joshua neustein texts
Neustein's Gesture, Neustein's Mark
by Barry Schwabsky

While preparing to write this essay, I happened to read the profile of a concert pianist who at one point remarked, "For me, the actual playing has to come from a somewhat larger gesture than is strictly necessary, because when you aim precisely at the mark you get something smaller and more inflexible than you want."

What is striking here is the perception that, paradoxically, no gesture can ever be commensurate with the mark it produces. In the pianist's view, the mark (and how curious it is that a musician should hit on so painterly a word) is generally a diminishment of its originating gesture, perhaps through a sort of Second Law of Aesthetic Thermodynamics). For me, this resonated with an observation made by a senior American abstract painter in an interview I'd recently conducted. He had suggested that each painter has an affinity for gestures of a certain scale, which in turn generate the scale typical of his work, and that this distinction in gestural scale corresponds to one between painters whose "gestures move back into themselves" the given example being Vuillard - as opposed to those "like Pollock," whose "gesture goes outside of himself."

What does this have to do with Joshua Neustein? Just that, in his "Carbon Series," he shows how, while the terms of these two separate yet linked discussions are apt, they must be turned on their heads. The "Carbon Series" can be seen as a remarkably sustained and far reaching investigation of the nature of gesture in its most controlled, intimate, at times almost microscopic scale. (I almost wrote, there, "the nature of pictorial gesture," but that would have been wrong - for the "Carbon Series" reflects as deeply on dimensions of gesture that could be sculptural or scriptive as on those that might be considered specific to depiction.) And while they confirm that the scale of the gesture is always incommensurate with that of its resulting mark, one can only say, contra our pianist, that in this case at least it is very clear that the gesture's trace is of a virtual scale that, in comparison to its literal scale, is enormous. Likewise, as against the painter's perception, based on his own experience as an artist of heroic scale, Neustein's little works demonstrate that a restrained or diminutive gesture need not lend itself to self-containment, to Vuillardesque intimism, but can point with clarity and force far beyond the rectangle of its support, far beyond the immediate situation of its making, to the weightiest and most urgently public questions of history and culture.

But while it is true that the essential problems of art, even or perhaps above all in the most minute materiality of its practice, remain inextricable from the essential enigmas of our existence, we cannot ignore the fact that this is just because art speaks of things that do not permit being spoken of, so that a critical account that adverts too directly to a work's inner content can only damage what it would declare. Poetry would be preferable: I could, for instance, construct a cento from Paul Celan:

a / world is stirring / in the scratch-sheets your slit- / a'wake vein / untangles to hew out /

word shadows I root up the / petrified blessing

might suggest,, if only through their verbs, something of the activity of these works. But I want to stay closer to the details of Neustein's activity here, and most illuminating of all might be the artist's own stipulation that, given his folding over of the already multi-layered 8½-by-11-inch carbon paper sheets to create his basic 7-by-8½-inch format for this series, "the image is 'unhinged' from the material surface and circulates in unframed space, between parts of one pictorial plane or transferred between several pictorial planes." What this means is that we must be especially aware that the immediately visible image is not the entirety of the work, that the marks we see on the surface are not the sum total of the marks produced by the gestures of tearing, scratching, scoring, folding, and so forth which the artist has undertaken. If we were to hold one of these works in our hands, it would become dear that each of its layers carries its own message, its own inscription, its own map of the energies that have been deposited there. The ostensible surface is the mere indicator of these buried traces, of a latent content (to slip into a Freudian mode). The work we see is only a fragment of the work itself, and the work we see exists to reveal this.

Somehow, the complex nature of what these works eventually become is already dormant in the material from which Neustein has chosen to make them. For the most part, he adds nothing to the carbon paper he uses (there exist a few examples to which he has collaged a bit of photograph) and he never subtracts anything. For all the rending or "wounding" the sheet receives, it remains whole. The gesture is revelatory rather than additive, the mark is a mark of or in the surface rather than on it. Nor is this surface ever Mallarme's papier vide, being already imbued with the element that is the substrate of organic life and the stuff of ashes. In this way, Neustein keeps Celan's severest injunction: "But keep yes and no unsplit." This means: not a work of reconciliation but of stubborn memory. Carbon paper, let it be remembered, is an obsolescent technology for record-keeping, and what else can these mysterious markings be but the misplaced samizdat of a recording angel without employment in a world of digitalized information?

Catalogue essay, Albright Knox Gallery, New York 1991.