Retrospective

From the Archives: A Fictional Writer Profiles a Fictional Artist, in 1969

The spread of photographs that accompanied “Neuestern’s Ultimate Non-Act,” by Kiki Kundry, in the September 1969 issue of ARTnews. Click to enlarge.

ARTNEWS

In his great new book The Jean Freeman Gallery Does Not Exist, Christopher Howard tells the remarkable story of a New York gallery that was the fictional creation in the early 1970s of an artist named Terry Fugate-Wilcox. As Howard notes, that was by no means the only fictional funny business going on in the art world at the time. In the September 1969 issue of ARTnews, alongside articles on Bill Bollinger and Barry Le Va, a breathless profile appeared for another promising artist, Oscar Neuestern—a “brooding young” figure who was living in SoHo and “exploring the difficult territory of the non-act.” Though Neuestern’s gnomic work, which was not pictured, seems to have been au courant, the artist was not real—nor was the author of the piece, one Kiki Kundry, who was identified as a 22-year-old artist, critic, and professor at Princeton University.

The actual author of the article remains cloaked in mystery, but after asking around, Howard identified artist John Baldessari and critics Dave Hickey and Thomas B. Hess as suspects. What is clear is that the article riffed on a February 1969 ARTnews piece by Anthony Robbin on the fast-rising Robert Smithson. Playfully poking Smithson’s notion of the non-site, “the dark Neuestern” is said to have had show at a “non-gallery” in Salt Lake City created by Stella Danaro, a Kansas City–based dealer. Danaro, for her part, seems to be a loose caricature of the pioneering dealer Virginia Dwan, who helped fund a number of major works of Land Art. Kundry writes of the “historic encounter” between artist and dealer: “Neuestern hinted darkly that he might be willing to encounter the void, and Miss Danaro, with her intuitive grasp, encouraged him.”

Even 49 years after it was published, the article reads as a bracingly contemporary and sharp-edged satire of Conceptual art, art criticism, and the art industry’s relentless hunger for new talent. It follows in full below, complete with Kundry’s exhaustive footnotes. —Andrew Russeth

“Neuestern’s Ultimate Non-Act”
By Kiki Kundry
September 1969

Among the many younger artists who work with the environment itself, Neuestern is unique in exploring the difficult territory of the non-act; his findings are on show this month at Danaro’s, Salt Lake City

Don Quixote is a type; but of what is he a type, save for all Don Quixotes?

—Old 57th-Street Proverb

The author interviewed Oscar Neuestern at his New York Prince Street loft:

Kundry: The decision not to use photographs is puzzling. Can you explain it?

Neuestern: Symmetry. Transparency.

Kundry: In other words . . . .

Neuestern: There are none.

I first met the brooding young Neuestern at his Prince Street loft in July, 1968, when he outlined—although in most general terms—his idea for the exhibition at the Stella Danaro Gallery.

The background went like this: In July, 1967, during one of her frequent talent hunts to New Yorkar1, Miss Danaro sensed a subtle shifting away from Minimal modes, but the most important Mineral compilations were as yet unborn. Some artists seemed momentarily bogged down in serial boxes and others were uncomfortably reacting to the apparent commercialization of light forms as adapted in slick miniatures in Bloomingdale’s lamp department. There was activity and movement, but, as Hilton Kramer put it, “For the moment, the art world is prestigious, albeit static.” So much was obvious, even to the Times.

The historic encounter between Miss Danaro and young Neuestern (a rebellious 19 at the time) took place during that visit. Neuestern hinted darkly that he might be willing to encounter the void, and Miss Danaro, with her intuitive grasp, encouraged him.

It was her support, both financial and spiritual, that enabled the young formalist-idealist to bring his work to fruition.

Neuestern: It was essential to preserve the ethical entropy. Miss Danaro understood this completely from the start, and co-operated by opening the non-gallery in Salt Lake City.

Kundry: Why Salt Lake City?

