Los Angeles

Stephan Von Huene

Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

Stephan Von Huene’s exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum consists of four pieces placed in one corner of the Museum’s recently reinstalled Contemporary Art section, which now occupies most of the Museum’s top floor. At the time of writing, however, only two pieces were in place, Kaleidophonic Dog and Rosebud Annunciator. These two, plus Washboard Band and The Tap Dancer comprised the show.

Since the mid-sixties, Von Huene has been experimenting with music and musical systems which have, in his present exhibition, been built into his sculpture at the expense of “unique” form. All the objects move and produce music, operated and controlled by vacuum and pressure computer systems not unlike those that operate player pianos and band organs. Von Huene’s research into this earlier technology has been profitable, and one must respect him for producing mechanisms that perform as they are expected to perform. He has modified an existing, well-understood and well-engineered technic to his own uses. While much of the activating mechanism, roll carriers, tracker bars, pumps and valves are out of sight, the varnished wood, brass and black steel screws with their matching finishing washers, hoses and small pneumatics actuating xylophones, drums and cymbals, are much in evidence.

The earliest piece in the exhibition, Kaleidophonic Dog, 1967, was Von Huene’s first musical sculpture and was a transitional work. A varnished wooden box, approximately two feet square and four feet high is surmounted by a complex of musical and visual machinery including the forepart of a dog, head and front legs, his hind quarters replaced with six small curved organ pipes; the dog’s legs, head and mouth twitch and turn, activated by small concealed pneumatics. A wooden drum, organ pipes, cymbals and a small xylophone comprise the musical portion of the work, activated by five separate perforated rolls each of a slightly different length, resulting in a musical interphasing which permits sound repetition only at rare intervals. At rest Kaleidophonic Dog is a handsome, exquisitely crafted object. In operation it not only sounds and thumps, but the whole cabinet twitches and undulates gently; the inner workings clicking and sighing in a very anthropomorphic way.

Rosebud Annunciator, 1969, is Von Huene’s major work to date, and is, within his esthetic, a very “minimal” piece. While still crafted of wood and leather touched with bright bits of metals, the piece is organized like a shrine or altar. A large dark cabinet with a glowing eye in the center, a drum head, is surmounted by a glass enclosed “flower” of white kidskin, and flanked by narrow columns, almost like candlesticks, these too topped by boxes containing kidskin spheres. Rosebud uses only one large music roll, and in operation is much less frenetic than Kaleidophonic Dog. The drum beats, an exposed xylophone mounted above the drum sounds, cymbals and a hidden set of reeds play, and most interestingly, the kidskin spheres and flower inhale and exhale, inflating and deflating on cue from the activating roll. The music was composed by Von Huene directly on the player roll and is played slowly when the roll moves in one direction, but more rapidly when the roll rewinds.

––Thomas H. Garver