sheer material, as though redistributing it unevenly, could anything be affirmed at all (just as in writing one has constantly to make clear what one is not saying, and that this is necessary to the embodiment of whatever is being positively advanced). In this very unevenness, which in old master painting is the mainstay of "composition," the will finds its real scope, even as it discovers its limits in the way one element has to be manipulated at the expense of another. Neustein's paintings have also manifested purely visually something analogous to the way, in the modern consciousness our own ordinary intentions come to be obscured, even to ourselves, as our actions pile up over them.

That one may know too much in order to make a move goes for the observer, notably the critic, as much as for the artist, while having a viewpoint at al I involves an active selectivity of response. To work hermetically, oblivious to change in surrounding life, would be as far in one direction from maintaining a point of view as floating with passing currents, wherever they might lead, in another. I say this partly by way of apology (in the literal sense). Increasingly in recent years, I have found myself writing a form of what used to be called an "appreciation." Such a form is radicalized when it is deliberately opened up to expose associations and patterns of choice, demystifying the individual response yet affirming its integrity. This is one way at least of seeing how identity is sustained and developed in its very transformations vis-a-vis changing circumstances. To stress the obscuring folds and revealing rends and cuts without remarking how these are like the play of consciousness, would make Neustein's work sound too literally and exclusively materialistic in a Constructivist sense, with, say, one square foot of painted paper remaining one square foot of painted paper, and never in any allusive way "getting off the ground." More simply, a mechanical description would leave the impression that the paintings are thin flat sculptures, whereas even to the extent that they may be considered reliefs they are decidedly paintings. This has become clearer than ever in the new works, but it has been true all along. Paint itself might have been subsumed into a mechanics of literal materials; yet, if anything, the buildup of pigment seems to embarrass the supporting sheet, buckling it with a barlike overlay of paint whose very excess is oblivious to purely rational wants of structure. The paintings can take on a witty physical awkwardness, and the artist himself has wondered what they would be like hung free, accessible to both sides, instead of pinned floppily against the wall, like "unstretched canvas" paintings a decade ago. It is vital to these works that there be a back, that it be lost from view, much as the back of a tapestry would convey considerable "information" without presuming to offer an inverse of equal esthetic significance. Painting offers something more profound than "information" anyway.

To the extent that he shows, undisguised, the logic of material manipulations and proceeds along an implied circuitry of choice in the manipulations, Neustein relates to such artists as Mel Bochner and Dorothea Rockburne. Such art may have seemed like a Constructivist geometry in self evident manipulations like a logic of choices. Looking back now, it seems to exhaust logical determinancy and to point the way back from sculpture-by-default to extremely rigorous forms of abstract painting. We may be engulfed today by faux-expressif-gestural affectations, but this rigorous art makes structurality itself the occasion, if not the pretext, of integral elaboration. To go petulantly right to "feeling" can by comparison be naive, escapist or both, while, as Neustein's new paintings testify, to seek to be rational and honest and also passionate may be a compelling aspiration.

Neustein's new paintings carry evocative titles: The Cruelty of Geometry, Closure of Representation, Diminishing and Moderating Concerns, A Painting in Present Perfect Conditional Pathetic, etc. With From A. to Man Ray (1981) the "A" refers to Neustein's master teacher Arie Aroch "who led me to an ethical programme, that painting was only justified if it documented a real life experience" (Neustein). Aroch's own painting is principally considered for a heartfelt sensitivity by which, typically, the very grain of some lovingly used wooden ground advances an extremely refined, somewhat Klee like painting. Neustein means to celebrate a less obvious, somewhat Duchampian, side of the artist. The reference to Man Ray makes the point with an appropriate obliqueness as well as by implicating Neustein's own cosmopolitanism, in that Man Ray managed to live and work in New York, Paris, Hollywood, not to mention Ridgefield, N.J. On the side of Duchamp proper, the facial profile in Neustein is painting, a form equated with, and opposed to, passages of "pure" expressive" brushwork, evokes Duchamp's own painting Yvonne and Magdalene Torn in Tatters, (1911; Philadelphia Museum) with an emphasis, appropriate to Neustein, on formal reconstitution after "tearing" an image apart. The specifically American May Ray connection is vital (even Duchamp's own anti-culinary esthetic had paralleled a distance for "eyesight painting" expressed early on by John Sloan in New York). May Ray is perhaps more responsible than anybody else of the time for a brushy, rather laid-back line rendering that has lately revived as a comment on desensitized visuality: witness his suavely inky Self Portrait, of 1914.

