Critical Essays and Books
Shalom Neuman is an unprecedented phenomenon, the creator of “Fusion Art,” a “multidisciplinary” enterprise having its roots in “assemblage, constructivism, expressionism, surrealism and new technology,” to use his own words. Neuman is multi-talented, a brilliant draughtsman, as the existentially morbid drawings of belle catastrophe (1997) indicate, as well as a performance impresario, as the extravagantly complex installations Fusion Caskets (1984; in 2007 re-presented as Art Alchemy) and Epiphanies (2007) - mixtures of imagery, texts, light, sound, furniture, all in confusing excess (yet uncannily integrated) - demonstrate. He is also a virtuoso painter, equally at home with gesturally forceful - even brazen and grating - and subtly refined, peculiarly soothing surface. Neuman ranges between the extremes with ease and confidence, climactically in his Wall Of Cultural Confusion (2006). What looks chaotic is subliminally cohesive; what seems like a random display of signs and symbols, drawn from all quarters of culture, emotionally harmonizes.
However covertly, Neuman continues to be, for all his modernism, the traditionalist who painted Classical Myth, 1969 - a triptych in which the table and potted plant in the central panel extend into the environment, at once continuing and undermining the spatial illusion by reason of their material literalness. A traditional picture and a modern device are reconciled: art is reconciled with the environment by way of the found object. The table and potted plant bridge the simulated space of the picture and the actual space of the environment, leading the viewer into the picture, so that he becomes a participant observer, while announcing the picture’s dependence on her perspective. Thus picture and viewer, illusion and reality, become integral and inseparable: the establishment of consonance between work and viewer is the core of mimesis, and by making consonance out of dissonance - transforming discord into accord, fusing discrepant avant-garde styles, reconciling methods of art making that have historically been at odds - Fusion Art gives ironic new meaning to “mimesis.”
The use of found objects, the representation of alienated couples in a domestic space, the sort of moody atmospherics, recur in Bridge Over Troubled Waters, 1987. The sense of manic absurdity of the installations, reaches a climax in Neuman’s two robotic golem, masterpieces of invention, indeed, installations in themselves, total works of concentrated art, ingenious fusions of sculpture, painting, and technology in operatically larger than life figures. A male and female couple - a modernized version of those in Classical Myth - they are at once performers in a drama of alienation and sexuality, and a fusion of contradictory materials and means: organically resonant machines that remind one of J. K. Huysmans’s remark that “the only thing of beauty produced in the modern age is the machine” - of nightmarish beauty, as Neuman tellingly suggests. If the found object is already a performance piece, and becomes “art” by reason of its symbolic use, however unconscious, then Neuman’s gigantic figures, grotesque composites of found images from popular culture (often at its gamiest) and found objects (the discarded excess of consumer culture), are masterpieces of allegorical performance. And pornographic performance: if death is the truly pornographic, obscene, forbidden, unthinkable theme in our society, as sociologists have suggested -psychoanalysts have suggested that pornographic sex is the enactment of sexuality by sexless robots (however nominally gendered), that is, figures who are as artificial and mechanical as the sexual acts they perform - then Neuman’s golems reek of death, for their bodies are made of the dead organs of mass consumer, mass technological society. Sexuality is clearly another mass-produced consumer product, as mass-produced pornography indicates. Neuman has mastered and used to artistic advantage the pornography of death that insidiously pervades mass culture and technological society. He also uses it to emphasize the all too human vulnerability of human beings: his sardonic playfulness - perhaps most evident in his Amerika series (2007) - masks his awareness of human tragedy, perhaps most evident in the bizarrely distorted figures of his Death Row series (1996-2005).
