The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths.
BRUCE NAUMAN IS NOT INTERESTED in “adding to a collection of things that are art,” as he puts it, but in “investigating the possibilities of what art may be.”1 Where his inquiry will lead next is impossible to predict, since he goes about it in a meandering way, and, like Samuel Beckett’s character Molloy, will always be “back in the saddle again.” The route he takes may not be the “right” one, but for him the “wrong” road can be just as much of a discovery.
Nauman’s education is a case in point. Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1941, he grew up in Wisconsin and went to college there, initially studying mathematics and physics. It was, he realized, the “wrong” thing. For a short time he performed as a jazz bass player—he had studied classical guitar and a little piano since childhood—and the next courses he took were in music theory and composition. (His main interests lay in the work of such composers as Arnold Schönberg, Anton von Webern, and Alban Berg, and in the late quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven.) But again he decided that this was not quite for him. Finally, Nauman signed up for art classes. “Art allowed me room for both my mind and my hands to work,” he says; “I always enjoyed making things, and I did not have any qualms about my facility to do so.” He had found his field but not his path. At the University of Wisconsin he learned how to stretch a canvas perfectly, but he considered the content of his classes stale. However, many of his teachers had participated in the Federal Art Project of the Work Projects Administration in the ’30s, and while their formal ideas about art may have seemed conventional and even restricting to Nauman, they did reinforce his interest in pursuing the issue of what an artist can do in, and for, the collective society. What is a “true” artist, and what is his or her social role—these questions have occupied him ever since.
From the fall of 1964 to the spring of 1966 Nauman worked on his MA, at the University of California, Davis. As early as 1964 he had tried to give up painting—“My concept of being an artist was making pictures, landscapes, but intuitively I knew that that was not enough”—yet since he did not yet know how to follow up this desire for something else, he returned to abstract landscapes, inspired by the Bay Area painters. His next step was to bolt steel parts, welded into organic shapes, onto his canvases; while these forms protruded from the surfaces of the works, they were integrated into them by being painted over. Nauman’s steel objects proved heavy and clunky, so he switched to fiberglass. He had already used the medium when he was a student in Wisconsin, mixing it with metal filings to imitate cast bronze. Now, he decided not to disguise the fiberglass but to leave it obvious, a move that was both more straightforward and also a rejection of the traditional media of sculpture. A breakthrough came when the paintings no longer seemed necessary, and he focused on the abstract, elongated fiberglass pieces themselves.
Talking about painting, Nauman remembers, “I loved moving the paint and the manipulation of materials. It was very serious, but it also got in the way I still don’t trust any kind of lush solution, which painting was, and so I decided—it was a conscious decision at some point—that I was not going to be a painter. It was hard, but I was young enough that it wasn’t that hard.” He has never ceased to be interested in painting, however. In fact, shortly after he quit the practice himself he saw Ed Ruscha’s work for the first time, and was excited by the possibilities it offered. Here were non-art-historical, distinctly contemporary American works freed of obedience to the rules that were making painting seem so pointless. Such pieces as Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights, 1962, Damage, 1964, and Burning Gas Station, 1965–66, Nauman felt, were as much about thought and perception as about painting. In a like way, Willem de Kooning has always been important to Nauman because “he’s a beautiful draftsman, and a powerful artist—and also somebody who was struggling. Artists from that generation, and even after that, had to struggle with Picasso. Their problem was basically how to get beyond Picasso. De Kooning finally found a way, and so I trust him in his choice of how to proceed. I think where I finally ran into trouble was at Frank Stella, someone a little bit ahead of me in time. I was very interested in his early paintings because I saw incredible possibilities in the work of how to proceed as an artist, but then it became clear that he was just going to be a painter. And I was interested in what art can be, not just what painting can be. I don’t think he has taken that on at all.”
Around the time that Nauman was experimenting with the first fiberglass pieces, in early 1965, he went to see “A New York Collector Selects . . . ,” an exhibition held at the San Francisco Museum of Art in January and February of that year, and curated by Mrs. Burton Tremaine. He recalls especially two pieces by Richard Tuttle, “twiggly things stuck on the wall, about 8 feet long,” their playful presence strikingly different from the contemporaneous art of, say, Donald Judd. Nauman knew already that his own working methods clashed with Judd’s desire to control his materials totally Tuttle’s quest for a balance between exerting control over materials and letting them take their own course must have struck him as familiar. As he continued to work with fiberglass he had become more and more interested in the very process of making art. For one untitled piece from 1965 he made a long, thin, abstract shape out of clay, then created a plaster mold of it from which to cast in fiberglass. By adding pigment to the resin before casting it, he tinted the material in different colors. The finished work is in halves—two forms cast from the same mold, one pale yellow and one pale green, leaning side by side against the wall so that each presents a different face to the viewer, making a shape at once convex and concave. The process by which the work was produced is a lasting element of the piece; it is made visible in the chips of plaster that stuck to the fiberglass during the casting and that were left there as an integral part of the surface. A related untitled piece done in the same year, shaped like a long, thin, pried-open hairpin, also stands against the wall; one side curves from the wall to the floor, the other, in a mirror-image-like movement, upward and outward into space. Everything switches in this piece: what the half toward the wall expresses as inside or back, the outer half expresses as outside or front, and so on. In part, this disturbing of back and front, inside and outside, reflects a meditation on process. In a traditional casting, what is inside the mold is considered art, while the container is merely functional and often destroyed. Paradoxically, in classical sculpture the emphasis lies on the shell, the exterior of the work, while the inside is ignored. Nauman has said that his interest in these issues was reinforced by Claes Oldenburg’s cardboard pieces of 1966, which he had seen reproduced in magazines: Oldenburg “did a whole bathroom in cardboard. What I remember is that in all those objects, bathtub and sink and so on, the insides and outsides were the same piece of cardboard, and were given equal emphasis.” The presentation of inside as well as outside is visible throughout Nauman’s work, not only in the rubber pieces of 1966, but also in the questions of public and private domain raised by the corridor and sealed-room installations of the ’70s, and of entrapment in the “South America” chair pieces of the ’80s.
