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Joshua Neustein: Fragile, Massive, Gray, Torn, Impermanent
by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe

Joshua Neustein works in terms which, having been with us for approximately a decade, now seem deceptively familiar. Theirs is a deceptive familiarity because, as I shall come to say, these terms no longer address quite the same issues as before.

They lead us toward this encounter: the work engages and retains our attention through manipulating the -mutually exclusive- perceptual categories of "real" and "pictorial" space In the course of alternating between mutually exclusive experiences, one is made increasingly aware of the internal structure's saturation by this general idea, so that one becomes involved in recognizing how residual traces (indices) of process announce themselves as such white at the same time asking that they be read as pictorial convention (e.g. torn edges functioning as drawing). Thus are we led, by the all-pervasiveness of this opposition between the sense in which the work is a part of the space in which we ourselves stand and the sense in which it is not, toward an esthetic of displacement.

I use the expression "esthetic of displacement" here because the process I have described is a manipulation of a taxonomy of formal' devices which, in representing art as a matter of procedures (therefore, displacements), may best be thought of as engaging the physical trace in a fourfold function: it records its own inception; it marks a relationship internal to the work; it proposes as such an internal marker, a reorientation on the part of the spectator (that is, it has an effect outside of the work, in the sense that Roman Jakobson has shown the pronoun to be an index which shifts the point of view of the narrative and thus of its reader); and finally, because of these three, it offers itself as a schematic model for that series of transactions which is our experience of the work as an abstraction latent in the phenomenal content of our relationship to it.

All these significations are indexical, but as has been suggested elsewhere,1 their very multiplicity requires, paradoxically, that we recognize such apparently straightforward work as Neustein's not as indexical "by nature," but rather as appealing to the linguistic category that Pierce named the symbol:

work such as this, in other words, commends itself to us as a sign which is inherently complex, as indexical (or, also, iconic) signs are not. This seems important to me inasmuch as one wants to do justice to the sense in which modernist art presents itself not so much as an art about art, as one whose implications expand and become elaborate through its pursuit of the conditions of its own interaction with its milieu. "Content"-artistic, autobiographical, discursive, emotive-is a concomitant of the work's concern with the dynamics of its own legibility, of its rhetorical adequacy. Neustein may thus be identified with one important tendency in late modernism that proceeded by withdrawing much of the conventional support from those procedures contained and defined by the taxonomy of formal devices that structure the work. Which is to say, as Robert Pincus-Witten has indeed said, that Neustein's work is most properly understood as "epistemic abstraction."2

However, having agreed that Neustein's work is such, i.e. that it takes the epistemic level as that on which the methodological origin of artistic convention (or, rather, its analogue in procedure) is to be investigated - as the level, that is, on which form and content (rhetoric and narrative) are unified-one is thereby led to particular questions.

Broadly, these are two: What is Neustein's individual contribution? What does that tell us about the type of art to which Neustein's is generically related? I think Neustein's contribution can be summed up through recourse to the six adjectives which make up the title of this note on his work: static, fragile, massive, gray, torn, impermanent.

Since Newman's influence began to be felt it has been axiomatic that art should be static. Judd brought the maxim to dogmatic actualization, on the grounds

that one ought to be able to see what one is looking at. Neustein's work is static in the sense that it is - often-manifestly arrested, interrupted while in passage to some other dispositon or position. On seeing Symmetrical Function, one thinks about the rotation through which the rectangle must have passed in order to reach its present position. It makes no sense to suppose that the rectangle has simply been torn loose and then placed in its present position, since the whole premise of the work involves the analogizing of convention and physical procedure-and therefore the necessity of keeping them distinct;

placing the rectangle without reference to an early continguity with the sideways "L" shape that is the other half of Symmetrical Function would, in every expressible way, actually rob the piece of a context in which it could be said to have meaning. The rectangle is apprehended, then, as a frontal shape which is a consequence of, first, its severance from the side- ways "L" and secondly-as to where it's placed-of a movement through space. One is seeing a process inscribed-drawn-on the wall, which is both the work's physical support and the abstract- conventional-space in which it functions.

In keeping with this notion of implied or sedimented traces of recent past events and decisions, Symmetrical Function is made out of more than one layer of paper, or rather out of one piece of paper folded twice, a preliminary accumulation which is then added to by the placement of the paper and the subsequent rotation of the rectangle. This folding is a preliminary in the sense of a prologue- a thematic introduction which thenceforth "underlies" the procedure whose enactment is recorded on the wall by the position of the rectangle.

The fragility of Neustein's work, it seems to me, has to do with this folding. Folding paper, which is something one often does in order to give it strength, affirms the material's delicacy while at the same time compensating for it. Like tying twigs together. The paper is antonym, as well as repository, for the comparative savagery of tearing, but it is interesting that it is also coated with--or again, is the repository of spray paint. One American artist described using a spray gun as being like painting in air. In Neustein's work the spray adds to the paper a surface even more fragile than its own.

