joshua neustein texts
Joshua Neustein
by Arturo Schwarz

Joshua Neustein is one of the very few artists I know who has expressed, forcefully and stirringly, the transcendental dimension of the anarchist's rejection of the authority principle as summed up in the proud motto "Neither God nor master" – a maxim which, in the final analysis, is simply a rewording of the injunction of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha: "Be thine own lamp". One might say that the fundamental drive that governs Neustein's endeavor is what he has termed "a strategy of subversion" (1995, 38) of the established way of thinking and perceiving. And Neustein specifies: "My art addresses ideological patronage, the contradiction and allure between the archivist and the anarchist, mass man and the charismatic individual" (loc.cit.).

Thus Kristine Stiles is perfectly correct when she observes that his art "for some thirty years has been, in large, measure, a meditation that questions the various authorities that control meanings. I could say he has mapped the objects and materials of authority into pictures of the territories of law and its functions" (Stiles 1995, 1). And she goes on to specify that "his art constructs visual parallels to relationships of authority, the contexts within which that authority is exercised, the boundaries demarcated by sovereignty and the objects, architecture and social positions that fix power and establish dominions of control" (idem, 2). Basically, what Neustein tries to define with every work is a problem of the identity of an expatriate and of an artist in general, torn between the conflicting demands of his ego and of society, and on the aesthetic plane of an autobiographical expression and one of a more universal dimension.

What also fascinates me in Neustein's oeuvre is that it brilliantly confirms the age-old idea that each artist's work, in any creative field – literature, music, visual or conceptual – is most of the time, although disguised, the artist's physical or spiritual self-portrait. But seldom has an artist's biography so tellingly shaped the very poetics (the logos) and the medium (the praxis) of his work.

Neustein's early mature works already reveal that his first problem was to invent a style that would be appropriate to transcend artistically an ethical imperative. Concerning the formal exigency he was first influenced by the slick painterliness of American figurative expressionism (Richard Diebenkorn and Larry Rivers in particular). For the ethical issues, the concerns of the Ofakim Hadashim (especially of Zaritsky and Arie Aroch) made a lasting impression on him. He thus confirmed to Pincus-Witten the "strong moral influence" exerted by these two artists "whose small pictures reveal private pictograms linked to the earthbound sources of Judaism" (Pincus-Witten 1977, 44).

Neustein was born in a crucial year, 1940, and in a most dramatic area: Danzig – the Polish city that was first invaded by the Germans and then occupied by the Russians. As a consequence, Neustein was displaced to Siberia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, where his father had been sent as a forced laborer. At the end of the war the family returned to Warsaw. But not for long. The climate of rabid anti-Semitism congenial to the Poles led the Neusteins to emigrate to Austria, and from its Eastern Zone to escape to the West; from there they went to Israel, and finally to New York in 1951, where his parents settled in Brooklyn. At the age of 24 Neustein decided to return to Israel, moving to Jerusalem. For seventeen years, while based in Israel, he also traveled frequently: to France – where he exhibited in Paris with Yvon Lambert in 1972, England and New York – here Bertha Urdgang launched his first American solo shows in 1974. Five years later, in 1979, he returned to the US, settling in New York, where he now lives and works.

Neustein's diasporic condition, rendered dramatic by his experience as a refugee, literally a "wandering Jew" from birth to late childhood, largely accounts for his having explored, so convincingly, the themes of displacement, belonging and safety, and for his obsession with maps and boundaries. A twin subject matter which, in one form or another, runs like a red thread through all the different stages of his work, and which has also conditioned his crossing of the lines between established techniques, moving with the greatest ease from one expressive medium to another, using, as the case might require, plain paper works as well as carbon-, tar- and sandpaper works, drawing, painting, sculpture, installations, performance, photography, video, environmental art and assemblage.