In his mid-’60s works Nauman was involved not so much in the idea of sculpture as in matter itself, in the process of putting different materials together—according to an esthetic point of view, certainly, but focusing more on their identity than on their status as objects. One way to distance himself from conventional sculpture, he found, was to avoid giving the works a finished look: “I think in the beginning [my] things were made out of fragile materials, or materials that weren’t necessarily art materials, because if I made it so that the piece was clearly not going to hold up, a lot of preciousness would be removed. Eventually it will fall apart, but the idea is left and could be made over again. The piece may be different but it still would carry the weight of the idea.” The roughness of Nauman’s work from this period is also part of his concern with process. The art shows its making. In 1965, he expressed this concern clearly in an untitled piece comprising both the fiberglass product of casting and the mold in which the casting was done. One side of an oblong plywood-and-cardboard mold, with rounded ends, hangs diagonally on the wall; the textures of its materials are visible on the pink, semitransparent, hairpin-shaped fiberglass form it holds, which is slit to show the white wall behind it. Nauman found support for his method of reviewing the whole process of making an object, and if necessary backing up a step, in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (posthumously published in 1953), which he read during the early ’60s: “Wittgenstein would follow an idea until he could say either that it worked, or that life doesn’t work this way and we have to start over. He would not throw away the failed argument, but include it in his book.”
The unfinished look of Nauman’s work serves an additional function to that of art as an idea, the urgent message of conceptual art so clearly articulated by, say, Joseph Kosuth and Sol LeWitt. Originally at least partly a reaction against the clean geometries of Minimal art, the work also serves as a way to communicate scale. It is for this reason that Nauman prefers Robert Morris’ early plywood pieces, which show their screws and edges, to the later ones in smooth fiberglass, where in his opinion the scale becomes arbitrary. When a work lacks such details of construction as the grain of the wood, the debris from a mold, or screws, Nauman believes that not only the constructed quality of the work but also the sense of the connection between the parts and the whole disappear. He still feels that much of the communicative power of a piece is determined by the sense of scale that its texture establishes, and also by its sense of weight and density. This is why, when he used colors in his fiberglass pieces, he mixed them into the resin rather than painting the forms and thus concealing their surfaces.
While he was studying at Davis Nauman had easy access to film equipment in San Francisco, not far away, and he made several movies. Process is as much a part of these works as it is of his sculptures from the same period. In Fishing for Asian Carp, 1966, Nauman kept the camera running while his friend the artist William Allan put on boots, the two men walked to the creek, and Allan caught a fish. This activity, which defined the structure of the film, had a beginning and a foreseeable end, but its duration was dependent on an uncontrollable event—no one can control when they catch a fish. Fishing for Asian Carp is presented clearly and logically, rather like an instructional film, and, as one watches, it is difficult to tell whether it is serious or a joke. What Nauman was pursuing through Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations converged with Allan’s attitude of “stupidity,” of “getting the world reduced down to a rock,” as Allan has put it. “It’s like nondoing.”2 The duration of several other short black-and-white movies that Nauman made in 1965–66 was decided equally loosely, but from a different perspective: they run under ten minutes each, the length of a reel. In Revolving Landscape the artist manipulated the camera in such a way that the landscape became abstract. This film and the following one, Opening and Closing, in which a door closes and window shades open, seem the products of someone who wants to explore and play with a new possibility, just as Man Ray did when he threw a camera in the air while it was filming.
During this same period Nauman began doing performance pieces. In the first, in 1965, he placed himself in a series of different body positions—standing, leaning, bending, squatting, lying down, and so on—with his face turned now toward, now away from the wall, now to his left and now to his right. He held each of these poses for one minute. In a second performance he used a standard fluorescent-light fixture with a lit tube, about 8 feet long, to make different shapes in combination with his own body. The tube became almost another limb; Nauman held it in his hands, touched his feet with it, stretched out on the floor while holding it straight up in the air, laid it on the floor and leant over to touch it. Most of the poses formed geometric shapes, except one, in which Nauman help the tube between his legs while he sat on the floor. In carrying out the performance he discovered that some poses seemed to him just different positions his body could take, but that others produced powerful emotional responses in him. (When he repeated the work in 1968, he emphasized these emotionally resonant positions.) In another movie done in late 1965 or early 1966, Manipulating the T Bar, he again dealt with the interaction of an object and a person: laying down a set of rules for handling a T-shaped construction made of two 8-foot-long steel rods wrapped in black tape like a tool of some sort, he created an ambiguous play between functional and useless human activity. The ideas in these performance and film works carry over to the fiberglass pieces, which shift between object and idea, and which associate themselves with the human body through Nauman’s sensitive attention to scale and through the way they lean against the wall, their front or back relating to the viewer.
