Max Neuhaus’ Work of Public Art on Times Square
by Ulrich Loock
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The scandal that culminated in the removal of Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc from the Federal Plaza in New York differs from a number of comparable incidents in two crucial respects. Rarely have apparently democratic means been applied so sweepingly for an act of what Benjamin Buchloh described as “vandalism from above”1, in order to ensure the destruction of a public work of art. And this act of vandalism was directed against a sculpture that embodies, like few others, the contradiction between the claim to autonomy in modernist art and the integration of a work of such art in a public space. Serra’s sculpture is a work of abstract art whose form and siting respond to the spatial and architectonic givens of the Federal Plaza and create particular conditions for its perception. In intransigeant opposition to the domination of the public space by the spectacle of architecture and media, Serra reclaims with his work the possibility of a direct aesthetic experience of space, which he regards as the prerogative of an art that calls upon no other justification beyond itself.

As Serra unequivocally states, “After the piece is created, the space will be understood primarily as a function of the sculpture.”2 He expresses something of the implacability and exclusivity of the aesthetic claim of his work when he says that, in creating Tilted Arc, “I’ve found a way to dislocate or alter the decorative function of the plaza and actively bring people into the sculpture’s context.”3 The potential for experience harboured in this dislocation, this dislocation as a precondition of the possibility of unique spatial experience, conveyed by the presence of the steel sculpture cutting through the plaza, is something to which the users of the urban space are inexorably bound. For someone who is unwilling or unable to comply with the sculpture’s demand, it becomes a monumental obstacle. Thus the claim to resistance against the public suppression of individual possibilities of experience is contradicted by the domination of the plaza by Richard Serra’s individualistic aesthetic gesture. Overcoming this contradiction is not his concern.

Just as the contradictory claim to oppose the alienated experience of public space in the form of an unavoidable impediment can hardly be taken to justify the vandalisation of Richard Serra’s work, so too is it hardly a primary characteristic of Max Neuhaus’ work to avoid the populistically charged aversion against art in public spaces. Yet Neuhaus’ work can be considered as resolving some of the contradictions exemplified by a work like the Tilted Arc. As far as the complexity of possible perception, its digression from the totalized experience of the urban space, the sheer size of the work and the public significance of its site are concerned, Neuhaus’ Sound Work on Times Square can hold its own with Serra’s sculpture. Yet this is a work whose material is a sound. It is a work without a visible or tangible object. It is constructed in such a way that it is up to the individual passer-by to respond to it, or not. Those who choose not to are not disturbed by the work either.

Max Neuhaus began his artistic career in the late 1950s as a musician, a percussionist, and soon went on to create his own works of music – in connection with contemporary practices aimed at dismantling the categoric separation of composer and performer. He looked to the most advanced concepts of the time, which extended and expanded the concept of music to include, by means of a kind of reversal, what had previously been excluded, in order to arrive at a broader definition of music: noise on the one hand – the Bruitism of the Italian Futurists springs to mind here – and silence on the other hand – as in, for example, John Cage’s 4’33’’. So, if concepts of music were initially crucial for Max Neuhaus, such works as Times Square and other pieces he made before and after, owe much to a radical break with musical thinking. Neuhaus describes a change of paradigm in formulating a notion that is fundamental to his Sound Works – “that of removing sound from time, and setting it, instead, in place”.4 This change of paradigm makes it obvious to think of sculpture as the point of reference for his work, for sculpture is the medium of an artistic practice that creates the conditions for the specific perception of place. Admittedly, only the most advanced forms of late 1960s sculpture, as discussed by Rosalind Krauss in her essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”, would be conceivable as a reference.5

Rosalind Krauss writes, “For, within the situation of postmodernism, practice is not defined in relation to a given medium – sculpture – but rather in relation to the logical operations on a set of cultural terms, for which any medium – photography, books, lines on walls, mirrors, or sculpture itself – might be used. Thus the field provides both for an expanded but finite set of related positions for a given artist to occupy and explore, and for an organization of work that is not directed by the conditions of a particular medium.”6 In connection with the work of Max Neuhaus, those positions are of interest in which the artistic operation is linked on the one hand with landscape and on the other hand with architecture – both areas traditionally excluded from “sculpture” in order to defend an unambiguous definition of that category. In the following, I shall trace the construction of a place in the Sound Works of Max Neuhaus. However, right from the start, I would like to keep an open mind as to the significance of the fact that he has used sound and no other material for the construction of a place. Is sound a further possible material for a sculptural or rather non-sculptural practice in the expanded field, or does it perhaps make a crucial difference to have to do with a work that is physical, sensually perceptible, without being an object? It is surely not pure coincidence that the various materials listed by Krauss are all materials of visual, tangible objects.

1Benjamin H. D. Buchloh: Vandalismus von oben. Richard Serras Tilted Arc in New York, in: Walter Grasskamp (Hrsg.), Unerwünschte Monumente, Munich 1989
2“Richard Serra’s Urban Sculpture”, An Interview by Douglas Crimp (first published in Arts Magazine, November 1980) in: Richard Serra, Writings Interviews, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1994, p. 127  
3ibid., p. 127
4Max Neuhaus, Place. Sound Works Volume III, Ostfildern 1994, p. 5
5Rosalind Krauss, Sculpture in the Expanded Field, in: October 8, 1979, p. 31 ff.
6 ibid., p. 42 f.