Neuestern: I liked the name. It seemed to have both mineral and sexual overtones, and the deeper the cognitive aspect of art, the greater is the need for sensual balance in the ideational plane.

Kundry: Is that why the reviewer in Art in America was knocked out by what he described as “the near pornographic and thoroughly voluptarian aspect” of the exhibition? Did that make you uptight?

Neuestern: Hardly. I agree with that appraisal. As I told my class at the New School, we experimented with the idea of having seminal odors in the gallery, but the machinery would have had to have been developed by the L.I.U. School of Art-Engineering—they have the know-how—and anyway, it was getting away from essentials.

Kundry: And would have placed it in the mode of the older Happening form anyway?

Neuestern: Exactly.

During the remainder of 1967, Miss Danaro was occupied by her share of the preparatory work. Her frequent trips from her home in Kansas City (Mo.) for conferences with Post Office authorities in Salt Lake City will be outlined in her forthcoming book, We, the Artist; suffice it to say, her investment in time and money is probably not repayable, given the nature of the art form.2

The non-gallery in Salt Lake City received quasi-official status when postal authorities agreed that any mail addressed to the non-address as the result of publicity and invitations would be forwarded to the Stella Danaro Gallery in Kansas City, much as if she had moved from Salt Lake City to Kansas City, reversing the actual order, and thereby creating another of the formal, ideational balanced contradictions inherent in most of Neuestern’s work. When I asked him if he had anticipated this esthetic bonus, the dark Neuestern reluctantly permitted me a brief glance at The Plan. There, to the best of my memory, on page 91, under what appeared to be Order IV, Reversing Modes, Part 3, Equidistant Antipodal Elements, Section 1, Geography as a Function of Unbroken Lineality, Paragraph 2, Formulas, the following equation appeared:

 

 

 

True to his vision, Neuestern naturally has declined permission to reproduce his finely-typed, delicately balanced formula as it appears in the original. Since then, I have been privileged to extend my friendship with the artist through an exchange of letters. (This is being written at Oxford, England.) Only viewers brought up on the sticky relationship demanded by the old art, exemplified in the visceral and, if I may say so, cloying and unhealthy requirements of Abstract-Expressionism, and, to a lesser extent, what now seems to be a mere extension of that outmoded European presentational system, Pop Art, and, certainly, Op Art, will debate the merit of the new art. If Abstract-Expressionism was the nimbus of a successful nymphomaniacal French street-walker in bed with her 30th john for the evening, Pop Art was the still-life of her breakfast dishes the next morning, and Op saw her dressed for church. The Minimalists felt the need to excise the festering aura of Europeanism, but managed only to amputate at the waist. It is the genius of Neuestern to have beheaded the diseased patient, but in this case, true to the law of synaptical reciprocity, as outlined by the young German genius, Mark Dix,3 it is more accurately to be described as a bebodying. What remained—the essential, the ultimate Americanism, our irreducible nationalistic parametric system of thought—was miraculously found to have as much life as the entire body had possessed. Not the blood heart lungs liver testicles womb hate love fear strive life, but the pure, reasoned, even holy fact of life away from life, conceptual life, God’s dream before the chaos before the creation. If the chaos was a necessary precedent of Divinely created form, then Neuestern has indeed given us a gift as precious as breathing; a sense of the heights before the fall to reality, for if idea art is chaotic, then its artist-creator vies with God: His alone up until now was the knowledge of the pre-chaotic state.

Such was Neuestern’s vision. As he labored on The Plan through 1968, he knew, as we can only vaguely sense (in comparison), its value, both intellectual, i.e., instructive of our era, and material in its post-material applications.

Neuestern is today 21. As a child in Lake Forest, Ill., he was concerned with the problem of artificiality. His talent was made evident when, as the age of 4 he attempted to give his teddy bear to a caged panda at the Chicago Zoo.4 Such incidents abounded during his childhood; all are relevant, but must await the publication of Orlean’s monograph.