By 1966, Nauman felt he had exhausted the possibilities of the fiberglass works. As he puts it, “It was like de Kooning putting long handles on his brushes to fool his own painting facility, to see what he could make happen, as a way to prove himself. But once you do it on purpose, you know what’s going to happen, and you would check yourself from doing it twice.” As a next step Nauman started to make rubber floor pieces, all cast in the same mold, with their colors mixed into the material. Some were attached to each other, and were shown dropped on the floor, while others were hung on the wall; one, slit into segments, was fastened to the wall by one of its slices. That same year the New York art dealer Richard Bellamy took some of these rubber pieces for his summer group show, and shortly thereafter Morris, then a better-known artist than Nauman, showed some similar works in felt. Nauman recalls that he reacted with considerable competitiveness to Morris, though he recognized Morris’ ability in handling materials. But his own Felt Formed over Sketch for a Metal Floor Piece, 1966, in which a sheet of felt on the floor simultaneously conceals and exposes a cardboard shape that raises the cloth but stays invisible beneath it, as if beneath a skin, was a response not so much to Morris and to Joseph Beuys, whose felt-covered Christmas trees he had heard about from the German exhibition-organizer Kasper König. It also refers to Man Ray’s Enigma of Isidore Ducasse, 1920, in which a sewing machine is wrapped in sackcloth and tied with twine. Man Ray, of course, was himself inspired by Ducasse, the French poet better known as the Comte de Lautréamont, who in a famous passage wrote of “the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.” Nauman, thinking about these various works, came to believe that art derives its power not from a surfeit of autobiographical information but from the kind of inexplicability that can occur through bringing things together out of alignment, through “giving information but at the same time withholding a part, and through trying to get underneath the surface by not stating it.”
The issues of visibility and concealment raised by Felt Formed over Sketch . . . run throughout Nauman’s work. One of his ideas, from 1966, was to make a stack of felt, rubber, or lead sheets with a rectangular hole through its center, and with a short fluorescent tube hidden at the bottom of the hole. Nauman was not sure, though, whether to cover the hole or leave it open. He set down the concept in a sketch but never executed it in a sculpture, although he would later complete a number of pieces based on stacking or piling. In another sketch done in the same year, again for an unrealized work, he considered stacking materials distinguished from one another by differences in texture, weight, tensility, and density. This 2-foot-thick “sandwich” sculpture would alternate layers of materials—from top to bottom, paper or cardboard, thin plastic, lead, rubber, felt, lead, glass, and so on—in sheets 7 feet long and 2 feet wide. Moreover, the floor beneath the work would be covered with a layer of grease. (Nauman added, pragmatically, that wax paper could be put down before the grease was poured.) He also considered denting the stack at the center in some specific shape or impression so that the grease would squeeze out from the bottom. The proposal emphasizes the process of construction, and also, again, a sense of chance: the piece, had it been made, would have looked as much like something found in the street as like a work of art.
Nauman has spoken of the need he has felt for his work to make a point besides simply being traditional sculpture. “I was more interested in finding out what I was doing, how I was doing it.” By the end of 1966 he was in the midst of a kind of work that invoked more than one vocabulary—that of materials, and that of the body. A stack piece from this period is transitional. The work’s title is an exact description of its substance: Collections of Various Flexible Materials Separated by Layers of Grease with Holes the Size of My Waist and Wrists, 1966. This pile of eight 18-by-90-inch sheets, each in a different material, reveals clearly an essential characteristic of Nauman’s work: he sets up an ambiguity between two kinds of observation—one in which materials follow their own course, and another in which the process of thinking renders to the object its lyrical form. Nauman does not anthropomorphize or "humanize’’ inanimate things, but his pieces are human signs, measured in terms of his own body—in this case, through the sheets’ waist- and wrist-sized holes, imprints left behind by the artist, who in his absence is yet strongly present.
Where the title of Collections of Various Flexible Materials . . . is utterly literal, in other works Nauman creates discrepancies between title and objects, between what is known and what is seen. In Wax Impression of the Knees of Five Famous Artists, 1966, the title and the piece are deliberately out of alignment since the imprints in the object, a long horizontal wall piece made of fiberglass (not wax), are of Nauman’s own knees. In a drawing made a year later for a similar, unrealized work, Nauman added a concern for texture to the earlier work’s interest in weight and density. He considered using the right knees of five people, “some bare and some with pants (cloth) over them,” which would produce specific textural traces in the plaster mold, like the marks left by cardboard in the mold on one of the early fiberglass pieces. Nauman often does a drawing for a piece only after he has executed it intuitively. Investigating and analyzing his own working process at a later moment, he can discover aspects of the work he had not noticed before. Sometimes he arrives at more or less the same conclusions but with a new layer. In another 1967 drawing that recapitulates Wax Impression of the Knees of Five Famous Artists, Nauman notes that he wants to “assign each knee print an identity,” preferably of some (moderately) well-known artists (perhaps some historical artist, who has not been dead over 100 years?) (Do not use Marcel Duchamp.)“ He scribbles in the names of William T. Wiley, Larry Bell, Lucas Samaras, and Leland Bell, all artists influential in the Bay Area, and of ”W de Kooning“ (which, however, he crosses out and replaces by the word ”self,“ a signal of his identification with this artist). Then he appears to have hesitated, writing on the drawing that ”perhaps all ‘knee prints’ should be the same image but titled as above." The end result is the same as the piece done in 1966, except that the five artists have been identified.
