New York

Max Neuhaus

Ever since Duchamp, artists have been exploiting strategies of esthetic dislocation, introducing “nonart” into art contexts and art into nonart domains. By now, the range of forms of questioning the nature of art has achieved a kind of antimatter symmetry with the overall enterprise of making art for esthetic ends. In many sectors of the arts a “situational” outlook has confounded perceivers’ esthetic expectations, complicating to the point of interchanging meanings in art, criticism, and life. Max Neuhaus, for one, has been sending out situational art signals for some time, through a most apt medium: invisibly fluxlike and multi-directionally simultaneous—sound. He calls his most recent acoustical installation, Times Square, a “discoverable.”

With no sign identifying it as “art,” Times Square is the emission of a low, unearthly electronic chord from an enormous speaker planted beneath a subway ventilation grate in a pedestrian island at Forty-sixth Street and Seventh Avenue. The continuous, richly textural warble takes on distinctly spatial features—an enveloping roundness—as one moves from the periphery of the acoustical field to the center directly over the source. In the cacophonous ambience of Times Square, mecca of the honky-tonk world, Times Square functions as something of an oracle, an autochthonous voice which makes sacred the profane environment. Passers-by in earshot of the unexpected, groaning drone often looked distractedly about, up into the air, or into the traffic, seeking some mechanical, if not ethereal, source. Many, however, took no note at all, or only subliminally. Those few who were diverted from their passage seemed to engage in a most private dialogue with the sound, as though in an insulated environment, introspectively detached from assaulting sensations in the most exhibitionistic of public spaces. Times Square reconditions auditory and, indeed, multi-sensory responses (or numbnesses) to the environmental discord, seeming to absorb and orchestrate it through inducing what amounts to meditation. Neuhaus has structured a sublimely subtle figure-ground interaction between a harmonic chord and discord, sounds of choice and of chance. Once the chord of Times Square has been “imprinted,” the raucous acoustical field of Times Square comes to seem less random, more rhythmic—the chaos is interiorized and processed as a more complex order of auditory information.

None of the foregoing, however, implies the probability of an “innocent” passer-by, even upon the most ardent auditing, deducing an art situation from the anomalous, non-“musical” (if soothing) sound. What is “discoverable” on the pedestrian island is not a work of art but a perceptual predicament. Neuhaus challenges the individual to attune to an acoustical space which collapses essentially visual boundaries between public and private, or exterior and interior worlds. He is uniquely original for having sonically camouflaged key perceptual concerns of 20th-century visual artists—tying Duchampian situational conundrums to the earlier multi-dimensional conception of simultaneity in Cubist space. Taking more immediate cues from John Cage, Neuhaus has gone beyond him in abandoning the art frame of the concert hall. The radicalism of his guerrilla program amounts to an incisive esthetic critique. To this point Susan Sontag has observed that much of the advanced art of our time is “noisy with appeals for silence.”

Richard Lorber