I asked Neuestern if he could trace a straight-line development in his thinking, or if it had been an on and off intuitive awakening. Such questions seemed to cause brooding, even anguish in the sensitive young artist. He declined to answer at first, but, in a subsequent meeting, I taped his response, which he read from notes prepared in his characteristically delicate script.

Neuestern: True rationality is always just out of reach. The absolute? I’ve never achieved it, despite what critics are saying. True transparency is possible only in the ultimate non-act, which I have not yet managed. It requires absolute—that’s a terrifying word—unavailability of the knowledge of the impulse to reject activity. The contradiction is the self-knowledge required to make an art gesture. At best, while I reject material symmetry, I depend upon systematic balances, ideational, that is conceptual itemization, balanced as on a see-saw, or perhaps a slowly moving pendulum in the eternal void. As I often tell my classes, the problem of art for the new generation, as I see it, is how to be both present and absent at the same time. True systematic invisibility with true cerebral materialization simultaneously. No . . . I definitely haven’t achieved it. In a sense, my Danaro exhibition is a cop-out. It can’t be helped. For now. I find my thinking builds logically, day by day, as it has all my life. I remember what happened yesterday, and yesterday I remembered what happened the day before. It’s the kind of temporal, sequential mode of thought that seems to come naturally to me. Occasionally, though, I get a hot flash.

Kundry: Was the Danaro thing a hot flash?

Neuestern: I can’t remember. It’s probably in my journal somewhere.

He is characteristically vague about his personal possessions, and after a brief search, we were unable to find the manuscript, although in the process of looking, we accidentally uncovered several sketchbooks dating from his junior year at Holy Cross (1965–66). He was only 18 at the time, but he was already resisting the academic requirements of drawing and design classes for an art major. He correctly sensed, even then, or perhaps it was more than a mere sensing, that the distasteful insistence on the physical “doing” of art was as out-of-the-times as other manifestations of the European vision—sentimentalized, fondly possessed culture trappings that for the new artist appeared as corny as men wearing suit jackets over their shoulders as capes. He met the question of the Academy openly, honestly and with an all-embracing joy. As John Canaday put it in a calmer moment, “There is no art, only art history.”

A glance at the sketchbooks shows how quickly his mind went to the point. In the first, all the drawings were erased as he easily acknowledged his debt to his elders, but with a flair that could leave little doubt of his ability to challenge us in more personal modes. Obeisance made, the second sketchbook was left blank, dated “December, 1965” and “signed” on the back with a rubber-stamp impression of his name. His antennae were obviously responding to what has come to be known as Warholism, but which actually, at the time, was merely an ideal connection, that is, a connection of the ideal with the material in a frankly even, one-to-one relationship, and therefore must be construed to be within the Neuestern rather than the Warhol esthetic. The third sketchbook had all its interior sheets removed with deliberate carelessness so that torn edges and small bits of the page still remained in a random pattern at the binding edge, creating a rather witty reference to the operational laws of chance. It was unsigned.

I asked and received permission to place a small KK on the outside bottom edge of the rear backing cardboard, merely as an identifying mark, as it was obviously impossible for him to make such an identification of his own, and he agreed that there is no longer a chance for future misrepresentation. The fourth and fifth sketchbooks do not exist. The fourth was purchased and accidentally discarded (destroyed in an incinerator at Holy Cross, January 3, 1966) which gave rise to the idea for the fifth sketchbook, an idea a quantum leap ahead of the esthetic posture of his university teachers and other practicing artists, an idea which seems to lead into a straight line to the thinking involved in creating The Plan for the Danaro exhibition and its implications for a post-material society. The fifth sketchbook simply was never purchased.

