Nauman didn’t start out as an artist. After graduating, in 1964, with a degree in math from the University of Wisconsin, he decided to enroll in the MFA program at the University of California, Davis. It was there that he developed the vocabulary that would inform his oeuvre for the next four decades, focusing on language and the body and declaring that anything he did in his studio could count as art. Working in video, photography, performance and drawing, and employing neon, wax and metal, Nauman was already well on his way to being what he is today: totally beyond categorization.
His earliest supporters, in the 1970s, were mainly European patrons and institutions, such as the Kunstmuseum Basel. Chicago-based collector Gerald Elliott was the first American to amass a sizable number of Naumans: about a dozen, including the 1966 plaster sculpture Mold for a Modernized Slant Step, all of which went to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, when he died, in 1994. Emerging later as a prominent buyer was Christian “Mick” Flick, who collected more than 40 pieces from throughout Nauman’s career, among them the provocative 1985 neon Sex and Death. Some of Flick’s holdings are currently on seven-year loan to the Hamburger Bahnhof, in Berlin. (The museum is planning a traveling Nauman retrospective based on Flick’s collection, scheduled for around 2011.)
Much of the artist’s work is difficult to live with. A film of a garrulous clown bound to a toilet—Clown Torture, from 1987—or a drum set played at top volume, as in the 1988 video installation Learned Helplessness in Rats (Rock and Roll Drummer), isn’t for everyone. “It takes a committed collector,” says Nauman’s Chicago dealer, Donald Young, explaining that buyers come in two flavors: “people who are interested in all aspects of his art and people who want a Nauman.” The latter usually seek out “the so-called real collectibles,” says Young, referring to the unique 1960s works that are most desirable but rarely appear for sale. Adds Christie’s specialist Andrew Massad, “Those are the historic Naumans, the ones that changed art history.”
Such a piece is the record-breaking Henry Moore Bound to Fail. The artist’s onetime dealer Leo Castelli owned the wax sculpture for years and refused to sell it, even when offered millions of dollars. Upon Castelli’s death, in 1994, Minneapolis collector Ralph Burnet bought it privately, then consigned it to Christie’s in 2001. New York dealer Joseph Helman also picked up signature Naumans, paying less than $1,000 apiece in the 1960s for works like From Hand to Mouth, a 1967 wax cast of an arm that the Hirshhorn Museum, in Washington, D.C., reportedly acquired in 1993 for more than $1 million. The exhibition “A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s”—which runs at the Castello di Rivoli, in Turin, from May 23 through September 9 after a stint at the Berkeley Art Museum, in California—contains some of the younger works that are ripe for rediscovery. Curator Constance Lewallen tracked down Nauman’s earliest extant neon, a 1965 untitled orange-tinted fiberglass tube that is displayed on the floor. She found it in the collection of a fellow UC Davis student, who ended up consigning the work at Sotheby’s last November, where Nauman’s New York dealer, Angela Westwater, of Sperone Westwater, bought it for $374,400—a steal, she says.
Nauman has worked with neon throughout his career, but his 1980s pieces in the medium are especially sought after. Two of his auction records were for monumental neons, both walls of blinking punning phrases: Sotheby’s New York hammered down One Hundred Live and Die, 1984, to the Benesse Art Site, in Naoshima, Japan, for $1.9 million in 1992, and five years later sold Good Boy/Bad Boy, 1986–87, to the Daros Collection in Zurich for $2.2 million. A show of these light pieces that drew crowds last December at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, opens at Montreal’s Musee d’Art Contemporain on May 25. Nauman’s smaller neons are more manageable for some collectors. One of his slapstick series “Double Poke in the Eye,” produced in 1985 in an edition of 40, fetched $228,000 last May at Christie’s New York. “For an edition that size, it’s a remarkable price,” says Massad. Westwater agrees: “His neons are increasingly popular, and this one is a terrific size that an individual or institution can put on a wall.” She adds that a work from the series even sold privately for $300,000.
Now 65, the artist lives on a secluded New Mexico ranch with his wife, painter Susan Rothenberg, and continues to create works, including Venice Fountains, a room-size sculpture that he will present at the Venice Biennale next month. Recently, his large-scale installations have captured some substantial sums. Westwater sold 2001’s Mapping the Studio (Fat Chance John Cage)four videos showing Nauman’s cat chasing mice during the night—for $1.2 million apiece to such museums as London’s Tate Modern and Paris’s Centre Pompidou. Young sold One Hundred Fish Fountain, a working fountain with suspended bronze fish from 2005, to an American collector for double that. The artist, moreover, still has street cred. “Yes Bruce Nauman,” a group show at Zwirner & Wirth in New York last summer, featured art based on or paying homage to Nauman, some by fashionable young figures such as Mungo Thomson and Peter Coffin. “He has retained an independent position within the art world,” says Young. “His work has tremendous strength and authenticity.”
Artist Dossier: Bruce Nauman” was originally published in the May 2007 issue of Art & Auction Magazine.