In the painting The Conditional Image (1981-83), Neustein paints a human head, plus an upside-down "crotch shot" of nude legs. The face has been cancelled with an "X." (Photographs show an intermediate state, when a single length of black tape, not unlike the tapes that Mondrian used in his New York period to try compositional adjustments.) Here the tapes cut across the face, so the image, as image, is disenfranchised as a rendering, less negated than muzzled, still part of the overall operation but in no way its punch line. That relates to the constant structural interplay between a hiding of one layer under another and a tearing or cutting and folding back, bringing underlying surfaces into view. It is worth observing that Franz Kline made a self-portrait, in a brushy ink, in which the face is both cancelled and "signed" by the superimposition of a big "K" in a circle. The new work is no resuscitation of Abstract Expressionism, yet it has significant affinities, as, most generally if unexpectedly, with the ongoing vitality of DeKooning. One might want to invoke Pollock's all over painting, as extended to both sides of Neustein's hefty sheets, though it may be more enlightening to refer to a characterization of the artist's muse in an "Ode to Jackson Pollock" published in Evergreen Review for autumn 1958:

He pulling the torn parts of her body together to make a perfect figure-1951. Assembled the lovely shape of chaos. Seeing it bare and hideous, new to the old eye....

That the new paintings are large is in itself less important than that their complexity seems not merely doubled but, so to speak, squared. Irregular alignments of the edges, painted substantially and folded with difficulty, cut out and refolded, then repainted, provoke lively conjunctions between underlying plain and freely painted zones and the epidermal front, while contrasting layers show more blatantly in the cutout polygons of the central field. In earlier work, the folding and tearing was more a matter of deconstructing and quasicompositionally reconstructing the less paint inflected sheet as a piece of planar material. (Paint itself can be, as it usually is in the world outside art, a "utility" item, as Malevich knew.) In the current work one confronts gaping polygonal openings in the outer and inner layers, these gouged out even lines, into flaps folded back inwards along irregular yet carefully contrived angles.

The entire painting is a complex articulated arrangement, an orchestration, of possibilities of closing over and opening up. There is a definitive frontal configuration, but because its parts, both seen and unseen, participate in the final disposition, even free will painterly impositions, including now seemingly figural motifs, swim in the same continuous binding and loosening of the whole. It may be more difficult to figure out where a given element "comes from" or where it "goes," almost to the point of having to take the artist's procedure on faith (as if to ask, Would Neustein lie?). Everything is in a complex suspension, as in orchestral music. Where figural imagery does appear, it is executed in the same brushwork and colors as other passages of "pure" paint. The images weave in and out of prominence like a voice solo written in as one of the several working elements in an essentially instrumental score.

Despite, or in another sense because of, its "scale," the new work may call attention in a defetishized way to the explicitly holographic character of painting as a definitively manual, doggedly individual affair. In themselves, former attempts to diminish mystiques about painting, as Neustein himself did in earlier works dealing with stretcher parts and loose canvas, have assumed an air of the polemical, tile occasional and perhaps the ironically ephemeral. The more attractive possibility is of a magnanimity that displaces grandiosity. Neustein's particular use of acrylic paint on a large scale may be considered a magnified version of watercolor or gouache. Such intimacy-writ-large is in line with parallel developments in music of amplified acoustical, and otherwise chamber-scaled, instruments, or calligraphic and other forms of holographic texts, printed as books. This may be part of a collapse of industrialized culture into an attenuated illusion of handicraft, although painting had never thrown its weight behind the prevailing mentality. The new works embrace the greater complexity that is rightly demanded by an increase in structural scale.