The Plan took much of his non-teaching time last year. When it was completed, he flew to Kansas City for final discussions with Miss Danaro. The decision to abandon the use of gallery photographs in the press kits was, as Neuestern has stated, made for purposes of transparency and symmetry. Instead, in addition to biographical data and a photograph of the artist in his Prince Street loft, the press kit contains a mimeographed description of each gallery room prepared by Neuestern, but because he never saw the ideational matrix, it was written following a description of the rooms given him by Stella Danaro herself. What is left deliberately obscure is the question of the gallery’s existence: did Miss Danaro base her description on rooms she had actually seen, or were they indeed an imaginery suffix, a presentiment, as it were, of the dematerialized state of things to come? Knowing Miss Danaro’s strong, even iron-willed devotion to the spirit of the new art, one suspects. This deliberate obscurity was outer-directed, free of symmetry, “set,” or “given,” that is, asymmetrical in its total coherent implications when isolated as a subject for analytical speculation, but in the final sense, truly balanced by the inner-directed obscurity of the return mail arriving at the Salt Lake City Post Office, addressed to a non-number on a known street. Those responding in this manner to the invitations inserted in the press kits were, despite the forwarding of their mail to Kansas City, ignored. Thus another almost incredible, but obviously carefully shaped, invisibility was created. Such is the nature of genius.5

The press kits were mailed early in May, and the reviews began to appear almost immediately. Although I am in Oxford, England, I have before me a fair sampling of the critical response airmailed by Miss Danaro and in some cases by Neuestern. Orvil Orlean has written to me a letter of telling, nearly ineffable sensitivity, containing a good summary of many taste-makers’ reactions. In addition to the references to Neuestern’s work incorporated into the televiewer tours at the Museum of Modern Art, a Sarah Lawrence study group has scheduled a symposium on Neuestern’s art to coincide with the New York exhibition of Neuestern’s sketchbooks next month. The Metropolitan Museum, under Henry Geldzahler’s savvy guidance, has received as a gift five unsigned press kits, purchased for an undisclosed figure by one of Manhattan’s leading collectors. Although Miss Danaro has been requested not to reveal the exact amount, it seems certain that the figure is high enough to encourage both her continued search for the young, and to insure the successful launching of a new reputation.

I must add that the essential beauty of Neuestern’s art leave me breathless, and at times even giddy. Never in my entire career have I been privileged to see a work of art so discretely immaterial. He has, by this non-act, placed American art in a different century. The twenty-first century. My advice is to get used to the name.


1. Miss Danaro finds her best new talent discoveries are made in July, “just after the kids graduate, descend on New York, and are setting up their lofts.”

2. Happily, the Rockefeller Foundation has agreed to defray publicity and travel costs in connection with the non-opening in Düsseldorf, next October.

3. Mark Dix is Assistant Professor of Neural Mathematics at the Fort Lauderdale Institute of Computer Research, founded under a grant from the International Business Machines Corporation.

4. For this and other anecdotes on his life, I am indebted to Neuestern’s mother’s prolific correspondence with the young poet, Orvil Orlean, who shares the Prince Street loft with Neuestern. Orvil Orlean is a fellow at the N.Y.U. School of Language Coherency and Probable Logic, and is represented in numerous anthologies.

5. The return mail was ignored for a good practical reason. Miss Danaro believed that those unable to comprehend the Neuestern position on the basis of the press kit would, in all likelihood, develop a hostility that would preclude any deeper understanding of the new art and the new artists, who, unlike the avant-garde over the past century, believe a succés de scandale to be an adolescent achievement connoting an unnatural love/hate attachment to the bourgeoisie. For the benefit of those who may have missed the reviews, I append excerpts that seem pertinent.

