PRINT February 1972

Bruce Nauman: Another Kind of Reasoning


IN 1968 THE CUTTING EDGE of post-Minimalist sensibility could have been sectioned between Serra, Sonnier, and Nauman. And yet, each of Nauman’s successive appearances presents us with a growing insipidness, the one quality which, whatever else may have been wrong, he certainly was not thought to possess.

When Nauman worked with the verbal problems inherent in Duchamp’s oeuvre he was answering a central problem of contemporary art: where to stand in relation to Duchamp. Duchamp demonstrates, as no other artist does, that the ultimate basis of meaning in art is linguistic and not formal, whatever the formal properties his work may possess. In establishing his connection, Nauman settled on the baldest examination of the pun and arrogated a messianic mysticism—the banners and slogans—to himself as well. (The relationship to Duchamp in Nauman’s early work will be examined in Part II of this essay.)

Nauman’s solution, on the basis of a self-referential interpretation of Duchamp’s enigmatic three small, sexual works of 1951 and the linguistic commitment of Duchamp’s total body of work finally has led him to a production which,in fashionable terms, is called “phenomenological,” and which I have tried to indicate is merely ontological in nature; that is, it answers the problem of how to make Conceptual art that looks like art and which, in looking like art, supplies no information except that of style. (See “Bochner at MoMA,” Artforum, December, 1971.)

In my view then, it appears that Nauman went wrong at the moment he read the lesson of Duchamp as a public rather than a private one, the moment that he moved from a cryptic and introverted position to a democratic behaviorism. This shift indicates an art free of any basis in Duchamp, but which instead borrows premises from behavioral psychology and a nostalgia for a purportedly lost human interchange in modern American culture. In short, Nauman now offers up a set of simplistic tests rooted in behavioral phenomenology; he has become interested in the exposure and experience of specific and isolated sensory phenomena rather than an integrative theory of function. Nauman has exchanged elitism for populism and, devoid of the verbal flourish that his work once possessed, only gives us sensitivity boxes which he imagines turn his observer on to the fresh experience of color and sound. In proselytizing for the “WOW“ experience—“WOW,” sound proofing, “WOW,” yellow fluorescent light, “WOW,” the room is built on a diagonal axis1—he has now abandoned Duchamp and, in leaving Duchamp, has abandoned his claim to being interesting, at least for the moment.

Behavorial phenomenology at best tends to locate discrete phenomena rather than the ongoing product of continuous variables. In other words, instead of dealing with a constant field of activity, this view tends to isolate discrete phenomena. The location of neural processes is not important in Nauman’s case except insofar as he sets a prestigious example in this activity.2 Said another way, what Nauman is doing is not important because it has been done; and Pavlov, Skinner, Bender, and Gibson (the behavioral psychologists), working out of Heidegger and Husserl, are the original major contributors to this field of data.

The recent installation at Castelli Downtown presents a set of disorienting chambers of eccentric proportions. Moving through one room funneled into another, one passes through a yellow Flavin fluorescent atmosphere (the retina supplies the neutralizing lavender spurts) and then into a kind of boardwalk more or less enclosed by soundproof panels, in which the experience of sound is structured to become possibly more physically sensate or tangible on the viewer’s body.

What seems to be regrettable in all of this is not that these tired experiments in behavioral phenomenology are presented as art—that, in itself, is an arresting idea if an equally tired one—but that Nauman has been reduced to making “pieces” to answer the pressures of celebrity by doing what he has already done. What Nauman presents is another jerry-built version of last year’s Whitney show. And in this he makes “art works,” or replicated “pieces,” but gives no new information nor a new idea.


Generally, they were pieces of rubber shower caps, which I cut up and glued together and which had no special shape. At the end of each piece there were strings that one attached to the four corners of the room. Then, when one came in the room, one couldn’t walk around, because of the strings! The length of the strings could be varied; the form was ad libitum. That’s what interested me. This game lasted three or four years, but the rubber rotted, and it disappeared.
. . . Marcel Duchamp (in conversation with Pierre Cabanne)

BRUCE NAUMAN’S CAREER HAS BEEN based almost exclusively in California. A lack of vigorous first-hand acquaintance with this ambience has made me acutely conscious of—though not necessarily sympathetic to—certain Californian qualities, which I often sense as outlandish. The central Californian characteristic seems to me to be a pervading narcissism expressed through mirroring and colorism predicated in a technically oriented automotive culture and a geographical metaphor. I think this originates and has been intensified by the comparative smallness of the scene, a feature which has tended to a stylistic inbreeding. This is a quality, not necessarily pejorative, historically noted in all regional art centers. It can be said as easily of London art today as of Dutch art at the height of the de Stijl movement.

