Bruce Nauman (born 1941), an American artist whose prime medium was sculpture, worked in various other media including painting, video, and installation throughout his career. Constantly provocative, his work was uncomfortable even for admirers to view. "Nauman, beyond much dispute, is the most influential American artist of his generation," wrote Time 's Robert Hughes in 1995. "[H]ardly a corner of the mix of idioms at the end of the 1980s, from video to body pieces to process art to language games of various sorts, escaped Nauman's influence." Although critics were polarized in their response to Nauman, his work could be found in museums and private collections throughout the world.
Nauman was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana on December 6, 1941. His father was an engineer for a utility company, and the family was often uprooted. After high school, Nauman attended the University of Wisconsin to study mathematics and music. He changed his major to art, graduating in 1964. Parallels frequently have been drawn between his initial attraction to mathematics and his means of artistic expression.
Nauman undertook graduate studies at the University of California at Davis. There he was exposed to experimental art and concentrated almost exclusively on sculpture. He graduated with a master of fine arts degree in 1966. While still in school, Nauman mounted a solo exhibit at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles. The show won him praise and immediate attention.
Nauman frequently used materials such as fiberglass, neon tubing, and styrofoam in lieu of traditional sculpting materials. In 1968, he signed a contract with Leo Castelli, an influential New York art dealer. That same year, he had his first solo exhibition in Europe. One of his best-known pieces from this period is "Window or Wall Sign," a neon spiral with the words "The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths." About this time he began experimenting with sound in spaces and soon embarked on using holography. Gradually, Nauman built a reputation as an exciting new experimental artist.
Works Polarized Critics, Public
His first retrospective show was organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1972. He was still in his 30s—relatively young for such a career-spanning display. The exhibit traveled throughout the United States and was shown at museums including the Whitney Museum in New York.
Throughout the 1970s, Nauman continued to make provocative art. Critics variously described his work as humorous or painful. In fact, throughout his career, his work often defied description. It was unclear whether his pieces were sexual, aggressive, conceptual, or thought-provoking. Nauman's work served as a litmus test for viewers, received either as a pop-psychology experiment or psychological torture, depending on the work and the reaction it elicited. In an interview in 1987 with Joan Simon, quoted in Artforum International, Nauman observed that his 1968 audio-installation work "Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room" is "so angry it scares people."
Nauman's departure into even more non-traditional media, especially his use of video, made him a pioneer in postmodern art. His video pieces frequently included actors involved in bizarre, repetitive acts. Other pieces invited the viewer into oddly shaped constructed spaces in which they soon felt trapped or confined. In some of these installations, the participating viewer's panicky reaction was recorded.
Tortured Artistic Experiments
Nauman worked with a variety of materials—from bronze to video to animal parts—doing sculptures, drawings, videos, and other multifaceted installations. Amei Wallach in a 1995 Newsday review of Nauman's work, observed: "Bruce Nauman's subject is the human condition; his range is Shakespearean. But for most of the '60s, like other artists of his generation, he smothered any storytelling propensities in a more baldly empirical approach." His later work was informed by his own reading of accounts of political torture. His response was to build "experiments" that explored how various conditions might affect humans.
Nauman moved to a ranch near Galisteo, New Mexico. The land where he had a home and simple studio had been a Pueblo Indian village. He had, surmises Wallach, "overdosed on too much art-world attention." He spent his non-working time training horses and caring for the animals on his ranch.
In 1994, Peter Schjeldahl in Art in America called Nauman "a master of black humor and intellectually cunning … strategies … the best—the essential—American artist of the last quarter-century… . Nauman's art sets the mind on tiptoe and knocks the heart sprawling. When one has been exposed to enough of it, the effect is a sort of rapturous ennui."
Played with Video Art
As if his previous themes were not disturbing or polarizing enough for American critics, Nauman selected clowns as a metaphor in several video pieces. "Clown Torture" (1987) was a video piece featuring "the hoarse voice of Nauman, dressed as a clown, in a baggy suit of vertical stripes that slyly recalls the garb of concentration-camp prisoners, shrieking, 'No, no, no, nonono!' while writhing and jerking on the floor," wrote Hughes in Time.