Artforum: “. . . that is, the axis that proceeds in a northwest-southeast orientation, intersecting the plane of verticality of which the wall containing the entrance door is a meaningful manipulation. It is 10 feet 9½ inches to the southern wall of the foyer, a wall marked by an absence of windows, while in Room B, to the east, this same plane of verticality, designated B-1, is precisely divided into five equidistant sections, each measuring 3 feet, 2 inches, that is, sections of wall alternating in a tight conceptual unity with sections of windows, commencing and ending with wall area. This directional orientation is important, for it marks the basis of the astute anti-dramatic attitudes embodied in young Neuestern’s work. One is particularly impressed by the powerful ideational presence of Wall B-2, that is, the eastern wall of Room B, a wall exactly 20 feet in length, painted a terra-verte. In Neuestern’s own words, “there is a paint chip in the exact center of the horizontal axis, occurring 10 feet from the floor, revealing 1½ square inches of white plaster with a rough hole-shaped indentation in its center. The over-all shape of the chip is trapezoidal.” Its location leaves no doubt that the chip and the hole mark the absence of a nail, more probably a picture hook which was used to support a picture. The dimensions of the room, and the placement of the window to the left of Wall B-2 powerfully evokes the image of an American classroom, with its inevitable framed reproduction of George Washington’s portrait or van Gogh’s hayfield. In such a setting, its absence is a revolutionary statement as deep in its implications as anything in the history of art, including Blue Poles . . .”

Television review (WNET-TV) by Emily Genauer: “. . . as bold and ingratiating a gesture as has been created by any artistic puppy this season. One may be put off at first, but gradually one finds oneself coming around in the presence of such defenseless honesty. Apparently, young Mr. Neuestern has studied and taken to heart these comforting words spoken by St. Thomas Aquinas many, many centuries ago: ‘Art seems to be nothing other than a certain ordering of the reason, by which human acts through determined means arrive at determined ends.’ Well, in the opinion of this gallery-scarred veteran, yes, and no . . .”

ARTnews: “Not only has young Neuestern egregiously destroyed the distinction between painting and sculpture, but he has managed a synthesis of all the arts to a degree that would have caused bare-faced envy in the Carracci salon. At a stroke, the condition of music, along with the condition of just about everything else, has been aspired to, equalled and, some may feel, surpassed. Ut pictura poesis is only the caretaker’s house on Neuestern’s estate. Implications abound. The window in Room A may be opened from time to time, as it is the only window in the gallery not paint stuck. While the continual shifting of relationships is a fact of nature, it is also a fact that an open window will allow for increased movement within the room (dust, etc.). Immateriality generally decries such substantive references, but nevertheless, philosophico-logical positions must be para-ideational or suffer the consequences . . .”

Television report (Channel 4) by Edwin Newman: “In short, I liked it; I don’t know why . . .”

Art in America: “. . . such desolation, marked by the chilling mood reminiscent of a sado-masochist ambience will provoke antipathy in many cultivated art supporters. Despite these overtones, Neuestern’s work has an undeniably powerful quality, but not one which I feel the artists of heartland America will quickly rush to emulate. Responsibility of the artist and ideational considerations aside, I can’t imagine the work in a truly important collector’s living room . . .”

The New York Times (John Canaday): “. . . while a welcome gesture momentarily capable of sandpapering the raw ends of jaded esthetic nerves, it is, of course, a development very much in the air, and one that has been openly discussed in university symposia I have addressed throughout the country for well over the last six months. There can be hardly an art student in the land who has not dreamed the Neuestern dream. Neuestern’s strength lies in the deliberate execution of The Plan. I give it B minus, wish Mr. Neuestern well, and look forward eagerly to what the upcoming generation can offer. Not these used and sadly tired 21 year olds who seem incapable of giving us anything fresh, but their younger brothers and sisters, those who are 16 today, or even 14, or 12. What’s old hat is déjà vu. If Miss Danaro truly wishes to serve the art world, she should begin to investigate the junior highs schools of America. There she will find gestating art movements as yet undreamed aloud, not even by the children themselves. And yet, if we could only read their shaping spirits . . .”


Author: Kiki Kundry, artist, critic, associate professor at Princeton, is at Oxford on a Ford Foundation grant to study intentionality and anti-clericism in the decomposition of Renaissance frescoes. She has had three one-man shows in New York and, at 22, is the youngest sculptor in the permanent collection of the Founders’ Lounge of the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. Her latest book of criticism, Causality and Cross-Frequency Rejection in the New Art, won the Ruskin award given by Columbia University “for excellence in 1968.” Her essay on Theodore S. Titolo will appear in a forthcoming issue.

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