The paintings really are giant sketches, if folded down to what is a fraction of their overall expanse. This public scale, appropriate for an artist whose work has always been declaratory, makes no pretense of drowning out an authentic tentativeness. Each painting looks complete and fulfilled without parading itself as definitive, conclusive, final. How many times since Abstract Expressionism have we not heard that the sketch, even in old master art, preserves the traces of the "artistic process." Sketches show the live interdependence of conception and execution (the true locus of mimetic transformation). For the spectator too, knowing and feeling carry the crucially modern implication that there is nothing more perfectly realizable; then the fleshly struggle may after all be "worth it." That any painterly wayward flourish should claim the intensity of earnest struggle in no way invalidates the basic idea. More urgent is the larger issue of sustaining a sketch-like aspect in more complex and ambitious circumstances.

Robert Pincus-Witten has already speculated suggestively, with respect to Neustein, on the relation of "abstract" art to Jewish tradition ("Six Propositions on Jewish Art," Arts Magazine, September, 1975). Specific attention can also be called to the notion of art-making in general as a sacredly honest, un-deceptively craftsman-like manipulation of materials. In the History of Ancient Art (1764), Winckelmann regretfully addresses the paucity of significant ancient Jewish art because of the proscription against natural, as well as divine, sculpted figures and, supposedly, a general view of the fine arts as "a superfluity in the life of man" (ILv.8). However, in noting the wider repute of Jewish artisans, Winckelmann suggests that they must have been extraordinarily accomplished in "drawing and artistic labor," noting that unfortunately a concept of lofty craftsmanship is "not generally understood." The Hebrew term for it was "absurdly translated and explained" (§ 9). lust this convention of a sophisticated, non-representational ancient art of "drawing and artistic labor" may seem problematic and yet also telling, in light of the history and state of abstract art.

What is remarkable about Neustein's new paintings is hardly the fact that they include imagery of a kind now widely seen in neo-expressionistic painting. The imagery, or quasi-imagery, might in itself seem pointedly superfluous, as with the decal-like intentional superficiality of video-related imagery, advancing a guarded suggestiveness, a calculated indecisiveness that feigns profound ambiguity. The physical unwieldiness of the big, floppy, heavily painted sheets in the new works helps this imagery to reveal a certain knowing, vulnerable overreaching that is but another feature of the sketch-like aspect. The figural fragments have a way of grazing across the surface; they seem attached at certain points as if by chance, a facial profile here, a leg-and-a-half there.

The title of the "Bethlehem Series," to which most of these paintings belong, refers to the lustily ingratiating color, including extravagant sweeps of pearly, opalescent whites, and to the seductively creamy overall I facture. The series title refers, not to any profounder connotations of the Christian holy site, but to the typical mock-marble material of the cheap souvenirs sold to pilgrims in Bethlehem. Not that an awareness of the association is necessary, in the face of the near luridness (at least for the Neustein we have known) of the paint itself. Besides, the slick gorgeousness of such painting happens to be hardly different from the luminous shine that St. Thomas Aquinas seems to seek when he points to a certain brightness of color, but also apparently of sheer rich material, in describing what he means by the radiant appeal of beauty. Neustein keeps things open, not getting away with something fashionable, simply denying it in the very doing, but transgressing taste and tastefulness, even his own.

Joseph Masheck
The Bethlehem Series 1983
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art Cornell University, Ithaca New York

Joseph Masheck is Associate Professor of Art History at Hofstra University and author of, among other books, Smart Art (Willis, Locker and Owens, 1984). From 1977 to 1980, he was the editor of Artforum.