Ask virtually any artist at the outer edge of any paradigm-breaking/paradigm-making activity who they admire and you get the same name: Bruce Nauman. Check any of the top 100 or top 10 lists in the art glossies that track the ups and downs of artists’ popularity among collectors and institutions and you will find that name firmly positioned at or near the summit. Those with the long view will know how surprising this current consensus among practitioners and tastemakers actually is, especially given that taste has been the least of Nauman’s concerns, if it has been a concern at all. Nor has his ascent been meteoric like that of the comparatively young world-beaters with whom he shares such prestige: Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Richard Prince chief among them. True, Nauman started out fast in the 1960s with attention-getting appearances at Nick Wilders gallery in Los Angeles and an exhibition in New York at Leo Castelli in 1968 along with early museum solo shows at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum in 1972, but for most of his midcareer until the early 1980s he flew just below the radar of market mavens. Moreover, general public enthusiasm for his work has come late, and even now public recognition of the kind enjoyed by peers such as Jasper Johns or Joseph Beuys eludes him. Consider those counter-examples. None of this artist’s images are household icons in the manner of Johns’s flags and maps. Nor is his own image as ubiquitous as Beuys’s has become. Even though he has frequently appeared in his own videos and in other works as a performer, he has not forged a persona or engaged in psychological self-portraiture as such. Neither has he sought the kind of fame Beuys acquired through his public actions or that Johns has achieved through exquisitely dramatized privacy.
Rather Nauman has cut his own path and taken it at his own pace. And while he is among the most respected artists internationally, he is as quintessentially American as Pollock or Warhol. A midwesterner by birth — Nauman hails from Indiana and started college in Wisconsin, those being two of the "flyover" states that coastal Americans and foreigners sometimes mistakenly think of as vast intellectual and aesthetic wastelands — he is a westerner by choice. He did his graduate studies at the University of California, Davis, an agricultural school with a thriving art department then led by the Pop painter Wayne Thiebaud (for whom Nauman worked as a teaching assistant), and the Funk ceramist Robert Arneson (with whose work Nauman’s occasionally has surprising affinities). William Wiley, another faculty member and Funkster, was also an influence and collaborated with Nauman on his first neon. Upon graduating Nauman moved to the San Francisco Bay area where he set up a studio in a former drinks distributor’s depot. There he taped his first videos and made his seminal neon, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (1967), under the inspiration of a commercial neon that had been left behind in the window by the former tenants. There followed a brief sojourn in the New York area after Castelli picked him up — Castelli remained one of the artist’s principal dealers until his death in 1999 — but since the late ’60s, Nauman has lived in New Mexico.
All of that is to say Nauman has kept his distance from the day-and-night schmoozing of the art scene, though he makes fleeting appearances at the openings of his shows around the world, and travels regularly to work on projects and see friends. When offered artworld laurels he has accepted them with little comment, and, when offered the crown, he has turned it down. Thus when Jan Hoet proposed to make him the central figure in Documenta IX with the example of Beuys at the same exhibition in 1977 as his precedent, Nauman politely declined and let a prominently featured but ambiguously confrontational video work, Anthro/Socio, do his talking — or rather chanting — for him.
It is commonly said that Nauman is a man of few words, this cliché often prompting another, that he is a laconic, Gary Cooper-like cowboy. Nauman does raise horses and cattle, but this is less important than the fact that rather than engaging in this avocation as a gentleman rancher, he approaches it as he does everything important to him, with intense discipline, far-reaching curiosity, and profound self-questioning. For example, in light of Nauman’s exposure as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin to behavioral psychology as it was framed by B. F. Skinners theories regarding the coercive use of rewards and punishments to modify primary drives, desires, or fears, Nauman’s later involvement with the horse trainer — some say horse whisperer — Ray Hunt assumes a special significance. On the one hand Hunt offered a practical alternative to conventional methods for "breaking" a horse, and on the other, an alternative understanding of how human and animal nature are intertwined, while at the same time showing how we are inescapably torn between habits of antagonism and longing for harmony. Nauman’s observation of and work with Hunt have thus been crucial sources for a wide array of videos, neons, drawings, and pieces in other media that demonstrate the degree to which, over the course of a day or a week or a month, every one of Nauman’s primary endeavors is integral to every other and how his everyday existence on the land is bound to his life as an artist.
Consider several thematically interconnected but substantively different works from 1988. At one extreme, Learned Helplessness in Rats (Rock and Roll Drummer), consists of an empty yellow Plexiglas maze coupled with a wall projection opposite it in which two images alternate. The first is a rat nosing its way through the labyrinth, the second, a young man flailing away at a drum set. If the background to this choice of images was, in part, Nauman’s early exposure to Skinnerite ideas, the immediate inspiration was an article he had just read in Scientific American about a newly established link between stress, depression, and the acquired inability to perform routine tasks. In contrast, the drummer emblematizes a learned behavior through which frustration can be vented, and in the second version of the piece, Rats and Bats (Learned Helplessness in Rats II), the harshly illuminated maze is juxtaposed with projections of rats on one wall and on another, a man with a bat hammering away at a stuffed sack.