The spatiality of the painted.surface also lends an air of massiveness. Neustein's work is characteristically large but not enormous (Symmetrical Function, for example, is 54 by 52 inches.) A typical Neustein is, however, large enough to establish a one-to-one relationship with the viewer's space. The work, hovering just below, or looming just a little larger than, the size of the spectator, thereby injects a mimetic ambiguity into its relationship with its audience. In Neustein's paperworks this relationship is further complicated by the deep space introduced into the piece by its painted surface, and it is the expansiveness of this space which combines with the Work's scale to give to the whole a massive quality.

Neustein, well aware of the Implications of this utilization of "illusionist" spatiality, insists. that it exists to be defeated by the work's overall physicality. I have before me a postcard from Neustein in which he speaks of "an atomized surface that is made whole by the support [i.e. the paper] then severed when the support is severed." But I should say, in qualification of Neustein, that the spatiality survives the tearing, persisting as an opposition to the emphasized physicality while simultaneously establishing continuity between the inside of the piece and the depth provided by the wall when the latter is considered (as I've said it should be) as a pictorial space.

This survival is made possible by the grayness of Neustein's work. Gray is a color which can go either way, at once inviting the viewer to treat it as a space while being equally available-as the primary colors are perhaps not-to a reading which sees it as dense but flat. Minimalism - in particular, the work of Robert Morris - employed gray for its singularly nondescript, or "neutral" character to produce works of singular elusiveness without undermining the preoccupation with specificity that provided the art with its generative idea. That putative neutrality occurs in Neustein's work as a relatively minor but still very necessary element.

Tearing, on the other hand, is a primary instrument of Neustein's preoccupation with the specific. In addition to containing the "illusionism" of the painted surface, the torn edge gives one a clue to the history of the work's final disposition. In Symmetrical Function it is the torn edge to which one turns, as it were naturally, to deduce the course of the rectangle's rotation. In As in, Over and Out, things are more complicated, and one finds oneself appreciating how the opposition of torn to not-torn (i.e. folded) edges is also the opposition between inside and outside. This is so both in terms of the interior organization of the cross and of the piece considered as a whole, where the folded edges of the rectangle are seen to mark the upper left perimeter of the work and the folded axes of the cross, therefore, function as an Interior echo of that outer extremity.

Finally, it is important that we experience Neustein's work as installed, which is to say as impermanent. This property is fundamental to its discursive, or propositional, character. It is an impermanence which underlines the point of the "situational" bias of epistemic abstraction. The point is this: in order that the work be seen to operate in and through an interaction with "real" space, it is necessary that the space be altered without losing its original identity, that is, that its transformation be conditional rather than absolute.

Otherwise one would simply be substituting one space for another (in effect subsuming the "real" space into an exclusively pictorial one).

These are, then, the constituents of Neustein's work as I see it. It is in Neustein's manipulation of them that one may find an indication of the present state of epistemic abstraction,

Put bluntly, epistemic abstraction is no more. Pincus-Witten describes it as having been most active between 1968 and 1972 (Neustein's first paper works were exhibited in 1968) and I should think these dates would be accepted in most quarters.3 Epistemic abstraction is now a tendency which remains with us in the solutions to more recent problems found by the artists who were identified with it, and who continue to respond to these newer problems by means of which epistemic abstraction developed and established. In general, this development has proceeded in accordance with a rule which is as true for history as it is for language: "In the process of communication there is no single-valued inference from a succeeding to a preceding stage. With each successive stage the selectivity increases; some data of an antecedent stage are irrelevant for any subsequent stage and each item of the latter stage may be a function of several variables from the former stage."4

Neustein (in the same postcard to which I have already referred) describes himself as "still hot on the 'painting is dead' slogan," and his art as "valid to the degree that it fulfills manipulative, evaluative activity with the new subject matter (sensibility, color)."

There are those who might evidence surprise at seeing sensibility and color described as new subject matter, but in a sense they are. Having sought to produce a critique of habituated response through equating affective perception with cognitive procedure, epistemic abstraction found that it had been successful not in demolishing affectivity, but rather in reforming it.

Several of those associated with epistemic abstraction have seen this to be an occasion for the recomplication of an art once clarified by the analogizing with the discursiveness of the earlier period. Consider, for example, the sense in which Mel Bochner's earlier work with drawing deeply inflects his subsequent employment of color. But Neustein clearly represents another extreme. In making the containment of color and "sensibility" a function of "variables from the former stage"-when color and sensibility seemed to

have achieved irrelevance-Neustein has assumed a task which previously did seem germane but which has become central to the terms he employs. The work described here shows him to have been successful in meeting what is, from the point of view of this type of art, a new challenge, and one by no means entirely "historical" in the narrow sense of stylistic change. The dynamics of this work are those of an effort to expand persistently-to thicken-the content of a severely limited set of terms.

  1. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe and John Johnston, "Gravity's Rainbow" and the "Spiral Jetty" (Conclusin), October, 1/3 (Spring 1977), p. 101.
  2. Robert Pincus-Witten, "The Neustein Essay," in the Tel-Aviv Museum catalogue, Neustein, Tel-Aviv, 1977, p. 31.
  3. Pincus-Witten, p. 46
  4. Roman Jakobson and Morris Halle, Fundamentals of Language, The hague, 1971, p. 46.

Artforum Summer 1978


Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, artist, art-critic and teacher. "Joshua Neustein: Fragile, Massive, Gray, Torn, Impermanent"Artforum, Summer 1978.