PRINT December 1967

The Art of Bruce Nauman

A FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH THE work of Bruce Nauman is extremely disconcerting. Very little prepares one for the realm of remarkable concepts and surprising forms with which this young sculptor deals. Each work, like the tip of an iceberg, is the barely exposed result of a complicated and fully developed line of interpolation and interpretation. Nauman is working in an extreme corner of the area of bare visibility, for the forms are of unusual proportions, homely materials and, whether titled or not, would appear at first exposure to be a vaguely repulsive caprice.

The response to a Nauman may vary curiously according to the amount of information one possesses about the piece. Untitled, as were his first fiberglass and rubber works, they have a direct impact by being distasteful in surface and substance and kinesthetically architectonic in working with or across the wall and floor. The plaster works shown at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery last year obviously were casts of other shapes, but the lately-acquired knowledge that they were formed against and around shelves and brackets, and were concerned with shape generation related to practical or normal wall orientation is enormously valuable and helpful. Experiencing a work, then learning the title while still baffled is an odd situation; rather than the shock of recognition one receives from an Oldenburg, one is surprised, amused, and even relieved. Yet it is a cheated sort of satisfaction; the puzzling gestalt falls into place with this last link of identification, but there is little to do except disengage the words and the work and try afresh. In such a situation, the particularly illustrative works, like the punning photographs and the recent figurative wax casts become obvious, yet a marvelous reverberation takes place. Operating at a lower level, if one accepts the words, the title, as the answer to the search for meaning, the works lapse into another state of invisibility. If one accepts the titles on the level of poetic commentary, a debate arises as to whether the artist is pure and naive or a witty and sophisticated literate. My experience favors an amalgam; an intellect in the service of earnest visualization and scrupulous realization.

As Nauman has put it, he invents longterm projects for himself. This is obviously what any creative worker does, but in the blunt and bald way he states it, it seems even more elementary. One immediately conjures up the image of the slyly lucid Duchamp filling the Green Box with his cryptic plans of action. Nauman’s ideas come from various sources of inspiration. Some are resolutions of the basic problem of how to originate volumes and where to locate them in a room. Some are a revision or extension of previous plans leading to completely altered following ones, and a large number are based on word puns and the literal description of common expressions. Alterations occur as ideas hybridize and technical demands press forward. He thinks a project out in terms of visualizations, sets up conditions in which the work will be formed, then accepts what happens.

He is impatient with involved sculptural techniques. His background as a painter directs his preference for manipulative materials or those which fabricate easily. Rubber, wax, and plaster fulfill the requirements of easy handling and are equally appropriate as sketching materials or in casting. That Nauman utilizes all three for finished works indicates a total lack of interest (at least for the present) in traditionally accepted “fine art” sculptural materials, and the elevation of the sketch and the mold to the status of art. In fact he seems to flirt with temporariness and fragility as desirable qualities. He shrugs off the knowledge that the rubber used in one series of works will eventually decay and collapse. His use of cardboard, wood, fiberglass and plastic continues the list out to planar materials easily managed in a studio, while projects in galvanized iron and neon tubing are executed by professionals familiar with working out drawn instructions. The materials, selected, he says, for their color, are handled in a simple, direct manner. He says he makes his sculpture as “hard” as he can. Their poverty of visual appeal suggests a melancholy homeliness and even sadness, or, at their most repulsive, a disquieting honesty. Most often the finished product appears rather an end or waste product; the molds a static, frozen chrysalis, the constructions totally useless, the life casts puzzlingly segmented.

The difficulty and the high quality of Nauman’s work stem directly from the fact that they are highly conceptual, defined and manipulated in elaborate drawings and executed in the most summary manner. Without discounting the part played by feeling, logic generates the basic considerations of each piece; the size, direction, position, and material. He determines by clear and arbitrary reason each choice or move, though he is somewhat at a loss at times later to recollect why certain features turned out the way they did. He fully realizes that this method courts obscurity, but feels this cannot be helped. In notes and drawings an idea is researched, amplified, and condensed. The drawings are surprisingly rich and explanatory, boldly cartoonish or generously and incisively expressionistic in style and executed in a variety of materials filled out with color. Often the drawings are executed after a concept has been executed as a sculpture, with the desire to fully terminate it, as well as to develop other variants and to pass on to new ideas.