The chief distinction separating the arts of the two seaboards, at least through the end of the ’60s, appears to be between an art concerned with the characterological functionings of its creators (California) and the morphological processes of creation (New York). Tersely, the distinction is between “being” and “doing.” Despite the broadness of this distinction, it permits one to close in on Nauman who, if nothing else, stresses confession, autobiography, and narcissism—certainly in the work after 1966, when Nauman’s art seems or seemed primarily to be about the artist’s ability to reconstruct himself before an audience. Such a theatrical intention is congruent in many respects with those episodes that have been variously named Process, Phenomenological, or Conceptual art (Marcia Tucker once punned “pheNAUMANology”), and which I group under the umbrella term post-Minimalism. But in Nauman’s case it is essentially a received art, stemming from Marcel Duchamp and given vitally important refurbishment in the work of Jasper Johns, in whose tradition Nauman continued to be nourished, at least through the end of 1969.

Fidel Danieli, a California critic who wrote the first intelligent article on Nauman, observed that Nauman’s work “would appear at first exposure to be a vaguely repulsive caprice.”3 Danieli also affiliated Nauman to Marcel Duchamp (the Green Box) and to Jasper Johns (the Skin Print drawings). He recognized that Nauman was not above a certain duplicity, citing as an example of “cheating” the knees referred to in the Wax Block with the Impressions of the Knees of Five Famous Artists, 1966, which the critic knew to be impressions of the artist’s own knees. Nor was Danieli deceived by the arch double-dealing of the title, a problem to which I will return. In a like manner, the romantic and mystical stance of the banners and neons (e.g. “The artist in an amazing luminous fountain”), were seen for what they were, namely “being poetical in a beautiful, self-flattering way.”

Subsequent criticism seems to have consistently stressed the theme of Nauman’s relation to Duchamp and Johns. In a statement by the artist published in the catalogue American Sculpture of the Sixties (Los Angeles County Museum, 1967), Nauman also recognized a derivation in Dadaism:

I suppose some work has to do in part with some of the things that the Dadaists and the Surrealists did. I like to give the pieces elaborate titles the way they did, although I’ve only been titling them recently. That all came from not trying to figure out why I make those things. It got so I just couldn’t do anything. So like making the impressions of knees in a wax block . . . was a way of having a large rectangular solid with marks in it so I had to make this other kind of reasoning. It also had to do with trying to make a less important thing to look at. (Italics mine.)

After 1966 that “other kind of reasoning” accelerated toward the art object invested with extra-formal meaning on the basis of the title as pun, for example, Henry Moore Bound to Fail (1967). As a literary formula the pun is a loaded area of intellectual experience, for, as Duchamp knew, the circularity of the pun appears to provide information without getting you anywhere. Toby Mussman correctly observed in his study of Duchamp’s film Anemic Cinema (made in conjunction with Man Ray) that “puns, unlike ordinary sentences,do not attempt to make a definite statement but rather they cast ironic doubt on the ability of any written sentence to make ultimate and absolutely conclusive sense.”4

