PRINT March 1973

Roughly Ordered Thoughts on the Occasion of the Bruce Nauman Retrospective in Los Angeles

WITH ART THAT LOOKS increasingly like nonart, or real life, the only assurance we have is that it’s announced as art (gallery or museum context, invitation, flyer, advertisement). It stands to reason that there are artists out there who have taken the next step beyond Nauman, Chris Burden, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, and forego any announcement of their work as art. Thus, critics are probably dealing with only the most reactionary Concept and body artists.

Jane Livingston let me in to take a peek while the show was being installed. A ladder was out, so I climbed up and looked down inside Lighted Performance Box, 1969. There was nothing inside it except a light.

Museum shows tend to bury what they purport to celebrate. “Henry’s Show” at The Metropolitan Museum in 1970 killed off formalism, and “Sculpture of the Sixties” at The Los Angeles County Museum in 1966 made tombstones of all those big, quasi-industrial objects. In this one, Nauman’s stuff starts to look almost suitable for a spread in Architectural Digest: a neon sign or floodlighted metal plate or monitor showing slow angle walk near the potted plants and chrome furniture?

If there is an overriding direction toward which Nauman’s work tends, it is to attain a gather anonymity, to eschew the romantic mark of personal of amateurism (as opposed to auteur identity) as being essentially a state in which one is not held responsible. (The condition of amateurism is one he views not at all with disdain.) Implied is the wish for invisibility.
—Jane Livingston, catalogue essay, p. 28

(. . .burying what they purport to celebrate.)
Cold Coffee Thrown Away (1966–67) is a beautiful photograph. But I don’t see what it has to do with anything. unless everything has something to do with everything, in which case we start over with no photographs.

Time’s art critic recently wrote an essay called “The Decline and Fall of the Avant-Garde,” stating that, with the arrival of Conceptual and body art, we have reached the fatuous nadir, with nothing left but the art world ritual. Essays, however, have the same effect as museum exhibitions—entombing their own premises. Could it be now that “the avant-garde is dead” is dead?

A stainless steel and glass frame makes almost anything you stick in it look like art; it authenticates as art even the most negligible effort. The museum context does the same thing for a whole oeuvre: there is almost nothing you can put in the crisp, professional space of the County Museum which will not look profound.

Times change. About two years ago, Robert Morris said, “One waits for the next season’s polished metal boxes, stretched tie-dyes and elegantly applied liquitex references to Art Deco with about as much anticipation as one reserves for the look of next year’s Oldsmobile” (Artforum, January, 1971). Now that the Nauman show has summed it all up, one can say, “One looks forward to next year’s acoustic/gas/danger/eco-systems/bondage pieces, ontological footnotes, and extravaganzas of videotape and dry-wall with the eagerness reserved for the return of baggy trousers.”

Too much has already been written about Bruce Nauman, an artist barely over 30, with only eight years of work behind him. It’s typical of art-critical overkill of the last dozen years: You make it, we’ll explain it.

“The response to a Nauman may vary curiously according to the amount of information one possesses about the piece” (Fidel A. Danieli, Artforum, December, 1967). Between them, Livingston and Marcia Tucker have supplied us with 20,000 words in the catalogue.

The enigmatic William T. Wiley or Ray Johnson Trap was conceived specifically in a mood of (playful) occultism. Nauman described to me the circumstance of its invention. He was at William Wiley’s house in Mill Valley when a package arrived from the artist Ray Johnson, containing sundry Johnsonian items. Nauman had Wiley lie on the floor and arranged the contents of the package around him. Wiley then got up and he photographed the objects. Nauman said, “It had to do with the primitive idea of being encapsulated by artifacts and gaining psychic control over them.” This idea of control—controlling the space around one, or, as in this instance, the things around one—recurs in both the artist’s work and his conversation.
— Jane Livingston, ibid., p. 15. (Sigh)

When you’re hot, you’re hot (from the catalogue essays):

Nauman’s interest in displaying the backs of things Nauman is as much fascinated with the idea of time lag as with “space lag” Nauman’s early work begins with an examination of his own identity “Who am I?” is first asked by focusing on his name and handwriting, which are inseparable from the artist himself Nauman’s thinking echoes in many ways certain developments in other fields of investigation, ranging from the scientific to the philosophical Nauman has also abstracted sound from spoken language.

One sculpture, Untitled, 1965, is translucent and has a light bulb inside it.

Art critics gladly assume the role of intellectual janitor, and gladly become more patient and accommodating, explaining in smooth, step-by-step essays each institutionalization of the obvious, with the appropriate catechismal tone: “The transformational aspect of Nauman’s art, the subsuming of prior forms by negations into a more complex structure, share this characteristic of structuralist method by virtue of its nature rather than its intention” (Marcia Tucker, catalogue essay, p. 47).