The fact that for so many years Neustein suffered the fate of a displaced person, with the entailing horizon of alienation and absence, could not fail to bear on his activity of the late Sixties and early Seventies when, as well discerned by McCormick, he "explored displacement and multiple perspectives, using photography as a conceptual medium to articulate the psychology of perception. Documenting bales of hay as forms newly transplanted or no longer there, Neustein began his unspoken conversation on absence and alienation. In another piece of that time he superimposed different photographic views looking towards and out of a window. Another photographic work recorded in succession a wall's surface, inner structure, absence (seeing through it) and its other side. Through these early works Neustein devised a structuralist equation of displacement and changing pictures of the same reality" (McCormick 1987, 12).

Paradigmatic, in this frame of mind, are not only his "map works" but also his 1975-78 performances such as "Border Piece" in which a dog was taken to urinate – to mark off its territory as opposed to the political boundaries – on the border of the Golan Heights; on the German-Danish border (at Kroza) and on the treaty line of Northern Ireland (Belfast). As observed by Klaus Ottman, political boundaries were being removed "and replaced with boundaries of a different order" (1987, 28). And McCormick remarked, in turn, "His focus on the borders of conflict is not to exploit them for creative fuel (as so much 'political art' is prone to do), but to exorcise the inherent frictions. His past performance and environmental art gestures along hostile borders acted cathartically as ritualistic releases of pent up frustrations. Neustein's persistent facade of inscrutability and deliberate rejection of political rhetoric envelopes his art with a shamanist intensity" (McCormick 1987, 13).

Another equally determining factor was the question of language. Neustein, as was the case for so many wandering Jews born in the dramatic years of the Forties, has never had a mother tongue at home: too many different homes and hence, at best, too many step-mother tongues! And all of them, as well noted by Robert Pincus-Witten, "poorly spoken, in accents and inflections differing from the way the natives speak; even in the first stable environment that Neustein knew, there was anxiety. In a fundamental way, the artist even as a child was forced to seriously focus on the language problem – what language do I speak? In which language do I think? Neustein imagines he spoke Polish until he was 7. He recalls a lapsus, an infantile breakdown when he took to bed and from which he arose only to speak English" (Pincus-Witten 1977, 43). This multilingual situation was sublimated by Neustein into his use, as already mentioned, of many different media and expressive techniques.

His biography has also largely determined his predilection for the light and ashes polarity, both used as essential components of many of his creations – and the chromatic range of his palette – limited as it is to the darkest black fading gradually into transparent grays and occasionally exploding into a blinding snow white. Thus, discussing with Douglas Shultz the origin of his carbon paper series, he recalled what led him to associate light and the ash-colored underground luminescence: "I remember, vaguely, living in basements as a child with my parents. 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. I remember the light filtering through iron gratings over deep sills. Long-stemmed rays ran across the floor, touched cement walls, vaults, buttresses. Subterranean light was another light, a powdered haze that blurred more than defined" (Schultz 1992, 11-12). Ashes are also associated, and now indelibly, with the Shoah even though Neustein denies such associations and hastens "to banish memory from the work of art" (in a conversation with the author).

The fact that Neustein studied for five years (1951-56) in a Yeshiva (that of Rabbi Yaacov Yosef, in Brooklyn) and then, for another five years (1957-61), attended the College of the City of New York, studying with the historian and humanist Hans Kohn, is certainly pertinent in the formation of his approach to his conceptual works, which all have an esoteric and ethical dimension that is well nigh absent from what is commonly termed "conceptual art", something with which Neustein's works should never be confused. To understand the motivations behind Neustein's palette and the reason for his repeated use of ashes in his work let us dwell, for a moment, on the symbolic significance of ashes and on the light-darkness dichotomy. As is the case for all archetypal symbols, ashes have an ambivalent value.

On the one hand ashes stand for the total extinction of life. Being the residues of what fire has consumed, they also point to the precariousness and vanity of human life. A connection which, according to the Torah, Abraham had already perceived when he associated dust and ashes with the unimportance of his own person (Genesis 18:27). But, on the other hand, being connected to the sun – through fire, their common origin – ashes also stand for the eternal return, the endless life-death cycle or, in a word, for eternal life. This value is emphasized by a further consideration: ashes are the undifferentiated state of any and of all things destroyed by fire; in turn this undistinguished state is characteristic of the pleroma, namely the chaotic tohu-va-vohu, which is the essential preliminary stage of creation.