Reactions to Nauman’s punning ranged from the positive (“. . . we all secretly enjoy that hideous sinking sensation engendered by a really bad pun”)5 to the negative (“ . . . the most vexing portion of Mr. Nauman’s work is related to his ingenuous literary punning.”6 A middle road is possible: “If one accepts the title 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.”7 The works that led to these reactions were a set of color photographs in which the artist was seen performing such elementary activities as Eating My Words. In this instance the word “words” had been literally shaped out of bread and was being eaten. Similarly, Waxing Hot depicted the artist literally waxing the letters of the word “Hot.” The photograph Feet of Clay depicts the artist’s feet literally covered over with clay pellets. The images, therefore, have been given “meaning” and “recognizability” by fusing them to a cliché. The model for such an activity is obviously Marcel Duchamp. For example, With My Tongue in My Cheek, an assemblage relief of 1959 and a late self-portrait, combines a drawn profile of the artist with a plaster cast of the artist’s jaw. Similarly, Nauman’s green wax piece, From Hand to Mouth (the color and substance deriving from Johns’ early encaustic Green Target) is a cast of the artist’s right hand, arm, shoulder, throat, jaw, and lips. Another work of 1967 presents the artist’s crossed arms cast in green wax, from whose severed biceps there emerges a heavy rope tied into a square knot. Although untitled, the verbal/visual interplay of the work turns on the following equation: as the arms are folded so is the rope knotted, or vice versa. In short, the rope and arms are permutations of the same knotted condition: they are tied in knots. In addition to the obvious relationship to Johns in terms of the cast elements of these works, they are also distinctly Johns-like in terms of the work’s insistent proliferation of the same thing projected into a different state, diagrammatic or otherwise. Johns’ celebrated Ballantine Ale Cans, 1962, one a cast and the other modeled by hand, is a well-known example of this kind of pairing. Nauman also stated in the catalogue quote from American Sculpture of the Sixties that part of his effort was directed toward making “a less important thing to look at.” I take this to reflect an active indifference to the issues of reductivist abstraction as they were then being explored and a desire to make works which would obviously have no relevance to the solemn earnestness, for example, of Minimalist sculpture then at its apogee.

From 1965 on one sees a hyperbolic attempt on Nauman’s part to create forms never before seen, made of substances and colored in ways equally unknown.8 I do not quarrel with the aspiration; it is the very fiber of art. But the quest, though stated and perhaps even “felt” in these exalted terms, is equally arbitrary notwithstanding the fact that beween 1965 and 1967, Nauman came close to realizing such an ambition. The forms which Nauman took to making at the time were spindly affairs, loaflike and split into arching rails. They were of two kinds, soft and hard; the soft group were made of colored rubber latex and the hard cast in fiberglass. The works give off an aura of undernourishment and eccentricity. In many respects these “impoverished” works, supported directly by the wall and floor, anticipate many of the experiments associated with the rise of post-Minimalism—particularly the early rubber and neon work of Richard Serra—a history which I have attempted to write in my essays on Richard Serra, Keith Sonnier, and Eva Hesse.9 I would be hard put not to acknowledge the seminal role played by Nauman’s untitled rubber, fiberglass, and neon works in redirecting the nature of artistic aspiration in the late ’60s.

In November 1966, Nauman figured prominently in an exhibition held in New York’s Fischbach Gallery called “Eccentric Abstraction,” which represented the real surfacing of this counter-Minimalist taste in the gallery context. Works by Keith Sonnier and Eva Hesse were included among others. The exhibition was organized and introduced by the critic Lucy Lippard, who undertook to clarify “an aspect of visceral identification that is hard to escape, an identification that psychologists have called ‘body ego’.”10 Lippard was referring to the capacity of the viewer to empathetically respond to unfamiliar forms in visceral terms. Yet the term “body ego” suggests another possibility—that a work may be the means, so to speak, whereby the artist employs his body or sections thereof, his lineaments, his personal possessions, or even his name, and in so doing transforms himself into a self-exploitable tool or the raw material of artistic presentation. He becomes, in a certain sense, his own objet trouvé—hence narcissistic. The term “body ego” certainly poses the possibility of this interpretation in Nauman’s work after 1967, although Lippard’s introduction was written on the basis of the earlier untitled fiberglass pieces, which she regarded as vehicles “unconcerned with conventional manipulation of forms in space and more involved with a perverse, sometimes bizarre expansion of the limits of art.”

