joshua neustein texts
The Bethlehem Series: Seduction by the Image
by Pierre Restany

There is a good deal of critical literature on Joshua Neustein, since the nature of the work, or rat her the endeavor, is timely. The whole work is governed by its strategic context. Yona Fischer, one of his most ardent Supporters in Israel, has correctly defined the operational process: "When Joshua Neustein isolates a problem, he first of all imposes a set of rules, a strategy of which he himself is aware and in which the spectator participates."'

We have here a strategy of simulation and stimulation —in a word, of seduction- whose rules apply to every operation and which offer themselves as a game, a playful rapport based on a series of dialectical relations, a dialectic between action and material, presentation and representation. semantic s and syntax, reality and illusion. These rules of the Neustein game open, of course, on a system of objective references, constituting as many "lexies," or lexical units, of a language that Robert Pincus Witten has aptly called "epistemic abstraction."'

One of the best examples of this "epistemic abstraction" would undoubtedly be the Greek Tortoise of 1977, an infi-nite process of folding in half. Each situation engenders its strategy: folding, ripping out, tearing, cutting. The priority of the process over the product, o( the structure over the vo-cabulary, is obvious in Removal Strategies of 1971, as also in Picture Plane (1973), which corresponds to a series 0' twenty-four photographs documenting the process of analyzing the picture-object as structure, element by ele-ment (frame and painted surface, painting and content, content and container, container-content and artist).

It was thus to be expected that this work would call for the linguistic reference and structuralist commentary, starting with its immediate objective donnée, the visual permuta-tion. It was also to be expected that this work would be put back into the aesthetic perspective of Minimalism, con-ceived in its broadest static and neutral terms (from Barnett Newman's Zip to Robert Morris's gray non-color), and Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe did not hesitate to do so.3 Finally, the importance of the numerical relations in the strategy of inter-ventions folding, removal, etc.,) and in the definition of space could not fail to suggest the kabalistic Gematria and the artist's I Hasidic origin (in a manner similar to Thomas Hess pointing out the importance of the number 18 in the arrangement of Newman's canvases) All these commentaries relate directly to Neustein's black and white minimal-abstract period in the seventies and describe it with equal accuracy and depth.

But here I am, in this beginning of 1983, confronted with the Bethlehem Series: a half dozen large 'foldings' on four sides, with a central rent and allowing only 18% (again the number 18) of the painted surface to show. And what paint-ing! On a pearlescent background (the color used in Bethlehem on votive decorations) are inscribed nervous networks o( linear and serpentine tracings, in colors that are sometimes very bright, the surface gnarled like knotted veins on the skin. This painted surface, violently expressionist in style, contrast,, with the smooth grain of the lower layer appearing in the opening of the torn piece. And suddenly, as though emerging from the shifting reflections of the mother-of-pearl, a semblance of a gaze, the sketch of a mysterious face, appears Fleeting vision, insistent allusion - these works are the mirror of their own subject.

On this afternoon of February 2, 1983, I am in Neustein's studio and my thought wanders from one folding to another, from the shadow of one gaze to the shadow of another. Little by little, I succumb to the weight of a stubborn intuition. This New "lave, kitsch Bad Painting is nothing but the pretext, the supplementary element of a new strategy, the evidence in Neustein of a higher lucidity.

Neustein's analyses in black and white, his epistemic abstraction," were based on a structuralist method and ,1 "minimal-nonrelational" aesthetic postulate; in other words, the linguistic deception came to be grafted onto on a- priori value judgment, onto a reflection implying the definitive failure of the "relational" system of the traditional Cubist aesthetic. Hence the reference, in Gilbert-Rolfe for example, to Newman's stasis.

The requirements of structural analysis of works of art seem all the more necessary in that structuralism, in the first stage of its method, starts with an exclusively descriptive phase Structuralism calls for style. We are familiar with the stylistic talents of a Levi- Strauss, a Foucault, a Lacan. Pincus-Witten describing Neustein, the Neustein of the "drawings" is a

little like Levi-Strauss describing a Clouet, or low ault Las tileninas of Velazquez: description becomes example, an exercise in style. In this case, with Neustein, we are in the presence of a gloss on Writing Degree Zero and Roland Barthes is not far away. But here is the problem we run up against, and we remain stuck there as though the exercise of style alone suited the aesthetic object.

I wonder then if Neustein's strategy does not consist precisely in playing with the limits of structuralism, in seeing that his structures manage to evade structuralization. We Will thus he able to argue endlessly over the degree of stasis in Neustein's presentations. It is by its own seductiveness that this work drives us to rhetoric. With the Bethlehem Series and the recourse to Bad Painting, I have the feeling that the veil is lifted. The artist deliberately goes hack to a "relational" rapport between form and background. Again taking a stand on traditional aesthetics. lie corners us in metaphor, in analogy, in anaphoric repetition, in anamor-phic perspective. The strategy is metaphor; the folding, analogy; the numerical repetition, anaphora; the allusive presence of the mysterious lace, anamorphosis.

This mysterious face, which seems to say: "You do not see me from where I am looking at you." Mirror of the subject, impossible intersection of the gaze: this is what takes on what could be called Neustein's Cartesian "cogito." His subtle strategy leads us to a dialogue of the blind: we ask to sec what we have before our eyes in the Bethlehem Series, and Neustein replies that we cannot see anything except that we are being looked at! Which would be equivalent to saying, by making Neustein speak like Descartes: "I am the one who paints, therefore I am."

It is therefore on the totality of the subject that Neustein brings to bear his theoretical-practical gaze, subject being understood in the sense of the spectator. The entire enigma of The Conditional Image (one of the titles in the Bethlehem Series) stems from the fact that the painter accepts the paroxysm of ontological consciousness in his creative process: he is simultaneously spectator and actor, voyeur and creator.

This sense of the totality of the subject fits very well with a formal division between the heavily painted surface and the gaps in the paper, the frame-windows opening on the background. The division appears in its true place, i.e., the observing subject itself. The image thus divided plays the role of hiding place and masks itself 4 Our vision pierces

only the first two planes of the paper, it scarcely anticipates the hidden faces of the other two foldings. But at the same time an image of the moon (Lunar month), the sketch of a face (The Conditional Image), the black outline of a profile (From A. to Man Ray), the flamboyant emergence of a look (From Bethlehem Series) recall us to order and to the pur-pose of this painting, which has no other subject but to be itself

And it is in this way, in this seemingly kitsch series, that Neustein's strategy attains its goal: the supreme seduction of the gaze by the image.

Paris, February 1983
Translated from French by John Shepley

1. Yona Fischer "Joshua Neuslein. Drawings 1970-1971,- catalogue Rina Gallery New York, 1973.
I. Robert Pincus Witten "The Neustein Essay catalogue Tel Aviv Museum.
3. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe "Joshua Neustein Fragile, Massive, Gray, Tom, Imper-manent," Artforum, Summer 1978
4. This effect can be felt especially in Closure
of Representation.

Pierre Restany, noted French art theoretician, from The Bethlehem Series, 1980-83, Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University