What is Given?
Artist’s  Statement – David Greenstein – 2015
I am concerned with responding to what is given before me. What is given is, in one sense, that which simply is. It must be accepted as such, respected for itself and dealt with as well as possible. But what is given is also a gift. Then it must be accepted for the opportunity it affords, for what it asks to become. What must stay and what must change? What must be preserved and what must be transformed? What is given and what is given?
My concerns as an artist live in intense dialectical connection with other concerns that are a deep part of my life. My spiritual commitments as a Jew and a rabbi of a community feed my entire being, including my identity as an artist, but they also compete with my art-making – certainly in terms of time, but also as modes of living. When I learn Torah I commune with a long tradition and a vast community which has but little interest in art-making. When I act as a rabbi I seek to constructively engage with many issues of communal importance and with many individuals who seek guidance or support in their personal situations. I feel a heavy responsibility to all the constituent parts of that world. When I engage in my artwork I commune with an entirely different community and tradition, and I mostly work alone. My sense of responsibility shifts to a different set of constituents.
I originally chose a life in painting as a release from a rabbinical calling. I left the yeshivah and entered a different world. But I took many of my beliefs and values with me. I sought “ways to make art” that would touch on the sublime, on the most intense emotions and on the holy.  This took me a long time. I mean to say that it was not the imagery that was of primary importance to me. Rather I wanted my process of making art to be an honest process of melding the spiritual with the physical. For a few years I tried creating a synthesis by living in Israel as an artist and art teacher. I did not find a successful path forward.
Eventually I returned to the United States and, some years later, to the rabbinate. I continued to paint in my ever-dwindling spare time. And then I made a painful personal decision to stop painting. For some years I told myself that this was the only honest way for me and I kept more than busy working on other projects and causes that I could believe in. But the sadness and sense of lack did not disappear.
Finally, in 2013, after help and encouragement from my family, I resolved to begin working again, even if only for a couple of hours a week. I realized that I had to find a way “back in” to painting, a way of return. It was very clear to me that, though, in the past I had preferred to work on a scale that corresponded to my full bodily reach, now I would have to work small. And I knew that, although it was probably inevitable that I would be resuming my stylistic preferences from years ago, at least at the start, nevertheless, I could not simply aspire to pick up where I left off. I needed something that would bridge between my past art-making and my future. I sought something that would lead me from what I knew and could see to what I did not yet know and could not yet see. And, while I knew that this process of return might be slow going – my paintings have often taken a long time to come together -  I wanted something that  would work for me with immediate impact.
As I was still dreaming of resuming painting, before actually starting, I surprised myself with a fantasy of banging grommets into my canvas. That was it. The simple, primitive steps of attaching the grommets – the act of banging out the holes into the canvas and the hammering together of the two halves of the grommet seemed to satisfy a whole set of personal needs. 
This process combined puncturing with conjoining, destruction with repair. The brass grommets, themselves, were both a cheap, industrial element, and an echo of gold-encrusted jewels.  And they turned the paintings away from being “pure painting” to being small, clunky objects. I was on my way.
The grommets allowed me to break apart my paintings as well as to impose upon them a new order. They invited me to explore my constant fascination with the relationship between the lowly and the exalted, common trash and uniqueness, permanence and fragility. They led me to add other processes, such as sewing and stapling, and other materials, such as packing straps, plastic mesh and metal wires, to my working method.
This more complicated array of techniques – literally “ways of making” – has allowed me to create “works” that have a more complex interrelationship between my cherished concepts of painting and my sense of connection to the givenness of this world.
Some Thoughts on the Work
(for an exhibition of work at the Neve Schechter gallery space, Tel Aviv, 2015)
David Greenstein
Podeh u-Matzil - Redeem and Salvage”*
“The final product was already in the first thought”** - this is precisely what does not apply here.
The works in this exhibition tend to sit on the fence in various ways. They wobble between the desire to be paintings and the desire to be objects. They straddle the fence between the ambition for freedom and breaking out of frameworks (whether those of traditional art or those set up by Jewish tradition), and the desire to preserve a connection and to fashion something that can serve as a certificate attesting to continuity and loyalty.
I play with paint and hope that something will appear. Within the infinite possibilities of what to paint and how, I see that I inhabit a pretty narrow and limited situation. I wonder whether I am allowed to hope that this stuff and these scrawls will grant me some revelation, some hint of “what.” The canvas looks right back at me, sometimes in anger and sometimes with compassion. When will I stick my brush into the tube and finally extract a drop of life?
As I pass through streets or the rooms of my home I am so delighted when my glance falls on some scrap, rope, broken utensil or discarded piece of junk, and I hear it whisper to me to please pick it up from the garbage, to redeem and salvage it from oblivion. I put it in my pocket and continue on to the office. I must remember to bring it to the studio. Maybe this thing that I have redeemed will agree to mix in with the paint and help raise the poor painting from the dung heap and save it. Or maybe not.
I am not at all interested in illustrating concepts or copying objects. I don’t want to, say, design a menorah or present a portrait of Moses. But, if, in the end, something emerges that reminds one of … or seems just like … or arouses associations in that direction, then I reserve the right to embrace it, or to erase it. I prefer to focus on matters of materials and handiwork and, sometimes, there escapes, out of all the failed trials of my incompetent hands, and from all the thwarted hopes of my fearful heart, something small, fragile and real.
Just as it is impossible to remain straddling the fence (whatever that fence may be) forever, so is it impossible to do justice to both sides of the fence. I know. These are contradictories. Nevertheless I continue to paint, smear, tie, sew, hammer, puncture, insert, incise, staple, cut, rip, hang, stick, caress and weigh. Trying to create a work that will span the conflicting sides.
* - In the traditional prayer book God is called the One Who redeems and saves.
** - A description of Creation from the Shabbat evening prayer, “L’khah dodi.”

                                          הרהורים על העבודות  - דוד גרינשטיין
                                                                               -    פודה ומציל

                       ״סוף מעשה במחשבה תחילה״ - זה בדיוק מה שכאן אין.
          לעבודות בתערוכה נטייה לפסוח על שתי הסעיפים, סעיפים שונים.                        העבודות פוסחות בין הרצון להיות ציור ובין הרצון להיות אובייקט , הן         פוסחות בין השאיפה לחופש ולפריצת מסגרות (גם המוצבות על ידי מסורת האמנות, גם אלה המוצבות על ידי מסורת ישראל) לבין הרצון לשמור על     קשר וליצור משהו שישמש תעודה על רצף ונאמנות
אני משחק בצבעים ומקווה שמשהו יופיע. בתוך האין-סוף של האפשרויות של מה לצייר ואיך, אני רואה שאני שרוי במצב די מצומצם ומוגבל. אני תוהה אם מותר לי לקוות שהחומרים והקשקושים יחוננו אותי בגילוי, ברמז של ״מה״. הבד מביט בי בחזרה, פעמים ברוגזה פעמים אף הוא בחנינה - מתי אכניס את מכחולי בשפופרת ואוציא סוף סוף טיפת חיים?
בעוברי ברחובות או בין חדרי ביתי אני שש כמוצא שלל רב כשעיני נופלת על גרוטאה, חבל, שבר כלי או פסולת זרוקה ואזני שומעת אותה מלחשת לי בבקשה שארים אותו מאשפות לפדותו ולהצילה מארץ נשיה. אני שם בכיס וממשיך לעבודה. צריך לזכור להביא אותה לסטודיו. אולי הדבר שפדיתי יואיל להצטרף לצבעים ויועיל להרים מאשפות את הציור האביון להצילו. ואולי לא.
אין לי כל שאיפה לאייר מושג או להעתיק חפץ. לא רוצה, למשל, לעצב מנורה או להגיש דיוקן של משה רבינו. אבל ואם, בסופו של דבר, יוצא משהו שמזכיר את …, או דומה ל..., או מעורר אסוציאציות באותו כיוון, אני שומר על זכותי לחבקו או למחקו. אני מעדיף להתמקד בעניני חומרים ועשייה בידים, ולפעמים נמלט, מכל הנסיונות הכושלים של ידי החסרות-תושיה ומכל התקוות הכוזבות של לבי הירא, משהו קטן שברירי ואמיתי.
כשם שאי אפשר להשאר ברחיפה ופסיחה תמידית בין שתי הסעיפים (ויהיו מה שיהיו), כך אי אפשר לצאת ידי חובת שני צידי הסעיפים גם יחד. אני יודע. אלו שני כתובים המכחישים זה את זה. ובכל זאת אני ממשיך ומצייר, ומורח, קושר, ותופר, מכה בפטיש, נוקב, תוחב, וחורט, מהדק, חותך, קורע, תולה, נועץ, מלטף ושוקל. מנסה ליצור עבודה שתכריע ביניהם

Antinomies (c. 1991)
1. As an artist my first commitment has been to painting. I have of wondered, as a result, whether my collage/paintings were an enrichment of my work as a painter, or a betrayal. Many impulses drive me to reach for the three-dimensional and ready- made and add them to the two-dimensional contrived surface which is called a painting. These include love, exuberance, generosity and wonder. But I am aware that desperation, anger, anxiety and impatience also play a role. I examine my particular case in part by availing myself of the example of others.
2. All painting is construction, the application of a layer of material upon some surface which is the base or armature. Cave artists had quite a delectable surface to work on. They felt along its bridges and hollows, elaborating images. We don’t know if they thought they were destroying the surface or whether they believed it to be indestructible. Were they amazed that they could make walls vanish through their images, or did the walls’ ubiquitous support amaze and confront them?
Today’s painting surface is normally a more neutral one: bounded, flat, uniformly white, man-made. But the questions remained, complicated and augmented by the history of painters. Still, it is possible to point to some sets of relations which will not overly simplify, trivialize, or falsify this rich variety of painting experiences.