The title of the exhibition and of a neon piece within it is La Brea Tar Pits/Art Tips/Rat Spit. I take its meaning as a poem to be that high culture, Nauman’s work, and the most forlorn substances on earth are interchangeable, depending on how you look at it.

Somebody looking at From Hand to Mouth, 1967, said that if it was to have that title, it was mounted upside down.

About a year ago, a few of us encountered Nauman on the street near his studio. He was carrying a library book, an English translation of the number one bestseller in Japan. I asked him if it was enjoyable reading. “Yes,” he said, “except there aren’t any L’s in it.” That one is as good as any of the jokes in the show.

One time on a talk show, Jack La Lanne, the physical fitness entrepreneur, and Buddy Hackett, the comedian, both appeared. After explaining how he worked out rigorously each morning from four to six, La Lanne was asked to reveal his age. Brimming with vitality, La Lanne said, “54.” From the sideline Hackett interjected, “So how old would he be if he didn’t get up at four in the morning?” That one was as good, too.

Window or Wall Sign, 1967, reads in neon, “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.” If this piece is truly art, then there is a mystic truth here somewhere, and we are blackmailed into looking at it and thinking about it until we find that truth. Or we can say the hell with it and move on, but we’ll never be sure.

Nauman’s major pieces are aggressively nonart looking, but his speculative drawings are very artful, like Oldenburg’s. Is it because no matter what your other stuff looks like, there’s only one way to draw? Or does Nauman share with other artists a residual desire to link with past high art by proving he can really draw?

I thought briefly of calling this piece Turrell and Error, or Nauman’s Burden.

Last year, Robert Pincus-Witten said of Nauman, “The central Californian characteristic seems to me to be a pervading narcissism expressed through mirroring and colorism predicated in a technically oriented automotive and a geographical metaphor” (Artforum, February, 1972). Wrong.

Lighted Center Piece, 1967–68, focuses four very bright floodlights down on a piece of metal lying on the floor. It makes my fillings hurt from terror and I want to cry out something. From the collected writings on Nauman, the catalogue, and the rest of the exhibition, I can find nothing to indicate he put that anguish there deliberately. The possibilities are: 1) he didn’t put it there, it’s in my head; 2) he put it there, and nobody knows it but me; 3) he didn’t put it there, and it’s there anyway.

Robert Pincus-Witten summed up Nauman’s predicament, c. 1968, of whether to continue the pun stuff or go into sensory inundation, by saying,

He had either to continue to develop his attachments to Duchamp or he had to exposit purely epistemological information. But thevery 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 (Artforum, February, 1972).

He had a third choice: to get political.

Chris Burden’s bolting himself into possible electrocution, having himself shot in the arm, and lying down under a tarp in the street are obviously the products of an upper-middle-class fascination and guilt about danger that everyday life does not provide. And the same for its audience. Can you imagine a Blackstone Ranger, Viet Cong, Green Beret, Tupamaro, Pakistani peasant, or Bowery beggar bothering with it?

A minor proof of the Marxism that we are symptoms, not causes—even artists: an artist at the exhibition told me he was going to Germany to “do” a show; the dealer had asked him, “Is there anything we can do without shipping work?”

Epistemology also has a social context. Nauman has said that much of his work evolved out of a surplus of spare time at Davis. He could have tutored Headstart children, given swimming lessons, or sold Fuller brushes. But this is beside the point, since Nauman was already on the becomingan-artist track. Therefore, he didn’t have time to spend on anything else. He was just having a tough time figuring out what kind of art to do. Only the managerial class has spare time.

Green Light Corridor, 1970–71, is the best piece Nauman has ever done, if intensity of reaction is a criterion. Inside, almost trapped and flooded with bilious green light, you feel you’ve had it. But The Los Angeles County Museum wouldn’t let that happen.

Since the critics and art audience are hard up for yardsticks to measure quality, they have recently seized upon a superficially fair one: how much an artist is willing to punish himself or distort his life to make art, or make it in the art world. Rudolf Schwarzkogler, the late Viennese who progressively amputated his penis until he died has, however, temporarily preempted the field. In a way, he’s saved a lot of lives.

On the closing page of the catalogue (except for some addenda) Nauman (I presume) leaves the cryptic message: “You will have a new inspiration soon, but unfortunately it won’t be any better than the others you have had.” In Chicano graffiti, a “C/S” is often placed beneath the initial inscription as ritual security, so that if you write “sucks” under “Lil’ Richie de la White Fence,” Lil’ Richie’s image will not suffer. I think Nauman’s fortune cookie message to his potential superseders means the same thing. Art is a tough business.