Who would have thought that a grand synthesis of avant-garde methods would be made on New York’s Lower East Side? Who would have thought that Neuman’s performance installations would be neighborhood events? Who would have thought that anti-human avant-garde art - as José Ortega y Gasset famously said, its dehumanization of art reflects the inhumanity and destructiveness that are the not so hidden regressive underside of modern technologically progressive society--could become a communal art? But why not? With the advent of World War II, which turned out to be the most anti-human man-made catastrophe Europe had ever experienced, European artists of every avant-garde persuasion - Europe was the birthplace of avant-gardism in all its variations - emigrated to New York, where they established a new beachhead of avant-gardism and influenced a new generation of American artists. Neuman, whose Czech parents were Holocaust survivors - they experienced the destructiveness of World War II firsthand--emigrating first to Israel in 1948, a year after Neuman was born, and then to New York in 1959. He too was a victim, if at one generation remove, of European destructiveness, of Europe’s self-immolation and mortification, and he, too, was in effect one of those artists. Many of them were Jewish, and lived and worked on the Lower East Side, which has a tradition of becoming home to immigrants, and victims of social atrocities. Neuman happened to arrive in New York when Abstract Expressionism - the New York School that replaced the School of Paris, that made New York the avant-garde capital, replacing Paris - was reaching its climax and peaking in redundancy. Its influence was waning; the moment was ripe for change. Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, Earth Art, Installation Art, Happenings, Protest Art all emerged in the sixties, all provocatively challenging the dominance of Abstract Expressionism. And, more crucially, the boundaries of art, that is, the “blurring [of] the boundaries between art and life” (Allan Kaprow’s idea) that began with the Duchampian found object: an everyday object ambiguously regarded as readymade art, that belonged to the lifeworld and artworld simultaneously and thus belonged to neither completely. It formed a bridge between them--like Neuman’s table and potted plant—but it implied alienation from both. The found object existed in the limbo of non-identity between them. The sixties return to an originary aspect of avant-gardism was a kind of reductio ad absurdum suggesting the exhaustion of avant-garde resourcefulness and innovation: the decadence of avant-gardism.
What makes Neuman’s Fusion Art special and distinctive is that it uses the ruins of avant-gardism - the fragments of avant-garde identity reductively reified in the sixties movements - to build an avant-garde Gesammtkunstwerk, thus realizing the old avant-garde dream of ironically integrating art and life, given naïve birth in Duchamp’s readymades (note Neuman’s use of what I take to be a Duchampian bicycle wheel in the male golem). Simultaneously, Fusion Art realizes the avant-garde dream of synthesizing all the avant-garde “styles” in an “ultra-avant-garde” artistic unity. Fusion art gives these dreams urgent fantasy form. In the sixties avant-garde art retreated to its origins in the hope of renewing itself, but the regression ended up demonstrating the loss of innovative power that comes with the loss of creative fantasy. Avant-garde art needed Neuman’s visionary intelligence to reconcile the contradictory movements in which it had dissipated its creative power, and thus regain its vigor and momentum.
In short, much as Christian churches were often built of the stones of ruined pagan temples, so Neuman builds his “Post-Minimalist Maximalism” (Robert Pincus-Witten’s term) out of the stones of dead-ended avant-garde styles. Neuman’s Fusion Art rescues avant-gardism from a fate worse than death however close to death it is: reification by reductionism, a sort of reductio ad absurdum of what Braque in 1917 called “limitation.” But limitation no longer “engenders new form, and gives impulse to creation.” By the end of the sixties limitation meant loss of creativity. Limitation - climactically evident in Minimalism - had become the instrument of art’s suicidal atrophy. Neuman’s refusal of limitation - the sense of unlimited abundance in Fusion Art - rescues avant-gardism from the pseudo-preciousness of limited (inhibited?) works of art, works with limited public appeal.
But, as I have suggested, Neuman’s Fusion Art is rooted in avant-gardism, as its compounding of avant-garde styles for maximal effect - indeed, cognitively as well as sensorily overwhelming effect--indicates. I want to suggest that Futurism is the avant-garde ancestor of Neuman’s Fusion Art, giving avant-gardism a new lease on life and so a new future - if in the form of a “survivor avant-gardism.” At the same time, Fusion Art is the ironical antithesis of Futurism, for Fusion Art signals the bankruptcy of modernity, that is, disillusionment with the dream of the modern future and technology in which Futurism believed. The disillusionment implicit in Neuman’s grandest illusions - the golem figures - is inseparable from the social trauma of the Holocaust, the climax of modern barbarism, which involves the debasing of technology by putting it to inhuman use, indeed, treating Jews like malfunctioning machines (and thus imperfectly modern, as their traditional beliefs indicate) and thus trashing them. I am suggesting that the social trash out of which Neuman makes his golems bespeaks the technological madness that is the Holocaust and modernity.
