joshua neustein texts
Dossier of a Carbon Hacker
by Raphael Rubinstein

"In East Germany, the March 7, 1953, edition of the party paper Neues Deutschland was edged in black and bore the headline: 'The Heart of the Greatest Man of our Epoch, Comrade J.V. Stalin, Has Stopped Beating.' Fritz Schenk, a minor East German bureaucrat, recalled that even the 'highest officials' sat 'quietly in their offices and cut mourning bands out of carbon paper."'--Timothy W. Ryback, Rock Around the Bloc: A History of Rock Music in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, 1990

There is nothing in contemporary art quite like Joshua Neustein's Carbon Series, an ongoing work which the artist initiated in 1970. After more than 25 years, the works in the series now extend into the hundreds. To create the Carbon Series Neustein uses simple carbon copy stationary which he cuts, tears and folds with near surgical precision. His controlled alterations to the thin layers of paper create a constantly evolving sequence of geometric shapes and linear elements. Within the confines of this mundane office artifact (rendered obsolete by the advent of word processors), the artist establishes an expansive visual world. As Neustein manipulates the white, black and pale yellow sheets, he creates a domain of subtle gradations of value and texture, exercising the artist's prerogative to call forth a different kind of visual order.

Throughout the 20th century, artists from Kurt Schwitters to Robert Rauschenberg and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, have used everyday materials, but it is hard to think of one who has focused such intense and lasting attention on a single readymade object, and to such great effect. To find a suitable parallel to Neustein's relentless project of eliciting the maximum amount of visual meaning from an apparently limited format one may have to look beyond Neustein's postminimalist generation. A comparison might be made with the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, who methodically painted still-life compositions of the same few jars for decades. I cite Morandi rather than, say, Joseph Albers (who persevered on his "Homage to the Square" series for year after year) because, like Morandi's, Neustein's series is strikingly non-repetitive. The Carbon Series is notable in how it departs from most contemporary serial work in its continual quest for different, unexpected solutions. Neustein brings to bear on his given format an impressive long-term rigor and imagination.

If we are startled by Neustein's ability to go on discovering new formal arrangements with simple carbon stationary, his achievement is made even more impressive by his choice to "draw" with only a knife and an etching tool, rather than the conventional pen or pencil. (Actually, pencils do make a slight appearance, which I'll explain below.) Throughout the series, Neustein plays a subtle game with the properties of carbon paper. His arsenal of cuts and scratches and tears, dancing along and slicing through the skins of the material, seem to be a studied refusal of the drawn or transferred mark. As the artist puts it, he prefers to "make marks with the material itself." And yet those drawn marks are there, the carbon paper is continually registering the actions of Neustein's hand: in marks which are veiled, secret, mysterious.

An added conceptual dimension of the Carbon Series is how, for all the cutting and tearing, Neustein is careful never to remove any part of the material. Almost as if in apology for diverting carbon paper from its proper function, he retains its integrity, its completeness.

Neustein's avoidance of conventional implements is motivated by his desire to establish a tense dialogue with art history. This includes, first of all, the history of his own art. Both the materials and techniques of the Carbon Series reappear throughout Neustein's oeuvre. The critic Robert Pincus-Witten has pointed out that Neustein tends to build his work around three specific actions: the tear, the fold, the cut. These methods can be seen in Neustein's large paper pieces of the late 1970s such as As In Over and Out (1978). Also figuring in the background is a 1972 work titled Picture Plane where Neustein decided to explicitly tackle the medium of painting. Characteristically, he found a way of approaching this non-transitory medium via an ephemeral performance that was documented in 24 photographs which show the artist employing the disassembled elements of painting. In The Carbon Series Neustein is pursuing, more exhaustively, a similar investigation of the relationship between the artist and the image, structure and process of pictorial art.

The carbon, this inky dark substance that migrates so easily from one surface to another, find echoes in some of Neustein's larger pieces. Most recently, in the installation Neustein created for the Israeli Pavilion at the 1995 Venice Biennale in which he used a blowtorch to obscure the interior walls of the pavilion with black soot. A carbonlike black smoke was also present in a dramatic work of 1983, Still Life for which Neustein set fire to a stack of rubber tires which he had arranged in the shape of a Phantom jet, allowing the smoke to billow up into the skies around the Israeli-Lebanese border.