In turn, black and white largely confirm the ashes' emblematic implications. Both these colors are equally associated with death and mourning as well as with life and its eternal renewal. Blackness and obscurity are the characteristics of the Western and Eastern Feminine principle. Its Chinese equivalent, the Yin, terrestrial, maternal and instinctive, is black. And so, very frequently, on account of their Chthonic origin, are the life-giving Great Mothers, the Earth-Mother Goddesses – like Diana of Ephesus – the Goddesses of love and fertility. In the Song of Songs the very personification of the Eternal Feminine is "dark but comely" (v. 5). And the same color is what in Hinduism corresponds to the Greek pleroma and the Hebrew tohu-va-vohu, or namely the Prakriti (the undifferentiated prima materia). And, just as naturally, the first stage of the alchemical process, the "germination in darkness", is termed Blackness (Nigredo). So archetypal is this symbolism that, for the Torah, the stage preceding the creation of light and life was that of a universal darkness, just as for Greek mythology the primordial personification of the universe, the God Chaos, generated Erebus (darkness), Nyx (night) and Gaia (earth).

In turn white, being black's polar opposite, is linked to it and therefore shares, its symbolism. It is the color of death – because of the pallor of the corpse – and that of the Horses of Death; but it also characterizes the Male vital principle – the Chinese Yang, for example. In the Jewish tradition and in its esoteric writings the white of mourning is messianic. It stands for an absence that is only temporary and is destined to be reclaimed; for the certainty of rebirth; for an initiatic step in the long process of awareness. Thus white is related to the Uranic solar awareness just as black is associated to the chthonic unconscious apprehension. Most telling, in the context of Neustein's oeuvre, is the fact that the marriage of black and white (the hierogamic union of the Female and Male principles) generates the gray color of the ashes which, in the chromatic sphere, is the value of the center and hence of the human being who has conquered the golden awareness (aurea apprehensio) and has thus become a fully individuated person.

Before examining to what extent the events – factual or emotional – of the artist's biography have had a bearing on the form and content of his oeuvre, and whether the symbolic implications outlined here are also reflected in his single works, it should be noted that a servile correspondence is not to be expected, because in that case the work would be merely didactic and illustrative, while with Neustein, it is always inspired and poetic. As well noted by Carlo McCormick, "Neustein is too sly and enigmatic a performer to give up art's sense of mystery for the sake of supplying answers" (1987, 7).

On the other hand, I believe that Neustein is well aware of the danger of giving free rein to one's own emotions, if one wishes the work to have an objective and hence universal significance. Indeed, he has explained, in the course of a conversation with Douglas Shultz, that his personal associations do not threaten the autonomy of his works, "they emerge from an experience but are not representing or describing that experience" (Schultz 1992, 12, the italics are Neustein's). While, on the other hand, he also acknowledges that his carbon drawings were indeed based on his childhood memories (loc. cit.). Neustein also clarified that in transmuting a feeling into a work of art a critical sublimation of the immediate emotional event has to take place. In his words, "A work of art presents an image but it also registers dissatisfaction with the way things are. The 'game' is to transpose immediate poisons into cultural cuisine – art currency – to make an instrument out of allure" (idem).

Answering a question concerning what Shultz called "heroic art", Neustein insisted again upon the necessity – if the work of art is to be meaningful indeed – for the artist to assume a critical approach to both form and content. In other words, an artist must have the courage to reject what Duchamp had already defined as having a mere "retinal" appeal, claiming that the artwork must rather delight the mind. Neustein, inspired by this injunction and firmly believing that "seeing is not knowing" (Ofrat 1995, 98), specified in turn: "I dislike heroic artists, not heroic art. Artists who deny the spirit of inquiry, deny the right to ask questions, cling to habits of feeling, they are afraid to break the thrall of art's spell. Modern art internalizes the critique, absorbs it into its creative process" (idem, 13).