Nauman had moved to San Francisco in the summer of 1966, and his first studio was an old grocery store with an abandoned neon beer sign in the window “I was working very little,” he remembers, “teaching a class one night a week, and I didn’t know what to do with all that time. . . . I didn’t have much money for materials. So I was forced to examine myself, and what I was doing there. I was drinking a lot of coffee, that’s what I was doing.”3 He had been reading a good deal, and it bothered him that a lot of his life was not being incorporated in his art—he wanted to include not more autobiographical details, but more of the way he thought about the world. Seeing a Man Ray retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in 1966, freed him from the obligation of having a definite purpose, and enabled him to load his work with content from all kinds of sources: “To me Man Ray seemed to avoid the idea that every piece had to take on a historical meaning. What I liked was that there appeared to be no consistency to his thinking, no one style.” Beginning at the end of 1966 and continuing into 1967, Nauman produced a set of ll color photographs, satirical narratives of daily life. These included Eating My Words, Bound to Fail, Coffee Spilled because the Cup Was Too Hot, and Self Portrait as a Fountain. “If you see yourself as an artist and you function in a studio and you’re not a painter,” Nauman has said, “if you don’t start out with some canvas, you do all kinds of things—you sit in a chair or pace around. And then the question goes back to What is art? And art is what an artist does, just sitting around in the studio. . . . ” He took events that already verged on the absurd, and pushed them even farther into absurdity by recording them photographically. In consequence, the events turned into serious propositions, with an ironic flavor that recalls early Pop art.
Nauman’s first public assertion of the artist’s role was a transparent pink Mylar window shade from late 1966. The idea for it was inspired by the beer sign in the window of his studio. Words positioned around the edge of the shade read, “The true artist is an amazing luminous fountain.” Some of the letters are scratched through the pink coating of the Mylar; others are painted, in black. Nauman liked the fact that the phrase is vague, seeming to convey meaning but actually making only the most metaphorical kind of sense. Yet in Self Portrait as a Fountain, which shows Nauman from the waist up, spitting water in a semicircular arc, and in a 1967 drawing, Myself as a Marble Fountain, which elaborates on it, the artist makes the idea ironically literal. The works can also be compared to Duchamp’s readymade urinal, Fountain, 1917, and they refer to and subvert the art-historical traditions of the gargoyle and those of the mythological gods and goddesses of the baroque fountain, respectively.
In 1965, Nauman had experimented with neon in one of his fiberglass pieces, laying a thin neon tube inside it to cause an orange glow. And he also hooked up a short piece of neon to flash on and off, then painted it black so that the light was hidden. He was unsatisfied with the piece and eventually destroyed it, but he continued to work with the medium, and in 1966 he conceived a work that both incorporated his concern with the figural point of reference and brilliantly posited the issue of mind/body dualism. Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at Ten Inch Intervals fluctuates between suggesting a dream image and describing the material reality of neon tubes, a transformer, and electrical wiring. As if projecting a drawing into space, the piece reduces Nauman’s body to seven luminous contours connected by dark loops of wire, like signals with no depth; these fragile outlines, far removed from references to real body parts and loaded with high energy, float radiantly in air. The black loops seem the shadows or antitheses of the glowing neon shapes.
In the ’60s, it wasn’t unusual for artists to employ neon. Martial Raysse, for example, had used it in such assemblages as Spring Morning, 1964, and Peinture à haute tension (Painting at high tension, 1965), the latter work a painted portrait of a woman, her mouth humorously outlined in Veronese green light. Among others, Joseph Kosuth, too, had used neon lettering in his Neon Electrical Light English Glass Letters Red Eight, 1965, and Jasper Johns had illuminated the word “RED” in Passage II, 1966. Nauman was especially interested in two works by James Rosenquist that he had seen reproduced in a magazine: Capillary Action II, 1963, and Tumbleweed, 1963–66. Both use evocative materials and symbolic analogies to set up ambiguous interplays between the natural and the man-made; the characteristic qualities of a tumbleweed, for instance, prickliness and lightness, are translated into barbed wire and neon, presented as intertwined lines of wire and light suspended in space and offset by pieces of wood in two X’s, suggesting the spools on which barbed wire is wound. The juxtaposition of media evokes a clash between rural and urban, cruelty and sensuousness, aggression and vulnerability, and so on. In Capillary Action II, wedged in the cleft of a small leafless tree is a frame—Rosenquist refers to it as a “skeleton”—made of four canvas-stretchers covered with clear vinyl. Several smaller frames, also covered with vinyl, are fastened to the surface of the large one; thin dripping paint lines run across the vinyl, and across one of the lanky tree branches. On another branch hangs a small neon rectangle.