Those burning tires on the Israeli-Lebanese border are emblematic of Neustein's involvement with frontiers of all kinds, from the geo-political to the linguistic. The location of Still Life was not the only aspect of the work to deal with borders -the fact that the tires were burning was itself an allusion to another kind of frontier: the division between one material state and another. In Still Life, as in The Sound of Pine Cones Opening in the Sun (1973) and the Magnetic Field Drawings, Neustein has used materials which are temporarily enlisted into his art before they disperse or change into something else. He clearly is drawn to the transitory, the fugitive, the fleeting.

The transformation of matter that recurs in Neustein's work is underlined by the central element of the Carbon Series.

Carbon, as everyone knows, is a constituent of all organic matter, enmeshing us in the carbon cycle whereby living organisms and the nonliving environment continually exchange carbon particles. (One term used to describe an aspect of the carbon cycle seems especially appropriate to the project Neustein has been working on for so extended a period: the process of incorporating inorganic molecules into the more complex molecules of living matter is called "fixation.") For proof of the persuasiveness of carbon we need look no further than the bottom edge of the Carbon Series where Neustein pencils in his signature and, when there is one, a title: the "lead" in pencils is in fact a combination of carbon (in its graphite form) and clay. The apparently incidental mark of the penciled signature thus echoes the material of the carbon paper.

If transformation is one abiding concern of Neustein, another is the closely related experience of transience. It's impossible not to notice that this extensive series could, if necessary, fit into a briefcase, ready for a quick getaway. Neustein has said that his art stems from the experience of displacement. The Carbon Series evokes, as the artist has recently revealed, memories of a more specific sort. In the course of his refugee childhood, in Eastern Europe and the USSR, during and after the Second World War, Neustein was forced to live hidden in basements with his parents. As he recalls: "It was dark, safe and confined. The basement was a privileged shelter. The windows, no higher than the weeds growing outside the house, ushered in blocks of light. The light was laden with danger and still one looked to it as essential to survival, like a breath of air."

Looking at the recurring windowlike forms in the Carbon Series, it is quite easy for the viewer to see how Neustein's memories may have partly guided his hands as they cut, folded and tore at the thin layers of paper. I suspect that one reason Neustein has only recently spoken about this relationship is that for a long time, and certainly when he began the series, he had no idea that there was such a strong visual link between his early childhood in war-ravaged Europe and these delicate constructions of quietly nuanced color and texture. When an artist's oeuvre comes together like this, when what seems an arbitrary choice turns out to have been destiny. of course it's not destiny, but a combination of unconscious instinct, self-knowledge and artistic providence.

Although it is not explicitly stated, there is a clear engagement of painting in the Carbon Series, especially when Neustein summons up 20th-century painters such as Kasimir Malevitch (the use of black and white geometry) and Lucio Fontana (punctures and tears of the surface of the painting). Another, more recent painter who is interesting to consider in relation to the Carbon Series is Peter Halley. The similarity of format between Neustein's Carbon Series and Halley's cell-and-conduit paintings -- both of which use a stage-like base on which to place rectangular and square shapes -- is striking. The reason for this coincidence, which is the result neither of influence nor formal accident, may well be the parallel nature of the artists' underlying concerns. We have seen how Neustein's linear geometry is rooted in wartime experience of flight, concealment, escape from surveillance. For his part, Halley has explained how his paintings are informed by Michel Foucault's analysis of the "carceral," that is, the strategies of social control exemplified by the panopticon prison. Both these artists are dealing with a pervasive condition of modern society, one which Neustein locates (especially in his Venice piece) in the notion of the archive.

The Carbon Series is an extended visual parable of the totalitarian impulse, or rather a protest against it. Neustein has infiltrated himself into the paper empire of the old-fashioned bureaucrat in order to exercise his own freedom. The Carbon Series symbolically appropriates the tool of the faceless record keeper. And here we come to another stratum of meaning in this literally and figuratively multi-layered work. Neustein has poetically described the Carbon Series as "the cinders of the war between the anarchists and the archivists." In this work, carbon stationary symbolizes the bureaucratic system of surveillance and control. Neustein, who significantly started the series about the time the computer was beginning its global takeover, observes that while the bureaucratic system of social policing initially collapsed under its own (paper) weight, the advent of the computer has allowed it to triumph. There is a good deal of truth in this, yet we mustn't forget the unregulated activities of computer hackers whose presence suggests that the archivists' victory is less than total. I mention computer hackers because one way to view Neustein himself is as a kind of "carbon hacker," an artist who hijacks and adapts a discarded fragment of technology -- carbon stationary -- for his own purposes. Neustein also shares with the rebels of cyberspace a taste for traveling light and a passion for defying borders. This confrontation of high-tech issues via an unlikely low-tech medium is yet another way in which the Carbon Series forcefully distinguishes itself.