Horsemanship is a related metaphor for heeding instinct while simultaneously overcoming or harnessing it. In Green Horses (1988), Nauman shows himself putting a mount through its paces on his land. The video is presented as a projection and on two TV monitors, and what is immediately striking about the footage is the unity of motion achieved by man and beast, an impression reinforced when one sees the same maneuvers three times at once. That impression does not change when the footage is periodically inverted; rather, one has the uncanny feeling that the horse is actually riding the man, which, if one were to take Ray Hunt’s lessons to heart, is the kind of harmony of being and action that an enlightened rider seeks.
Another prime instance of such a crossover between life and art, but one governed by the combination of mastery and dynamic equilibrium, is the 2000 video, Setting a Good Corner. In it Nauman digs holes and installs log posts for the corner of a fence on his property. A stationary camera records his labor and the incidental things that occur in the course of it. At one point, for example, his wife, the painter Susan Rothenberg, walks into the shot, observes what he is up to, speaks to him and then walks away. Nothing could be more mundane, but the point of it all is that Nauman — the Conceptual artist and Homo sapiens but also the rancher and Homo faber — is doing his job well. Moreover he does it without histrionics and, in an era when the medium he helped to pioneer is increasingly prisoner to technical and cinematic gimmicks, without fancy framing or special effects.
The apparent rawness of Nauman’s work is therefore not the antithesis of craft but a declaration of faith in simplicity and directnesss, especially when the fundamental poetics of the piece would be compromised by superfluous "poetic" refinements. Take his recent reprise of the 1966 performance photograph Self-portrait as a Fountain, a picture of the youthful artist posing as a classical nude spouting water. A pair of sculptures from 2006 (which I included in the edition of the Biennale I curated) features two life casts of the artist’s face positioned above a plastic industrial sink into which each spits water through a hose inserted in its mouth. But now the face is not youthful, the body not a body but a catch basin, and the unceasing flow of water comes closer to vomiting even as it suggests drowning. In Nauman’s work even the tragic is expressed with the greatest economy.
A diaristic portrait of Nauman would describe a man who makes things in the studio only fitfully but whose mind — charged by alternating currents emanating from intellectual and emotional polarities — whirs constantly as he tends to his ranch routines, reads, watches TV, and takes attentive, thoughtful notice of things around him. As the several versions of his 2001 multiscreen video ensemble Mapping the Studio (Fat Chance John Cage) shows, even his absence from the studio is the predicate for reflecting on what happens when the artist is not actively making art and life goes on without him. Or rather what happens when he as a self-directed protagonist is "offstage," and prowling cats, furtive mice, and insects take his place and explore the night according to their nature.
Because Nauman’s art often uses language as a raw material, testing its syntactic plasticity against extremes of lexical concision and physical utterance, and given the fairly recent publication of a thick book of interviews covering his forty-plus years of creative probing, it may be more accurate to say that Nauman is not so much a man of few words as a man of carefully chosen words. Spoken words have been central to his art since early on. In Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room (1968) the voice of the artist simultaneously commands, rants, and implores the auditor to leave the space they share as two consciousnesses — one disembodied, one uncomfortably real and
present — that are pushed to the point of anger and exhaustion by the struggle to hear and the desperate wish to be heard only so that the possessor of that voice will, in the end, be left alone. Rather than constituting a dialogue of the deaf, as so many failures to communicate are said to be, the work is a mesmerizing monologue that locks both parties in mutual anguish and absurd codependency. In Lip Sync (1969) Nauman alienated sense from sound by desynchronizing a tape of himself repeating the two-word title while estranging the speaker from the listener by radically cropping and inverting the image of his own head so that the movement of his lips and face would be parallel to but out of alignment with the viewer. The result is a spatial incongruity equivalent to the temporal one of the lapse between video and audio.
For his 2004 project "Raw Materials" in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern, Nauman effectively subsumed a lifetime of text pieces into a single Gesamtkunstwerk-cum-audio retrospective. He used nearly unnoticeable state-of-the-art speakers to create a corridor so that visitors — one cannot say spectators or viewers because there was basically nothing to see — making their way from the entrance to the back of the great enclosure were beckoned or bombarded by the stereophonic resonance of Nauman’s wordplay. Or perhaps one should just call such sound pieces plays outright, given the dramatic character of even the sparest and most cryptic of them, and given the artist’s enduring interest in the works of Samuel Beckett, modern master of the fewest, most cryptic words uttered to the greatest, most disconcerting effect.
Nauman’s latest project of this order has been conceived for the American Pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale, which will also contain a selection of works amounting to a synoptic account of his career. But that is as far as one is permitted to go in describing what the public will find next month. At this writing, the curators have placed a press embargo on the release of further information, although such public-relations inspired secrecy around Nauman’s work is superfluous when compared with the genuine enigmas the work invariably generates when fully revealed. That is the game that cultural bureaucrats like to play these days in the high-stakes competition that the race for Golden Lions has become. Nauman won one in 1999, and would certainly deserve another if this year’s jurors were to vote him a second. But such prizes, or anointment as king of the artworld for 2009, pales next to the stakes the artist himself puts on the table. He has bet his life once again on trying to get it right in the world of ordinary needs and wants and hopes, where everything is likely to go wrong. Once more he is trying to set a good corner.
"Bruce Nauman" originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' May 2009 Table of Contents.