Rosenquist, a master of ambiguity, here shifts overtly back and forth between the physical identities of his materials and their metaphorical and associative meanings. Nauman achieves similar effects in The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, 1967, a poetic message about the function of the artist in the form of a peach-and-blue-colored neon sign. The title phrase spirals out from the center of the work, as if its meaning were expanding infinitely Rosenquist, who was once a sign-painter and had done neon signs for Pan Am airways, wanted to keep his work critical of commercial connotations, while Nauman in this piece went for a conjunction of “high” and “low” culture, confusing signage and art, simultaneously revealing their dual natures. Both artists’ works, however, elude simple interpretation by setting up multiple opposing shades of meaning. Nauman arrived at the phrase “the true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths” by playing with clichéd notions of what people believe an artist ought to do. He offset the mysteriousness of his personal statement by working in neon, which, in its function of public display in advertising and signs, often manifests what he calls “the straightforward fixation on doing one thing [that] our culture emphasizes in its slogans.” As an example of these monolithic impulses he cites a megalomaniacal neon sign in San Francisco, which shows a paint company’s product dripping slowly over the globe, accompanied by the phrase “Cover the earth.” Tongue in cheek, Nauman’s piece allows him to preserve his willed isolation in opaqueness yet also to come up with a social statement, satisfying the standardized needs of modern society. The repetition of the idea of truth, in “true artist” and “mystic truths,” both leads the sentence into tautology and gives it a sense of ambiguity and poetry. As Nauman says, “artists are expected to live in the culture and to be part of the culture and not to be too weird. On the other hand, they are also expected to be somewhat outside of the culture and be weird—it’s like you have to live other people’s fantasy lives for them. It’s part of the relationship which goes on between the artist and the public.”
Nauman often involves his audience in his work by keeping information from them, by setting up expectations that are not fulfilled, by creating discrepancies between what the viewer knows and doesn’t know, sees and doesn’t see. A Cubic Foot of Steel Pressed Between My Palms, 1968, is in fact 24 inches square by 3 inches thick, implying that the artist’s handling has somehow compressed the steel from its cubic shape. Also in 1968, Nauman had an idea for a stack piece, unrealized, that would conceal memorabilia from his own life—photographs, pocket things—between heavy steel plates. (The project can be seen as a greeting to Carl Andre, whose sculptures first made Nauman aware of the effect of a work’s weight, and to Beuys.) Dark, 1968, is a square, 2500-pound slab of steel, 4 by 48 by 48 inches, located outdoors on the grounds of Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California; on the bottom side, hidden from the viewer, is inscribed the word “DARK.” To Nauman, “The obvious thing [Dark] establishes is a place you can’t get to—you have no control over it.” A similar work is John Coltrane Piece, 1969, made after the death of the innovative jazz saxophonist. A flat aluminum plate, it is, like Dark, too heavy for a viewer to lift, yet only by lifting it would one see that the underside is polished to a mirror finish. The inaccessibility and the effacement of the reflective properties of the mirror give the work an allusive richness, and suggest a wealth of metaphors; one can also find here a continuation of Nauman’s concern with private and public.
That concern crystallized in a number of works on the theme of the interior of a room. In 1970, at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery, Los Angeles, as a part of one of his early corridor pieces, Nauman sealed off a section of the space containing a camera that panned back and forth on an automated mount. From outside one could see this area on a monitor, but one could not enter it. In 1972, in the same gallery, Nauman installed hidden speakers wired to a tape recorder in a small room in the space. Entering the room, the visitor was surrounded by the artist’s voice quietly whispering, speaking, chanting, or yelling, over and over again, the phrase “Get out of my mind, get out of this room,” filling the air with the artist’s invisible but unavoidable presence. That same year Nauman drew a proposal for an underground chamber, about the size of a grave, that would be completely sealed off yet would contain a television camera, be lit by a lamp, and be visible on a monitor to people outside. In 1974 this sealed chamber was actually built, out of concrete, and buried in the backyard of a house in Antwerp, Belgium. The visitor, although unable to enter the space itself, can experience the interior of the room indirectly by watching a monitor inside the house, owned by the publisher and former art dealer Anny de Decker.