Such “expansions” obviously posit formlessness as a structural possibility, a condition re- corded in Nauman’s photographs of patted mounds of flour on the studio floor. Another counterpart would be the Composite Photo of Two Messes on the Studio Floor (1967). The affiliation of these works with Marcel Duchamp’s Elevage de Poussière, a photograph taken in 1920 by Man Ray of The Large Glass, which had been lying flat and gathering dust in Duchamp’s New York studio, is inescapable. The works are alike in that they refer to insubstantial and amorphous substances. It is of larger critical interest, however, that they exist at several removes from the original, the “real” works having been replaced by photographs, which are, or have become by default, the central document of the experience, hence the central emotional repository of the works. It is obvious that with Nauman the “real” or “original” work had all along been an auxiliary effort. The shift away from an original by whatever means—photography, cinematography, tape recording, private journals, notations, memos, or ultimately merely the unexecuted idea or conception, allied to a valorization of the technological, cognitive, mental, or other processes—is the chief characteristic of Nauman’s work. This most clearly identifies him as a founder of the Conceptualist movement, a post-Minimalist episode which is, in Nauman’s expression of it, Dada in spirit.

The lateral spread of the Composite Photo of Two Messes on the Studio Floor is assembled in a manner similar to an aerial reconnaissance map. In this way it resembles a work called Composite Photo of My Name as Though It Were Written on the Surface of the Moon, which appears as if a repeatedly beamed electronic signal forming the letters of Nauman’s first name had bounced off the moon and returned to earth at constant intervals. The work is predicated on dubbing, on christening, and though the similarity to Duchamp’s “Readymades” may appear tenuous the connection is still discernible. Duchamp’s investment of artistic identity in a neutral common object (a snow shovel or a bottle rack) was also in part based on a kind of baptism, on arrant say so. As the snow shovel and the bottle rack were Duchamp’s “Readymades,” so is Nauman’s first name his “readymade.” Nauman’s name, of course, is subjected to a complex alteration whereas Du-champ’s “Readymades” were scarcely adjusted, if at all. Each individual letter of the name Bruce is arbitrarily repeated, similar to the repetitions of the Six Inches of My Knee Extended To Six Feet, or any of the duplications of measurements and sections taken from the artist’s body. Perhaps the most striking alterations occur in the neon work, which fudges the script of Nauman’s Last Name Exaggerated Fourteen Times Vertically.11 In the latter work, the legibility is all but obliterated by the vertical scaling and one reads the name Nauman as a neon gesture. The title serves, in most of his neon pieces, to “explain” or to “justify.” In short, it is at this moment, when Nauman comes more and more to rely on technological sources, that Duchamp begins to fade as a central preoccupation. Now, with the overwhelming dependence on technological recording devices, Nauman’s art announces its entire reliance on behavioral theory.

No single work is more characteristic of Nauman’s use of extra-formal, verbal tactics than the two steel wedges of 1968; they are inscribed:

The word play is facetious. The German word for wedge is Keil. A rearrangement of the letters of this word spell out the English word “like.” Therefore the wedge form is equated with the German word “wedge,” the anagram of the English word “like,” or the same word as the first Like: punning or palindromic circularity. Moreover, the wedge shape is easily understood to be a phallic symbol into which a lentil-shaped chamfer has been groved, a vaginal symbol. This additional sexual orchestration may derive from the sexual and poetic object of Duchamp’s late work, Coin de Chasteté,12 of 1951, in which a wedge has been pressed into dental plastic. The verbal fixation of such exercises are linked to Duchamp, from the quasi-pornographic caption of LHOOQ (elle a chaud au cul), or “Mona Lisa’s Moustache” as it is popularly called, to the punning titles such as the Anemic Cinema. This kind of closed and perfect verbal/ visual decoction leads to a chain of equally absurd neutral elements. Such verbal/visual puns are curiously self-referential and hidebound. As experiences they tend toward introversion rather than extroversion. Even after one “gets” them, one is irked by the tightness of their boundaries because of their obviously axiomatic and tautological nature.

From all this one would imagine that Bruce Nauman was a mere Dadaistic pasticheur haunted by the specter of Duchamp. But, added to Nauman’s verbal/visual juggling, there remains his equal commitment to sheer materiality and physicality which alone would mark him as foreign to Dadaism. Because of this latter aspect Nauman is a bedfellow of Andre, Hesse, Morris, Serra, Sonnier, Smithson, and any of half a dozen artists whose names readily come to mind. Nauman’s uniquely private employment of neon would serve to rank him as an important figure.

