San Francisco

Arlo Acton

Hansen Gallery

Early last fall the Hansen Gallery presented a retrospective exhibition of work by the San Francisco sculptor Arlo Acton. That show contained no immediately recent work and was, in bulk, comprised of those large, somewhat neo-Dadaist, found-object assemblage-constructions (predominantly of wood) which occupied Acton during the early sixties (see Artforum, Vol. III, No. 1), most of which have received sufficiently frequent local exposure over the past few years to have become quite familiar to the majority of Bay Area gallery-goers and museum habitués.

Recently, the Hansen Gallery staged the second phase of its two-part Acton survey in the form of an exhibition entitled Touch Black Only and subcaptioned Spheres. This latter show consisted entirely of pieces executed over the past year and introduced a completely new direction in Acton’s work, breaking abruptly with his former style.

For many who delighted in the ingenious complexities of structure and the precociously witty and involved visual rhetoric displayed in the earlier, junk sculptural improvisations, the recent show may have come as a disappointment. The new works, all in metal, are of singular simplicity in form and concept, few being made up of more than four visible basic components, each of which is of geometrically elementary contours, and one of which, at least, is invariably a sphere. Alternative employment of aluminum, titanium and copper as among component parts, as well as the use of two types of surface finish—dull buff and highly reflective polish—lend a limited color range and some textural variety to these works. All of the pieces in the show are so poised, either on weighted spherical bases or on concave, blade-like rockers, as to be easily set into some modality of oscillatory motion. Considered solely as inertial machines, however, they are hardly spectacularly imaginative or sophisticated; their gyrations are simple and usually intuitively predictable, and tend, even after a moderately forceful impetus to be only of three or four cycles duration. The initially enigmatic slogan of the exhibition refers to the little black rings of electrician’s tape attached to the exhibits to provide surface areas on which they may be prodded into motion without being smudged with fingerprints.

Dominating the show was a somewhat repetitious set of variations on a theme composed of three basic elements: 1) a cylindrical tube, usually slightly bent at some point and joined to 2) a polished sphere set in 3) a polished, concave, circular tray or dish in such a way that force applied to the tube at any point or from any direction sets the tube-tentacled orb into a slow, rhythmic, wobbly spin.

One unique piece was in physical principle a ball-weighted, free-swinging pendulum suspended between two rockers, all so designed that the pendulum and the rockers, not being harmonically attuned, almost instantly brake each other, and the entire mechanism, after being activated with a shove, seems only to lurch spastically and tentatively through one rocking-cycle, in which the pendulum shaft jerks erratically, and the ball clatters against the fitfully halting rockers before the whole twitching, shuddering thing convulses to a stop; at one level there is an abstractly clownish humor to this fiasco, and at another, a typically Actonesque visual Freudian charade is involved, for the pendulum (like many of the variations of the ball and tube motif) is patently phallic in design, while the quarter-hemispherical rockers have an inescapable resemblance to enormous, fat buttocks. Hence, although there is no evident stylistic continuity between these exhibits and Acton’s earlier work, they are not without traces of his established individuality, his sense of multiple levels of communication, and that high-spirited, rollicking, and occasionally bawdy slapstick humor that so markedly characterized his previous constructions.

Palmer D. French