I am suggesting that Neuman’s golems are subhuman, as the Nazis thought the Jews were, even as they are superhuman, as the golem is in Jewish myth. The term “golem” appears in Psalm 139:16, and is described in the Talmud as “an embryonic or incomplete substance.” “Wise men…were able to bring effigies to life by means of a charm or of a combination of letters forming a sacred word or one of the names of God. The letters, written on paper, were placed in the golem’s mouth or affixed to its head. Its removal deanimated the golem.” The wise man was in effect an artist, able to give life to a robot. Indeed, the golem was initially regarded as “a perfect servant, his only fault being a too literal or mechanical fulfillment of his master’s wishes. In the 16th century the golem acquired the character of a protector of the Jews in time of prosecution but also had a frightening aspect.” I am suggesting that Neuman’s golems are what Freud called a dream condensation: the subhuman Jews envisaged by the Nazis, the superhuman (God-identified and thus all-powerful) protector and servant of the Jews, and, no doubt more speculatively, his parents who survived and emerged from the wasteland of the Holocaust (just as his golems survived and emerged from the wasteland of the garbage dump). The trauma of the Holocaust informs Neuman’s golems - a trauma that still lives in the children of Holocaust survivors, as the enormous psychological literature on both tells us.
Broadly speaking, Futurism signals the full-blown arrival of the new technological future envisaged by instrumental reason, while Fusion Art signals the irrationality of instrumental reason, implying that technology is a Potemkin façade of modern armor on vulnerable and self-destructive humanity. The modern machine turns out to be a human fraud, for it embodies the alienated artificial character of modern society, like Neuman’s golems - Frankensteins made of dead and discarded machine parts (including parts of the machine of what T. W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer famously called the culture industry), a mechanical monster that seems alive but is existentially dead, a mindless machine however animated. Neuman shows what Huysmans’s beautiful machine has come to; industrialism is no longer fresh and new and seemingly limitless in its potential for human good, as it seemed to be in the 19th century when Huysmans wrote, but has become decadent, a soul murderer as well as mass murderer. Dare one say Neuman’s mass society robot is what the so-called “New Man” that the Constructivist and Russian Revolutions called for—they also came up with the idea of the “artist-engineer,” that is, the artist who will help engineer the revolutionary new society - has come to? (It is worth noting that the term “robot” was invented in 1927 by Karl Capek, a Czech like Neuman. It was first used in Capek’s play R.U.R, that is, Rossum’s Universal Robots. One might say that Neuman’s universal robots are an ironical post-modern update of them.)
This brings to me what I regard as the aspect of Futurism most relevant for an understanding of the historical place and importance of Neuman’s Fusion Art: both Futurism and Fusion Art are aggressively theatrical. Indeed, Fusion Art carries to an extreme what F. T. Marinetti in a 1913 Futurist manifesto called “the variety theater” - carries to an extreme what he called in a 1914 manifesto “dynamic and synoptic declamation.” Neuman’s Fusion Art sprawls and declaims in space - performs in installations - but I find it most magnetic and intense when its theatricality is intricately condensed in one microcosmic theater work. The general Fusion idea is to extend what the Futurists called parole in libertá into theatrical visual form that was as much an unconscious fantasy as a critical commentary on collective consciousness. “Everything of any value is theatrical,” as Marinetti, Emilio Settimelli, and Bruno Corra wrote in “The Futurist Synthetic Theater” (1915), and Neuman’s Fusion Art is very grand theater, a neo-experimental synthesis of the profane and sacred, more pointedly and uncannily, the socially gruesome and the unconscious sublime. Fusion Art is what the Futurists called mechanical sensuality and sensual mechanics, which, as the Futurist Mario Dessi said, is the modern madness.
DONALD KUSPIT is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. Winner of the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association, he is a Contributing Editor to Artforum, Sculpture, New Art Examiner, and Tema Celeste magazines, as well as Editor of Art Criticism. Professor of Art History and Philosophy at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, he also holds honorary degrees from Davidson College, the San Francisco Institute of Arts, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and he has been the A.D. White
Professor-at-Large at Cornell University. Dr. Kuspit has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He is the author and editor of hundreds of articles and books, most recently The rebirth of Painting in the Late 20th Century and Psychostrategies of Avant-Garde Art. © Cambridge University Press
Donald Kuspit's essay for the book SHALOM NEUMAN - 40 Years of Fusion Art