Max Neuhaus is best known for his sound installations–a term he coined himself–that involve concealed speakers generating intermittent and overlapping tones in public places. What brings him within the purview of this visually-oriented blog is a show at the Menil Collection entitled “Circumscription Drawings,” after the name Neuhaus gives to the visual aspect of his installations.
Since he began his sound works in the 1960s, Neuhaus has been creating drawings and short descriptions that document each of his ephemeral sonic projects. The Menil Collection has lined a small gallery with these diptychs, which are done in colored pencil on translucent paper and framed by project, with each illustration on the left and its corresponding handwritten description on the right.
These works share the same sparse, zen-like aesthetic that characterizes the artist’s aural installations. Many of his descriptions read like haiku, or like a poem by Pound from his Cathay period. They are wonderful meditative works in their own right. Connected with the projects they are intended to document, they also beg the question of how, exactly, Neuhaus conceives of his sound work. His drawings make his installations clear in a way that they could not be conceived from experience alone, illustrating the shapes and colors into which Neuhaus crafts his sound to generate unique sonic overlaps. They seem to hint that he designs most of his sound installations with visual, rather than just sonic, principles in mind–although piecing together the visual organization is virtually impossible to anyone experiencing the sound. Neuhaus’s drawings are generally completed some months after his installations, making his mental interchange of visual and aural elements all the more impressive.
Given their dual nature, the pieces initiate an interesting dialogue about the strengths and weaknesses of each means of human perception. The drawings and the sound jostle for importance, begging for separation but also for equal attention. Neuhaus’s visual documents (or post-production plans?) are beautiful, and they spark that little a-ha! of intellectual understanding absent in his sound work. They provide the big picture, but they can’t provide the sensual experience of the sound itself; they leave you jealous of anyone lucky enough to experience all the projects firsthand. “Circumscription Drawings” argues eloquently for the value of both aspects of Neuhaus’s work. It seems Max Neuhaus should be understood not so much as a sound pioneer but as a pioneer of synesthesia, carefully mapping the complementary interplay of the senses.