Max Neuhaus, a percussionist with Houston ties who pioneered a field of contemporary art known as sound installation, died Tuesday of cancer at his home in Marina di Maratea, Italy. He was 69.
Josef Helfenstein, director of the Menil Collection, described Neuhaus as a sculptor who worked with nonmusical sound instead of traditional materials such as clay or steel. Neuhaus’ second permanent U.S. museum piece, Sound Figure, was installed at the Menil in May.
“He is really part of that generation who changed art in the 1960s,” Helfenstein said. “What he did is very radical, actually. … He managed to define space with sound.”
Born in Beaumont in 1939, Neuhaus began performing as a percussionist when he was 14. He graduated from Lamar High School in 1957 and trained at the Manhattan School of Music. During the 1960s, he performed solo recitals of contemporary music by composers such as John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen at a time when it was rare for a percussionist to be a soloist.
“It’s a little more common now, but there were only three of us in the world at that time, and I did my first recital in 1964 and became well-known while I was still in my 20s,” Neuhaus told the Houston Chronicle in May. “But at a certain point, I started having these other ideas. I tried to do both at the same time, but … the better musician I was, the more people were convinced that what I was doing (with experiments in sound installation) was music, so to speak. So in a way, I had to commit career suicide as a musician.”
Neuhaus said he didn’t have the courage to walk away from music until after Columbia Masterworks contacted him about recording his repertoire, preserving what he thought was his best work. That 1968 solo album is considered an early example of live electronic music.
“I made the record and went out the back,” he said. “They never forgave me, of course — along with a lot of other people.”
Having achieved early fame as a performer, Neuhaus turned to an anonymous form of expression, embedding sound into environments as unlikely as New York’s Times Square or a Brooklyn, N.Y., subway station. He was secretive about his techniques and left no speakers visible.
First installed in 1977, Times Square was disconnected in 1992 and reactivated in 2002. As was his custom, Neuhaus did not label the piece, wanting people to discover it for themselves.
Menil spokesman Vance Muse lived in New York from 1984 to 1994 and walked through Neuhaus’ sound piece on his way to work every day.
“Like most New Yorkers, I thought for a long time it was the beautiful sound of the subway groaning and moaning,” Muse said. “Then an artist friend told me what it was, and it became a wonderful place to meet on the way to dinner or the theater — standing in that Times Square traffic island.”
Helfenstein described a similar experience while visiting Neuhaus in Marina di Maratea, where the artist moved in 2006.
“He used his house and garden always as a laboratory for his work,” Helfenstein said. “Once, he didn’t tell me anything. I just walked around the garden, and I walked into a sound. … And I stepped one foot to the right, and the sound was gone. It was like an invisible cube but formed by sound.”
Neuhaus’ friendship with Menil founder Dominique de Menil began in the early 1970s at a New York dinner party, which she interrupted by ordering 10 limousines to take her guests to Brooklyn to visit Walkthrough, the subway-station piece that was installed from 1973 to 1977.
“She was always very supportive,” Neuhaus said of de Menil, who died in 1997. “For a long time, it was very hard to find the wherewithal to keep going with these works, which you couldn’t sell, which there were no drawings for (until years later), and she was always there at the last minute.”
Neuhaus’ art-world recognition grew, however, and his sound pieces included permanent works for Dia: Beacon in New York; Landesmuseum Joanneum in Graz, Austria; Documenta 9 in Kassel, Germany; and the Castello di Rivoli, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Turin, Italy; as well as ephemeral installations for the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1979 and the 1999 Venice Biennale.
In 1989 Neuhaus began producing what he called “circumscription drawings” of his sound works to address the problem of “finding a way to publish without destroying the work.”
Curated by Helfenstein, Max Neuhaus: Circumscription Drawings was on view May through August at the Menil to coincide with the unveiling of Sound Figure, which was permanently installed at the museum’s north entrance.
“It’s almost like going through a shower — purifying, in a way — before you enter (the museum),” Helfenstein said of walking through the installation.
Neuhaus has been represented by Lawrence Markey Gallery in San Antonio since 2002. He is survived by his wife, Sylvia Neuhaus; their daughter, Claudia; and his sister, Laura Hansen, of Sanibel, Fla.
Arrangements for a memorial service are pending