Nauman’s works about enclosure grew out of long experimentation with the effects of enclosed spaces in his own studio, whether in San Francisco, in Mill Valley, California, from 1966 to 1968, in Pasadena from the end of the ’60s until 1979, or in Pecos, New Mexico, from then until the present day. “That’s the thing about going into the studio to experience the quiet,” he notes. “All that’s there is you, and you have to deal with that. Sometimes it’s pretty hard. . . . ” Besides his photographs from 1966–67, works of Nauman’s that deal with the experience of being in the studio include Bouncing Two Balls between the Floor and Ceiling with Changing Rhythms, a film made in the artist’s studio in 1968. Here he performs over and over again the simple action prescribed in the title. “When you’re a painter and you take all the brushes away, how do you still function as an artist?,” Nauman has asked himself. Bouncing Two Balls . . . describes an absurdist answer to that question, but Nauman works with such concentration and conviction in the film that his answer is as powerful as it is silly. In all his work—performances, films, objects, installations—he tends to stick to the most unadorned actions and surfaces possible while getting his point across. This quality is reminiscent of Beckett, whose work Nauman first read while he was making his early films, in 1966–67. He found in Beckett a literary parallel to his own activities, which he explains with an anecdote from his own experience: “I knew this guy in California, an anthropologist, who had a hearing problem in one ear, and so his balance was off. Once he helped one of his sons putting a roof on his house, but the son got upset because his shingles would be lined up properly, while his father’s were not only laid out zigzagging, but also nails were bent and shingles split. When his son got upset about the mess his father had made, the anthropologist replied, ‘Well, it’s just evidence of human activity.’ And that’s what Beckett’s stories partly deal with—for example, Molloy transferring stones from pocket to pocket. . . . They’re all human activities; no matter how limited, strange, and pointless, they’re worthy of being examined carefully.”
Walking in Contrapposto, 1969, is a videotape in which Nauman walks in an exaggerated way, his body twisted so that hips, shoulders, and head are turned in different directions, taking up all the limited space in a corridor only 20 inches wide. The corridor form, here used as a set, became the theme of a number of Nauman’s works in the ’70s and ’80s. It reflects a switch from a literal approach to the human body—exemplified by Wax Impression of the Knees of Five Famous Artists, for example—to a perceptual focus. Any human activity is available to an artist for transformation into art, but to Nauman an involvement with resistances, things that don’t work so well or are hard to figure out, seems the most interesting subject for his art. He has always been curious about the effects of physical situations on human beings, such as the uncomfortable feeling of being in too compressed or too enlarged a space. In Nauman’s work the viewer is placed in the position of the performer as soon as he or she enters a corridor or room, and becomes tremendously self-conscious and aware of the slightest change within the surroundings. Behavioral patterns of life stand out in these spaces; one may start to resist their authoritarianism, to obey, or to look for comfortable places to rest within the stressing situation. Often, one feels caught unfairly in a double bind. Nauman compares it to entering a psychology test which asks, “Why did you stop hating your mother or your father?” Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room is a prime example of such a trap. The presumption was that whoever entered the room in some way violated the artist’s privacy; and yet this was a gallery installation meant to be viewed by the public. Over and over in Nauman’s work there is a thin line between private and public domain, between the amount of intimate information given to focus the public on the piece and Nauman’s fear of exposing himself too much: “I can only give so much. If I go further, it would take away something, or do something, that would throw me off the track.”4 On the one hand the viewer participates in the installations and is exposed to the experiences of the artist, turning from observer into performer; on the other hand, while the pieces have the element of inviting the viewer’s interpretation, the artist doesn’t want the viewer to participate at the level where the work is invented. “I wasn’t interested and I didn’t want to present situations where people could have too much freedom to invent what they thought was going on,” he said. “I wanted it to be my idea, and I did not want people to invent the art. The corridor was specific enough. Whatever ways you could use it were so limited that people were bound to have more or less the same experiences I had.”
The installation at the Wilder Gallery in 1970 consisted of six corridors, open at the top, running the length of one arm of the L-shaped space and finishing in dead ends at the wall. Some corridors the viewer could enter easily; the others were too narrow, and the narrowest ones, only 2 or 3 inches wide, one could hardly see into. Mounted high up near the entrance of one of the broader corridors was a camera connected to a monitor at the far end, so that as one walked down the corridor one saw oneself on the screen, anonymously from above and behind, paradoxically getting smaller and smaller as one drew nearer to the set. A second, adjacent monitor played a tape of the empty corridor. The issues raised here—of concealment, dislocation, enclosure—modulate throughout Nauman’s corridor pieces. As with his objects, Nauman often leaves the materials of his corridors bare; when he paints them he uses a neutral color. When he does invoke color he works with light, for example in an unrealized proposal from 1971 for a corridor in which he explored disorientation by proposing a U-shaped structure, one section, in the middle, lit with blue light and the two arms with yellow. When one walked in the blue corridor one would see on a monitor an image of a yellow corridor, and vice versa. The only time one would be able to see oneself would be as one turned the corner—but always within the other corridor color.
Beginning in 1973, and in tandem with his various corridor works, Nauman also worked on tunnel pieces. The first, unrealized, was an underground passage, reachable by a stairway in a shaft through which one could look up at the sky; farther along the tunnel, which culminated in a dead end, was another shaft which, because it was curved, had no view. In these and later tunnel pieces Nauman pursued the idea either of isolation or of its opposite—a space claustrophobically jammed with people. The corridor pieces juxtapose the physical confinement imposed by their narrow walkways with a mental exit (whether through the television images that frequently open up the space again, or through the passage from one place to another that the corridors sometimes afford); the tunnels, on the other hand, are terminal, usually literal dead ends. A model for such a piece from 1980 combines sections of plaster-and-fiberglass tunnels in three different shapes and media—an X shape, a circle, and a triangle—but the parts remain separated by walls. Sometimes Nauman creates installations of large maquettes for tunnels he envisions underground but that may never be built. These installations are usually larger than the corridor pieces, and their space is darker, more intimidating (unlike the corridors, it is always roofed), and more confusing to the viewer. The most recent such work was Room with My Soul Left Out/Room That Does Not Care, 1984, an installation at the Leo Castelli Gallery; New York, consisting of three intersecting tunnels in black Celotex, two horizontal and one vertical. Where the three tunnels intersected, the floor was covered with a grating through which one could see the vertical shaft continuing down into the basement. Inside the passageways a yellow light glowed dimly; absorbed immediately by the black walls. One had the insecure feeling that at any moment it might flicker and go out. The opening paragraph of Beckett’s The Lost Ones (1970), a book Nauman read after he started his tunnel projects, provides the perfect description:
Abode where lost bodies roam each searching for its lost one. Vast enough for search to be in vain. Narrow enough for flight to be in vain. . . . The light. Its dimness. Its yellowness.
