Joshua Neustein: Control freak

Joshua Neustein (b. 1940), who showed his first deconstructed painting, Shear Stress, at Mary Boone Gallery in 1978, is having his first NYC solo in twenty years at Untitled this month. Claiming “control” as the primary issue, Neustein has carefully arranged painted plastic tarps, raw canvas, stretchers, furniture and other objects around the space. According to the press release, the exhibition is about the “impossibility of control, and the humiliation inherent in uncontrollability.” Unfortunately, many of the objects are so formally handsome and painstakingly arranged that control seems entirely possible, if not the only possible outcome. The visceral has gotten lost in the details.

Joshua Neustein, installation view. The red and black painting on the right is Sheer Stress from 1978.

Joshua Neustein: Boss,” Untitled, LES, New York, NY. Through December 16, 2012. All images courtesy of the gallery.

Related posts:
The New Casualists
Reader response to “Abstract Painting: The New Casualists”


Subscribe to Two Coats of Paint by email.


  1. I agree heartily with your last two sentences. The question would then seem to be based around ideas of active creator vs. casual editor as artist.

  2. A distinction concerning the concept of 'control' comes to mind.

    There is a measure of control represented by the work – 'represented' as in Art – and then there is a measure of control manifested in the work or by the work: the former is a matter of representation that goes to the practices of modern painting, the latter is the residue of treatment by the artist, and a clue, possibly, as to his own person.

    At the height of Modernism in art, the fate of painting was not written in stone, and Neustein and others were experimenting with the work (and the work-ethics) possible beyond the painted surface and its obvious limitation by frame, architecture, and the presence of man. One of the traits of this endeavor was the autonomy of the artwork, it being confined to a certain space, area, or frame, with a clear distinction between the space of the work and the space beyond it – the space in which author and viewer dwelled.

    Neustein's work, to this day, is a superb example of this tradition, and it is within this tradition of art-making that the painterly surface was being extended and redefined time and again, until the historical reversal, that we know as post-modern art occurred. To view Neustein's work then and now as product typical of a post-modern perspective, would be a grave mistake, since the control practiced here is still part of the culturally and historically self-imposed autonomy of the artwork – a sense of control that has to do with the craft of art-making at a time when the modern art-object itself had almost ceased to exist as such – it is the sense of control associated with the disciplines of abstraction and conceptualization that were the more interesting part of ambitious art in the seventies.

    There is of course a sense of control resulting from the artist's need to have his work speak as clearly as possible (and to be heard), but any trace of such potentially disruptive or redundant self-awareness is counter-balanced in Neustein's work by the sheer exhuberance (fertility)of the few painted surfaces in the show – evoking a sense of freedom and spirit I have last encountered looking at a Courbet landscape in a Den-Haag Museum many years ago.

    Let us cherish the few good things still around, and be careful not to confuse the humility expressed in Neustein's work with weakness or poor judgment, and by the same token, let us understand how controlling the work and the procedures producing it, might be the last thing on the artist's mind (as long as such procedures do not become the subject matter of the work). It is the primarily Modernist spirit of the work that produces a sense of control that seems to contravene our postmodern sensibilities – sensibilities that could also be described (and have been, by Habermas) as necessary extensions of Modernism.

    And in this last sense – of the work being an example of an 'extended' modernist practice – we could agree perhaps that the work establishes its own Mannerist genre (just as Michaelangelo's work in his time), where the once exposed wood of 'real' stretcher frames,as used in the context of 'beyond the frame' experimentation by conceptual artists of the 70's (including Neustein) has been replaced with finely worked (polished) planks of wood. It is a strategic move akin perhaps to the hyper-realized element of two canvases attached within one work, we all experienced when viewing Peter Halle's work at International with Monument for the first time (as a mention – a hyperrealized one at that – of David Salle's use of the same element).

    To be able to look back at the greatness of ambitious art of the seventies, through the eyes of a mature artist such as Neustein, who testifies from the powerful place of his own history and procedures of art-making, while exerting a humility and clarity worthy of humble beginnings, is a privilege.

    Elija Gross

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *