San Francisco

Charles Mattox

San Francisco Museum of Art

A challenging show of two minds. If much of contemporary sculpture can be called romantic because of the fey pleasure it derives from formal games with the debris and refuse of modern civilization, one group of Mattox’s “Objects Kinetic” is romantic, too: it suggests the games of an esthetic knight-errant tilting with the monsters of business automation. In taking on not the jetsam but the vital apparatus of society, Mattox heightens the romantic charm of his wry personal comment with a good dose of constructive social criticism.

The “Little Tranquilizer,” the “Switcher Bitcher,” and related machines on display invite, on the one hand, a gay response to fun monsters—modern Minotaurs born of computers and pinball machines—neatly decked out in what would be decorator colors were it not for the absence of the fashionable ice cream hues. On the other hand, these revolving, whirring, pulsating, clicking compositions offer a painful reminder of the unhappy separation between beauty and business that spoils the machine age for human consumption and threatens to spoil all of civilization. The esthetic qualities Mattox has assembled here, and the human warmth and gratitude they generate, one feels, have found their way into a museum show because they have been barred from their proper home in business offices and factories.

By making the immaculate elegance of modern machine design his ally, Mattox has given these personal comments the appearance of objective validity and raised them above the all-too-intimate level of rough sketches where such modern art remains. The message of these machines would have been more forcefully projected if they did not make so much noise. The immediate auditory association upon entering the otherwise handsome installation, unfortunately, is with a toy store at Christmas time. The idea of cheap gadgetry connected with toys is heightened by the electronic starting and steering devices Mattox has seen fit to install. Every elevator now has touch plate starters, grocery doors open upon approach, and cigar store bells ring when the customer breaks the light beam that bars the entrance. Why, then, make so much to-do about a commonplace? (No wonder the kids have had such a grand time with the exhibit that it has been repeatedly in need of repairs.) If Mattox, with these-do-it-yourself-even-if-you-don’t-know-you-did-it inciters has aimed at some Kafka-esque eeriness, he has failed. These electronic public relations devices only obscure the point made by the machines themselves. The “I-See-You” with its Big Brother stare fails for the same reason: it is a surrealist aside out of tune with the rest of Mattox’s statements.

All this can be remedied next time. The white “Rotor Relief,” running quietly by itself without nudging the beholder to pay attention when he is already fully engaged, here holds out the greatest promise.

Mattox’s other mind is illuminated by the “String Twisters.” These ingenious machines are in a class by themselves and offer sheer delight because instead of poking bitter fun at the sorry problem of automation they illustrate mathematics, the “music of the gods.” The “Drawings Made with a Compound Pendulum Recorder”—precise lines tracing gentle but inexorable forces driving from infinity to zero and back—belong to the same group. Their perfection, alas, is non-human. To have seen the beauty of physical law and to have been able emphatically to point it out, however, is greatly to Mattox’s credit.

Ernest Mundt