There was no sense of the passage of time, no event to relate to, no traffic flow through the tunnels of Room with My Soul Left Out. . . . The air inside was nearly dead, and one felt lost. There wasn’t much to do except wait, or listen to the footsteps that came and went in the silence, or look down through the grating and up into space above it, into areas out of reach. Standing where the three passageways came together, one felt conspicuously exposed; people could look in from different directions. Nauman, who had become conscious of the influence of crowds on human behavior by reading Elias Canetti, compared the experience with what he calls “telephone-booth syndrome”: “In order to make a private telephone call one has to step into a booth, which makes one stand out uncomfortably, because of the separation from the crowd of people outside.”
Meanwhile, in 1981, out of a desire to work in real scale again, Nauman had returned to making sculptural pieces, but now he added political references to the bleak Beckett-like quality of his previous work. His “South America” series can be seen against the backdrop of the writings of V. S. Naipaul (for example, The Return of Eva Perón with the Killings in Trinidad, 1974), with which he feels strongly connected. More specifically, that year Nauman read Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number (1980), the account by the Argentine newspaper-publisher Jacobo Timerman of his imprisonment and torture by the Argentine government. Timerman wrote,
They sit me down, clothed, and tie my arms behind me. The application of electric shocks begins, penetrating my clothing to the skin. . . . I keep bouncing in the chair and moaning as the electric shocks penetrate my clothes. During one of these tremors, I fall to the ground, dragging the chair.
Nauman began to work with a chair hanging by a cable from the ceiling, at first with no structure around it. Next, he made drawings of the chair, but they seemed too literal. Then he thought, “because it hangs, it swings, and if it swings it can crash into something else; I should make that part of the piece. And then, if it makes noise, I can also adjust the noise, I can tune it.” (Turning a chair into a musical instrument reflects an attitude similar to that of the Fluxus artists—in Walter De Maria’s and La Monte Young’s Instrument for La Monte Young, 1966, for example.) South America Triangle, 1981, consists of three 14-foot steel girders linked to form a triangle, which is suspended from the ceiling by cables that converge at a central point, allowing the form to rotate. Hanging from the same point is an upsidedown, slightly abstracted cast-iron chair, which swings gently to and fro like a Foucault pendulum demonstrating the rotation of the earth. The triangle and chair have a forceful, aggressive effect, in part because they are hung approximately at eye level.5 Nauman had to give up the idea of letting the chair crash into the girders; it would have had to hang very low to have a swing that would reach them. The suggestion of a crash remains, however, in the dangling juxtaposed objects. South America Triangle not only forces the viewer to take care not to run into the bare metal so as to protect his or her eyes, but also suggests entrapment, through the enclosure of the symbolically charged chair.
Nauman made two variations on the “South America” theme, both 1981, one with a circle as the surrounding form and the other with a square; in each case he hung the chair differently—first sideways, then on edge. In another chair piece from the same year, Diamond Africa, he expressed his opposition to apartheid by tuning the sound that the chair legs made, when struck, to the notes D, E, A, and D—“dead.” (In 1968 he had done a performance in which he played the notes D E A D repeatedly on his violin while walking around his studio.) In 1983 he returned to the chair image, in Dream Passage, based upon a powerful dream he had in which he came down a corridor and entered a room at the end; in the room, around the comer to the left, stood a figure. At first, Nauman did not know how to transform this image into art. He made an attempt in an installation at the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, where he built a corridor and a small room lit by yellow and red fluorescent light, containing a welded-steel chair and table instead of the dream figure. A video camera at the entrance to the corridor was hooked up to a monitor on the table so that each visitor was filmed walking through the passage but could never see him- or herself on the screen. This piece did not satisfy Nauman, and in a second version of the work, in 1984, he created a mirror image by extending the corridor on the other side of the room, and by duplicating the table and chair with an identical set suspended upside down from the room’s ceiling. The mirroring was an indication of Nauman’s idea that the figure in the dream was himself, or partly himself. Another chair piece is White Anger, Red Danger, Yellow Peril, Black Death, 1984, in which Nauman suspended a pair of steel girders in an X shape. A white chair whose shape resembles a swastika hangs near the edge of the X, and in different places a black, a yellow, and a red chair, made respectively of aluminum, square steel tubing, and cast iron, are slid over the girders. The work combines the hallucinatory quality of the balanced and dangling chairs with colors whose connotations are racial, political, and emotional. Moreover, the loaded catch phrases of the title point in complex directions, all threatening: totalitarianism, racism, plague.