There exists a subtle underlying correspondence between Duchamp and Neustein that stems from their both having led a life as expatriates, the French artist settling in New York, but not severing his ties with France; the Israeli staying also in New York, but still deeply involved with Israel. In the work of both artists we can sense a strong element of ideological nomadism, which manifests itself by shifting, as already noted above, quite naturally from one expressive form to another. At the same time, and notwithstanding an extremely great variety of formal results, in both artists the same theme adamantly persists.

Duchamp never imposed his views on the viewer. On the contrary, he stated that "it is the viewers who make the painting" (Schuster 1957, 143). Katherine Stiles, discussing Neustein's libertarian drive, similarly points out that, in Neustein's mind, "it is the viewer who must finally determine meaning, must finally assume authority of the image of the artist and the words of the writer. For if the work of art is to have a continual life in the world, it must inform sight, and by so doing, alter mind. Only by affecting subtle transformations in the mind's eye of the viewer can the seeds of artistic creation be passed on in perpetuity" (Stiles 1995, 2). And McCormick, in turn, observes, "Neustein's manner of perception fixes its sights on emotionally and intellectually loaded points of converging perspective without ever stating his own point of view" (1987, 7). In fact, and here again Neustein concords with the role assigned by Duchamp to the viewer, "The emphasis is not on what to see but on ways of seeing" (loc. cit.).

Finally, and most importantly, the nomadic element in both artists surfaces in the same esoteric way. McCormick has well perceived that Neustein's "art is not about, nor does it reside in, one particular place. It exists rather in the spaces between places, as a kinetic geography of transience" (loc. cit.).

This immaterial, utopian location is precisely the topos of Duchamp's saga of the Bride and the Bachelor who, additionally, celebrate their marriage in the "infra-thin" dimension (Neustein's spaces between places) which, according to Duchamp himself, is something "which escapes our scientific definitions. I chose on purpose the word thin which is a word with human, affective connotations, and is not an exact laboratory measure. The sound or the music which corduroy trousers make when one moves, is pertinent to the infra-thin. The hollow in the paper, between the front and back of a thin sheet of paper" (1947, 46-47). And so "un-located" (u-topos, i.e. utopic) is Neustein's "spaces between places" (I am tempted to write "place of the initiatic rite of passage") that, in his maps, "there remains a haunting absence of detail throughout this metaphorical land. It is a poetics of passage, but one that has forgotten all specificity and speaks only to our collective experience" (McCormick 1987, 13).

How important to Neustein are his map works is also revealed by a letter he wrote to me on October 16, 1994, in which he pithily expresses what it has taken me pages to elucidate: "I am deeply committed to the Maps, which I consider my natural landscape, the nomad's horizon, the Jewish perspective. The beauty of the art lies in the detail, the message in the generality". In a film about him, he further commented: "I love maps even without theoretical principles. I love MAPS for their own sakes schematic colors and repeated shapes ebb-tide shapes. Maps are another order of image, between diagram & representation. They are shared mass space with acoustical contours. Maps are more significant than meadows and forests. Maps understand languages and political tensions. The ocher cross thatch lines that indicate occupation... are givens imposed by geography more akin to dialect. I love MAPS not travel. I don't like travel anymore. I traveled enough with my parents. We covered the length & breadth of Europe and Asia. We crossed a lot of borders and let go of a lot of countries. Only the map remained with us. I was fascinated at border crossings a certain confusion among the people a slight panic. I wanted to stand on the border. Exactly on top of the purple border line in the map. I wanted to track the dotted line or the red road system, and when road systems proliferate and criss cross as they approach some metropolitan area there is that intoxication, the quickening. Then there are the old fashioned elements that some maps still retain, the railway system with the zipper line or 'some points of interest' marked by asterix. I recall as a child during thewar. Do I recall it? Do I image it? The bubbles along a road system that marked Warsaw Bialistock, Minsk Moghilev, Vitebsk Smolesk, suddenly Moscow, then the Asian expanse – Gorkij, crossing the Volga to Kuijbisev the Urals. The steam of locomotives and the railway yards, acres of steel rails, resonance of the Russian songs the sound of cantors bleating mournfully. In maps I sense responsibility. The valley, the town, the stream have no meaning, they are terra incognita. And the physical aspects change, only the maps have certainty. Names of places conjure myths, send shivers up my spine and I hear the changes of Hasidim, of monks, of army choirs. Maps construct their own history. Into each place I arrive I bring my own history that I impose upon the new place. The distance from Broadway at Columbia University to my studio is the same distance as from Abu Tor where I lived to Romema where Bezalel Art School studios were. A walk of three-quarters of an hour. Was it the same distance? What does that mean? Lands understand borders, languages and political conditions. Forests and meadows have no understanding of these histories, of these grammars. What knowledge does the meadow have? Knowledge of a few cows, a few lovers? A few bugs and hugs, a few chickens – but a straw, the straw is a map, a formulated land. The straw has known pain, another season another reason. The straw has known cutting blades, it has winter knowledge not only spring promise".