Nauman's work was compared to earlier experimental and conceptual artists, particularly those in the Dadaist movement, such as Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, as well as to artist Andy Warhol. Nauman, who married painter Susan Rothenberg in 1989, cited John Cage, the minimalist composer, and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein as important influences.
His obsession with clown imagery in the 1980s drew comparisons to author Samuel Beckett. This prompted a show in 2000 called "SAMUEL BECKETT/BRUCE NAUMAN." In his critique of the exhibition in Artforum International, Daniel Birnbaum said the connection between the two men was "exemplary. No other contemporary artist has worked so intensively with repetitions that turn the minor absurdities of the everyday into something unendurable."
Nauman's later video installations included "Learned Helplessness in Rats," a 1988 installation featuring a Plexiglas maze and loud punk rock drumming, and "Violent Incident" (1986), in which a band of video monitors displayed a domestic squabble that ends in a double homicide.
In discussing his video work, Nauman said he was aware of the different means artists in other disciplines were using to structure time in their works. These included composers Steve Reich, La Monte Young, and John Cage; Merce Cunningham, the noted dancer and choreographer; and Warhol, particularly in his films.
"[I]t was interesting for me to have a lot of ways to think about things," he told the PBS documentary Art21. "And one of the things I liked about some of those people was that they thought of their works as just ongoing. And so you could come and go and the work was there… . you could go back and visit whenever you wanted to."
Nauman was recognized with two art awards in 1993 and 1994, the Wolf Prize for sculpture and the Wexner Prize. The Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective of his work in 1994. It was Nauman's first major museum exhibition since 1972, and the critics came out swinging. "There is nothing that can be said against Nauman that hasn't already been said in his favor," wrote Perl. Hughes commented that Nauman made "art so dumb that you can't guess whether its dumbness is genuine or feigned… . When it is really silly, the dumbness can be disarming, as it was with Nauman's predecessor, the American Dada gagman Man Ray."
Hughes observed that "no show was ever noisier. Go in, and you hit a wall of sound, all disagreeable: moanings and groanings; the prolonged squeak of something being dragged over a hard surface, like a knife on a plate; repetitious rock drumming." He concluded that Nauman "has cut himself a different role: the artist as nuisance."
Nauman's work was called anti-art for its minimalism and the discomfort it provoked. He drew more wrath and invective than contemporaries such as Donald Judd, Mark di Suvero, and Nam June Paik. "[T]he question that ends up sticking in our minds is why people allow him to bore them on this truly staggering scale," wrote Perl.
In an interview with Artforum International in March 2002, Nauman explained his 2001 project called "Mapping the Studio," his first installation work in seven years: "I have all this stuff lying around the studio, leftovers from different projects and unfinished projects and notes. And I thought to myself, Why not make a map of the studio and its leftovers?" He set up a camera in seven different positions and collected six hours' worth of tape that was projected in the exhibit space. These tapes included images of the nocturnal habits of his cat and the studio mice.
Nauman also made other video pieces based on his daily life at the ranch. "Setting a Good Corner" was a later piece showing how he went about building a corner on which to stretch a fence and hang a gate. The piece was utilitarian and, Nauman contended, artistic. "I wasn't sure when I finished it if anybody would take it seriously. It turned out to be kind of interesting to watch," he said in the PBS documentary.
Art World Split
Nauman divided opinions within the art community like few other artists. "Bruce Nauman is a great artist. There is no other kind or degree of artist he could be," concluded Schjeldahl in Art in America. "The alternative would be to exclude Nauman from art altogether."
But Perl contended: "What's extraordinary isn't that Nauman shrieks, but that people listen… . He's a control freak—he hurls neon thunderbolts, builds detention chambers, shouts commands."
His work was placed in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, Germany.
Newsmakers 1995, Gale Research, 1995.
Art in America, April 1994; June 2002.
Artforum International, November 1997; March 2002; Summer 2000.
New Republic, January 23, 1995.
Newsday, March 12, 1995. Time, April 24, 1995.
"Art: 21, Bruce Nauman," PBS,http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/nauman/clip1.html (February 28, 2003). □