Nauman’s willingness to let simple materials do the work allows him to avoid “monumental seriousness,” and prevents him from becoming consumed in sophisticated techniques. When the execution of a work becomes more complicated, he realizes that he can, as he puts it, “have an idea and just sort of stretch it out, then give it to somebody else.” This attitude underlies the series of neon works about sex and power that were made to Nauman’s designs in 1985. Shown both individually and in groups, these alluring signs, in garish primary colors and softer secondaries, flash on and off, moving in and out of phase with one another in both the actions they depict and the rate at which they flash. The signs shift between composing images of sex and violence and breaking down into abstracted body parts: in mechanical repetition, an arm moves up and down, a leg kicks forward and back, a penis stands and falls, a tongue flickers in and out, and so on. Vaudeville seems to be the operative genre here, with such attractions as Sex and Death with Hanging Figures (Double 69), Mean Clown Welcome, and Punch and Judy—Kick in the Groin/Slap in the Face. This satirical comedy of social comment is like a contemporary version of Bertolt Brecht’s and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera or Mahagonny combined with Eugène Ionesco-like elements of follow-the-leader herd instinct pushed to and past the limits of the bizarre.
Nauman’s concerns in these neon pieces are prefigured in his earlier works, but there they tended to appear more obliquely. For example, in From Hand to Mouth, 1967, a wax cast of a section of a woman’s body (hand and arm, shoulder, neck, chin and mouth), the expression “living from hand to mouth” is both objectified and made intensely literal. The piece can be compared to Duchamp’s With My Tongue in My Cheek, 1959, a drawing combined with a cast of the artist’s cheek pushed out by his tongue. However, when he made From Hand to Mouth Nauman did not know of this work. Any influence of Duchamp’s on Nauman was channeled through his understanding of the work of johns. As Nauman puts it, “It’s sort of like my understanding of Freudian philosophy, which is probably a very American version of it coming through [William] Faulkner. It’s no longer from Freud, but digested and rearranged.” Johns had a large impact on Nauman: “I loved de Kooning’s work, but Johns was the first artist to put some intellectual distance between himself and his physical activity of making paintings.” Nauman cites especially the inclusion of part of a cut-open, upside-down chair with a cut-open cast of a human leg sitting on it in Johns’ painting According to What, 1964. In this work the inside of the cast and the interior of the chair face the viewer. Johns has said about this, “to have a chair in the position with which we usually associate it, what would be absent would be too important in the fragment of the figure.” The act of making that kind of displacement in order to focus one’s attention differently, as well as Johns’ idea that “through thought or through accumulation of other thoughts, something that’s very charged can lose its charge, or vice versa,”6 confirmed for Nauman his use of the tension between what is told and what is deliberately withheld, as well as his own attempts to objectify his experiences rather than to leave autobiographical traces in the work. In Nauman’s videotapes of 1968–69, the camera is usually set up above or behind him so that his face doesn’t show or is cropped. The mouths, genitals, and other intimate body parts in his various casts and photographs are often reproduced very realistically, yet they are shown so abstractly, and in such a distanced way, that they seem not to belong to a particular individuated person. These are recognizably parts of actual bodies, yet they are used as objects. In the same way, the neon signs of 1985 have impact because their tough imagery is stylized into abstraction.
Nauman decided to show these signs in large groups because he hoped to exert pressure on the viewers by creating a no-exit situation for them. The connotations that neon has acquired through its use in popular culture—whether in glamorous nightclubs in ’30s movies, or more recently above sleazy bars—are offset in these works by blatantly corny, even nasty imagery. On entering an exhibition of Nauman’s neon pieces one is at first seduced by their glowing color, then immediately knocked on the head by their raucousness. Gradually one begins to distinguish the different components in each sign, and the ways they change. Over time, the constant blinking makes the figures disintegrate into images of separate limbs; meanwhile, the repetition abstracts the sequences even further, until what seemed at first to be the content has vanished. All one is left with are powerful afterimages—for example, of the two hands that seem continually about to come together in greeting, but in the end always miss one another.
Coosje van Bruggen is an an historian who lives in New York. This essay is intended as a part of her monograph on Nauman, to be published by Rizzoli Publications International, New York, in 1987.
1. Unless otherwise noted, the quotations of Bruce Nauman in this article come from a series of interviews between him and the author beginning in June 1985 and continuing into April 1986.
2. Quoted in Joe Raffaele and Elizabeth Baker, “The Way-Out West: Interviews with 4 San Francisco Artists,” Artnews, Summer 1967, p. 40.
3. Quoted in Willoughby Sharp, “Nauman Interview,” Arts, March 1970, p. 24.
4. Quoted in Jan Butterfield, “Bruce Nauman: The Center of Yourself,” Arts, February 1975, p. 55.
5. Earlier, Nauman had used this kind of device in a much less confrontational manner, in Untitled Eye Level Piece, 1966, a work that hangs on the wall.
6. The quotations of Johns come from a discussion between him and the author in February 1986.
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