Quite recently Neustein sent me a memo to clarify the circumstances that led him to dedicate himself to maps: "I turned to MAPS when the Sinai had to be returned, when it had to be psychologically disowned as living space. It felt like an amputation. I painted the Sinai again and again in an ever-receding territorial denial. It was not so much the loss of a physical limb as a grammatical trauma, a dyslexia of language. I had embraced a tyranny, an assailable appetite. I paint MAPS because they are a diagram representation, they are a shared mass space, they draw resonance for neurotic political fantasy, deterritorialized territory. MAPS are displaced landscape allowing the spectator multiple perspectives to see a different whole (Neustein 1999, 2).

Bertha Urdgang appropriately recognized in Neustein's maps "a measure of the individual's relationship to the world. As the quintessential ontology, the maps are typography turned into texture, turned back into typography" (Urdgang 1986, n.p.). In short, Neustein's maps are "a system of notation for the physical world as well as a receptacle for narratives of human drama" (idem). This accounts for their inducing the same kind of emotional response that poetry can provoke. A fact which led Zalmona to point out that "the code which activates them is poetic rather than scientific" (Zalmona 1983, n.p.). In this context, Jaromir Zedlinski also remarked that these maps "seem to be charting out a geography of the heart, since many of them have at their center the city of Danzig, Neustein's birthplace, and the point from which he set out to become a 'refugee from the world' as he puts it" (Zedlinski 1997, 13). While Neustein explains that he turned to maps when the Sinai had to be returned, the emotional stimulus can be traced back to the mid-Seventies when his "Border Piece" performances (1975-78) as well as works like Territorial Imperative (1976), Sculpture for a Moving Border reveal his preoccupation with the shifting character of borders and the transient territorial reality of states. Two of the most characteristic works in this area are True North (1989-91) and The Fist of the Red Sea (1992, both in the Israel Museum collection). True North is made up of four elements. Two canvases each 244 x 183 cm. The hand-drawn maps are of the Middle East up to the Horn of Africa. One canvas is drawn with gold oil paint while the other is painted with black and white acrylic. The lower map faces north and the upper map faces south (i.e. it is upside down for the European orientation). Between the two maps is a mechanical device that creates the gravitational center. In fact both maps' heads are towards that center. Inside the mechanical structure are inductive circuits, measurements and orientation devices, like Jacob's clock, a magnetic recording of a Mezzuzza and gravity coils. The artifactual map creates its own history. The elements Neustein uses in other works involve inducing magnetism by means of powder. The ash maps as well as the rust maps are susceptible to the same magnetic forces. Maps conduct their own history of impulses and their own orientation.

The Fist of the Red Sea is a rust map, approximately 150 x 130 cm. Etched into the steel is the shape of the Red Sea from Bab el Mandeb, crossing the Rift Valley in the Horn of Africa, moving diagonally across the surface, splitting into two Gulfs. The etched map of Israel, Lebanon and Jordan implies an outstretched arm and fist or some other aggressive body part. The rest of the terra incognita is a rusted surface that continuously encroaches on the "known" or mapped view. Neustein's maps stir the political and erotic imagination. Neustein told me "the figural gesture of charted areas entwines with the law of nature which is 'rust never sleeps'. The relationships are never symmetrical. The subsurface geology and the battling societies create a doctrine of chances. The politics are equivalent to magnetic directions, instrumental vectors. In a single predicate they act on multiple actions".