Nauman’s work exhibited at the Castelli Gallery in June of 1969 consisted of a set of holograms (photographs made with laser beams that manneristically exaggerate stereometry) which showed the artist viewed from below in multiple crouched and fetal positions. These holograms alter one’s spatial apperceptions in an odd way; they induce a sensation of looking into a stereopticon of a greenish coloration.

In May of 1969 a freestanding passageway that could be walked through was included at the Whitney Museum’s “Anti-Illusionism: Procedures/Materials” exhibition. Its oddness was a function of its seeming neutrality, but as passageway it gained meaning on viewing a videotape shown at Nauman’s subsequent one-man exhibition held shortly thereafter at the Leo Castelli Gallery. The videotape image revealed Nauman entering and exiting from this narrow corridor. It became evident that the width of the odd corridor was delimited to accommodate the deliberately exaggerated swing of the artist’s hips. The passageway itself was virtually without meaning, which it subsequently and suddenly assumed only to the degree that it was revealed to be a visual boundary for the setting of the videotape.

Because of his use of cryptic self-reference, linguistic attachment, resistance to received notions of good taste (and therefore good sense and good behavior), and of experimentation as an end in itself, Nauman in the phase of his allegiance to Duchamp, can be regarded as a significant artist whose work is important because—like much of Johns’ later work—he continued to vitally extrapolate on the lessons of Duchamp. The inferences then of these views are that Nauman’s contribution as a critical artist is sup ported to the degree that he was able to expressively prevaricate on Duchamp. But, with the introduction of laser beam holograms and the greater reliance on technology and behavioral phenomenology, Nauman cut himself off from the experience which centrally formed his art.

It is apparent that two options were. open to Nauman: he had either to continue to develop his attachments to Duchamp or he had to exposit purely epistemological information. But the very fact that his post-Minimal production was linked to Dadaism obviated an epistemological response and promoted an art of continuing self-exposure in the context of Conceptualism. However, the latter context is unable to support this kind of externalization since it cannot support objectification. And in being unable to support an art of things or of making objects, Nauman’s post-Minimalism is betrayed by both his beginnings and his conclusions.

Robert Pincus-Witten



1. I have adopted this terminology from the teaching practice of Mel Bochner who always warns his students to beware of the “WOW” experience.

2. Recognizing that fluorescent light functioning as color may no longer be considered sufficiently ambitious, Dan Flavin has of late forced colored light to function as another kind of energy. In the fluorescent “plaid” corridor set up for the opening of the new Walker Art Center this past summer, the essential experience of the viewer was that of the light as heat contained by the passageway as he passed through the corridor.

3. Fidel A. Danieli, “The Art of Bruce Nauman,” Artforum, December, 1967.

4. Toby Mussman, “Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema,” 1966. Reprinted in The New American Cinema, ed. Gregory Battcock, New York, 1967, pp. 147–155, p. 151.

5. John Perreault, writing on Nauman’s first New York one-man show, The Village Voice, February 8, 1968.

6. Robert Pincus-Witten, “New York Review,” Artforum, April, 1967; as in fn. 5.

7. Danieli, “Bruce Nauman.”

8. David Whitney’s picture folder of 44 works by Bruce Nauman, published by Leo CasteIli Gallery, is helpful in dating the early shift in the direction of Nauman’s work.

9. Pincus-Witten, “Richard Serra—Slow Information,” Artforum, September, 1969; “Keith Sonnier: Materials and Pictorialism,” Artforum, November, 1969; “Eva Hesse: Post-Minimalism into Sublime,” Artforum, November, 1971.

10. Lucy Lippard, broadside to an exhibition called “Eccentric Abstraction,” Fischbach Gallery, New York, September, 1966.

11. Neon appears in many of Nauman’s constructions. Philip Glass, a musician and intimate of both Nauman and Richard Serra, contends that the neon spiral maxim, “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths,” is directly related to the optical spiral of Duchamp’s Rotative demi-sphere of 1925. This information was supplied by Philip Leider to whom, although he will probably not subscribe to the changing “politics” inherent in this article, I nevertheless respectfully dedicate it.

12. Wedge of chastity.