For the past year he has utilized photographs he has taken himself to preserve and study altered material that can be made captive in no other way. Some are solely studio references as are his examinations of various parts of the body pressed against and recorded through a pane of glass. This series ends with the oily impressions collected upon the glass and the entire sequence extends Jasper Johns’s skin print “drawing,” with which Nauman is probably unfamiliar. Another sequence preserves various expressions of the face and mouth which are particularly startling, more appropriate for a medical monthly, because of the raw vividness of the commercial drug store film processing. In another project (unfinished) for a monument, a Light Trap for Henry Moore, he imitates that sculptor’s cross contour drawing style with a zigzagging spiral of light captured in a time exposure. This activity recalls and parodies the famed performances of Picasso painting on glass, but Nauman’s more resembles the track of a landing helicopter. He anticipates the possibility of publishing at least one group of photos in book form, a set based primarily upon illustrating puns and titles. Some, as Drill Team and Waxing Hot are embarrassingly clever and have all the charm of dowdy product demonstrations, complete to tacky, textured material background and heightened, colored side lighting. Others, as The Artist Rejecting a Cold Cup of Coffee and Self-Portrait as a Garden Fountain are highly graphic images recording the flow of liquids.

Recording changes is the motif behind a series of Flour Arrangements where a pile of that material was scraped and patted and then photographed from varying angles. Except for the module of the gridded studio floor one has little accurate indication of scale, and the originally shaped mounds easily become isolated atolls and islands awash in a dark squared sea.

In a similar manner, recent activities utilize the camera for its potential of distorting and terrain mapping. Suggesting the influence of the recent flood of lunar close-ups, he proposes a neon script of his name projected as a curvature on the horizon. A tentatively titled Seven Piles of Junk in Bruce Nauman’s Studio, will consist of pieced-together views of debris left from previous projects, taken from a height of three feet above the floor.

As “non-art” at first exposure as the works of the minimalists, he adds a measure of exceedingly bad taste. The early works were constructions, boxes with vent-like openings, with a strong reference to industrial mock-ups, and possessed the character of functionalism, several of which are described by the artist as involving air circulation or viewer position. A slanting metal floor piece is meant to be stood in, and is related to a recent green and red rubber pad to be stood upon. He conspires to force the incredulous viewer to participate. Several larger, more complex series followed, dividing and occupying space, tying together the elements of a room, or existing in a slender portion of the space. One, a cardboard box, painted with black tempera, to be hung high in the corner of a room, has as its purpose being hidden or receding from the viewer no matter how hard it is examined. (A hidden partition is kept from view and black was used to confuse the play of shadows.) Felt formed over sketch for a metal floor piece operates in a similar area. Several large, stepped sheets, fiberglass molded over plywood, recall 1930s “moderne” curves but were involved in the generation of volumes through repetition and stood in a corner or hung on a nail. A next group revealed the negative spaces molded around the slabs of wall furniture and, as awkward and forceful masses, revealed the inside outside. Molding, measuring, and recording common but previously undiscovered voids was a major intent. Other negatives given form include Platform made up of the space between two rectilinear boxes on the floor, Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at Ten Inch Intervals, and Wax Block with the Impressions of the Knees of Five Famous Artists. The Platform qualifies as one of the shabbiest pieces of construction to pass as a finished work, and amongst its flossy neighbors in the Sculpture of the ’60s show was nothing if not humble. One must appreciate it as the immediate solidification of a left-over gap, as one considers a Tony Smith plywood and paint mock-up the economical visualization of a sculptural projection. Nauman’s work bears comparison to the ghost studies of objects of Claes Oldenburg in the similarity of their various orientations in space and their defenseless vulnerability. Nauman’s piece is, however, the final version, while the Smiths and the Oldenburgs are to be translated to sterner and finer stuff.

These pieces that demonstrate data are not merely factual, though this is often enough to remove them from everyday experience. He often cheats, i.e. imposes other conditions which alter the imagery and meaning. The knees mentioned above, for instance, are impressions of the artist’s own; a neon version of his handwritten name stretched out of proportion fourteen times higher than wide was also modified to preserve the abstractness, the illegibility, of the letters. The treatment of the name is typical; choosing a familiar known and transferring it systematically to alter the “object” so completely that it is “unreadable.” The piece looks like a lavender fall of glowing icicles energetically opposing the organic winding of the black electrical cords.

In form the works are assertive (if fragmentary) and consistently escape definition or clarification. No doubt the artist can explain Six Inches of My Knee Stretched Out to Six Feet, but this dark fiberglass hollow length, still remains an inert and hermetic item. One Which began as an investigation into the cartoon labyrinths of a Westermann ear drawing ended as a pair of crossed arms echoing the intertwining of heavy rope attached above them. Even if the source is an accurate, life-cast figuration, the mystery remains. From Hand to Mouth is exactly the topography of that distance rendered in green wax. It is a moving and impassively laconic lament, to which the color adds a morbid fascination and the detail found in the soft impression the immediacy of a clinical examination.

When the artist presents as a neon sign, “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths,” or writes on a window shade, “The true artist is an amazing luminous fountain,” he is being poetic in a beautiful, self-flattering way. They also indicate the aspirations of the energetic and fertile mind of a most independent and tough artist.

Fidel A. Danieli