3. There seems to be a relationship between notions of reality, space and time and the insistence upon surface. Renaissance artists discovered a way to dissolve the surface for the sake of a world of comprehensible space, a world felt to miraculously correspond to our real world. On the other hand, the insistence on the surface went along with an interest in non-spatial and timeless reality. Thus, if the world we live in was considered real, the artist’s imperative was to create illusions. And if the world was considered illusory, artists felt bound to renounce illusion, to adhere to the reality of their material. So surface somehow functions as the fulcrum balancing matter and spirit. Matisse called this polarity “the Occidental” or “the Dutch” and “the Oriental.” De Kooning used similar terms. Matisse fully engaged the polarity; de Kooning proclaimed his allegiance to the West. “Flesh was the reason oil painting was invented.”1
Yet, when de Kooning was struggling with his Woman series, when the Mythic seemed about to outweigh the Flesh, he slapped a magazine photo of a mouth onto his painting. “It helped me immensely to have this real thing,” he said.2 “This real thing” helped restore the balance in the painting that had become too unreal, abstract, spiritual, or even meaningless. For a painter who believes that the meaning of painting consists in its very ability to strike a balance between matter and spirit may simply despair when that desired balance can no longer be achieved or maintained. The reach outside of painting itself, then, is impelled by a loss of faith
1 In de Kooning’s statement, “The Renaissance and Order,” on p. 142 in Thomas Hess’ Willem de Kooning, MOMA, 1968.
2 In de Kooning’s statement, “Content is a Glimpse,” in Hess, ibid., p. 149.
in the cogency of painted reality, in the ability of paint to create a convincing presence.
This loss of faith may be personal or general, final or fleeting. Certainly de Kooning did not end up erasing his own drawings or making combine paintings. It seems to have been a temporary crisis for him. For de Kooning that dose of reality, the magazine cutout, restored power to painting, like a much-needed slap in the face.
4. For other artists the crisis of faith is not so unambiguously resolved. Kurt Schwitters gained renown for his collages and painted constructions, yet throughout his life he remained devoted to painting from nature. He defended his activity as a painter:
This is possibly a purely private diversion; in any case I should not like to lose the connection with the earlier stages of my development. For I consider it important that at the end of one’s life nothing should be lost, even if it is false and dull; regardless, one’s aspirations should stand forth entire. For with our thousand weaknesses and the tiny spark of the ideal, we human beings can at best merrily give ourselves openly and honestly, and work, in the ideal sense, towards ourselves. We cannot make ourselves into an ideal being. That ambition usually ends in hypocrisy. I have nothing to hide, not even the fact that today I cling to the sentimental pleasure of painting from nature, without any artistic aims, merely for orientation. 3
Schwitters makes three claims for painting: It is for Schwitters a personal foible, a piece of himself he cannot relinquish, and a means of orientation. Each claim pushes beyond the one previous. As a “private diversion” Schwitters’ painting is nobody else’s business. But then Schwitters argues not merely for indulgence for a harmless quirk, but for preservation of the artist’s every aspiration. The self, given over “openly and honestly” in its entirety merits respectful consideration. Painting is a fragment of his life as much to be preserved as a torn train ticket, as his own urine. The final defense, though presented perhaps a bit disingenuously, is his biggest claim. Painting is the means Schwitters uses to find his way - to give his life and work direction. Without it the merzbilder would be impossible.
As Schwitters claims for painting escalate, we begin to wonder at the nonetheless marginal place painting occupies in his identity as an artist. But Schwitters’ insistence on making room for painting in his work also functions to put painting in its proper place. For when Schwitters calls painting a “private diversion” his apparent dismissal of it was also a very peculiar endearment. The phrase carries
3 Quoted in John Elderfield’s Kurt Schwitters, Thames and Hudson, 1985, p. 216. Elderfield has a good but all too brief discussion of the relation of Schwitters’ painting to the rest of his work.
that special Schwitters blend of the bourgeois and the erotic, camouflaged yet celebrated.
Schwitters believed absolutely in the value of one’s private life. He saw it as the arena where one was permanently confronted by one’s imperfection and weakness. So he continued to paint out of the love of it. It was almost a kind of vice. But it would be insufficient to merely acknowledge it and abandon it. Schwitters felt obliged to continue painting, for by painting he was connecting himself to an earlier stage of his development. Painting unified his present and his past work into an aspiration that could “stand forth entire.” He could then say he painted “without any artistic aims.” He had to continue painting so as not to become disoriented. It was like a much-needed slap in the face.
5. What can I believe about painting itself if, unlike de Kooning, I want to continue to make collage/paintings, and, unlike Schwitters, I yet aspire to approach painting alone “with artistic aims”? If I wish my aspirations to “stand forth entire,” then my practice of making works employing construction with paint must condition what I can say about my practice of making works employing paint alone.
To continue to use construction in painting is to employ means other than painting to break the surface. It is, then, a repudiation, relative or absolute, of the ability of paint to alter the flatness of the surface, a flatness which, depending on one’s point of view, signifies nothing or Nothing, a significance to be rejected.
But to use paint in construction is to say that objects alone will not cohere, that the are no means other than painting to connect their disparate identities, identities which subsist in each object’s isolation from all the others in the world, an isolation that must be overcome. Within or over this turbulent surface, punctuated by the banal and the surprising, painting is the binder, the bridge.
It is up to me when I paint to determine what anchorages hold that bridge and what is the chasm beneath.