When I first had the opportunity to meditate, seeing the actual paintings for the first time, on Max Ernst's Fireside Angel and Picasso's Guernica, both painted in 1937, I believed that few works in the future would ever be able to evoke so poignantly and powerfully the tragedy that has transformed the country of Goethe, Heine and Kant into a land of hate, murder and ignorance, and a peaceful small Spanish town into the abode of death and despair. Nobody, I thought, would have been able to again conjure up the drama of a century that will be known as the Moloch Century for having exacted such a frightful human toll. I am weighing the relevance of my words when I say that with How History Became Geography (1990) (in the Israel Museum collection) Neustein has brilliantly emulated his predecessors in transmuting an appalling catastrophe into a work of art of the highest ethical and aesthetic significance.

There is, however, a substantial difference between the two paintings of the Thirties and Neustein's installation. While the former are figuratively direct, fringing nearly on rhetoric, Neustein's image is subtler and hence highly moving. The splinters of glass that are an essential element in the work cannot help but remind us of the Kristal Nacht when it all began, and the contrast of the beautiful baroque chandelier illuminating the reign of death and desolation could not be more striking. But let us describe this momentous memorial.

On a low (dwarf-legged) large metal table (25 x 230 x 230 cm), Neustein placed a hand-painted map (200 x 180 cm) of the "Old World": Europe, the Mediterranean countries, the Middle East and Western Asia. On the map are stacked, in vertical order, pieces of cut glass, the height of each stack being directly proportional to the amount of violence perpetrated in the area it covers. A heart-rending topography of human ferocity is thus created. Above the map, and in sharp contrast with its subdued reality, hangs, almost touching it, an exquisite baroque chandelier.

In How History Became Geography the aesthetic achievement is the outcome of the well-known Surrealist dictum that recommends drawing together two distant realities in a relationship which only Neustein's poetic sensibility has grasped. Both Pierre Reverdy and André Breton observed that the farther apart are the two realities brought together, the more brilliant will be the spark obtained. The metaphorical dimensions of the two main elements of Neustein's installation enhance still more the gap as well as the relationship which separates and unites the map and the chandelier. For what is more in opposition than darkness (the "Old World" obscured by the shards of glass) and light (emanating from the chandelier)? At the same time, light and darkness are as inseparable and complementary as night and day.

The same principle is at work in Neustein's installation Domestic Tranquillity, which stages a carpet of ashes and, again, a chandelier. The latter, in Arthur Danto's words, is "a fixture as elaborate and intricate as a jewel – a fountain of luminous glory" (Danto 1999,1). And Danto has also recognized that the aesthetic relevance of this piece is derived from the contrast between the ashes over which shines a "chandelier, exemplifying brilliance [which] declares the brilliance of the event over which it shines: the ball, the reception, the concert, the wedding, the banquet" (idem). Danto thus recalls, in harmony with Reverdy's and Breton's formula that while "light and ashes are powerful symbols in their own right, [their] conjunction [is] even more so [since there is] a symbolic incongruity between the chandelier and the ashfield just beneath it" (idem).

A further optical detail enhances the conjunction of the two protagonists of this installation, since the map is also endlessly united and reproduced in each of the chandelier's prisms. In a letter to me Neustein sees these reflections as "the neurological replications that show this and not that and define the ownership and assessments which people call normative views, knowledge and science. The problem here is what we call a complete view... How History Became Geography addresses with a present tense a layered consciousness" (letter dated September 2, 1999).

Perhaps we can detect in the series of Neustein's works involving light and darkness a reflection of the age-old ambition of the human being – that of reconstructing the union of his split personality. Thus achieving the status of the mythical homo major, enriched and completed by both elements of the sexual polarity, the feminine Chthonic darkness and the male Uranic light.

Arturo Shwarz, Milanese scholar of Alchemy, poet, collector, Historian of Dada Art and Marcel Duchamp