PRINT April 1995

Cast Against Type

THE FOLLOWING IS a public-service announcement: “The true artist,” reads a neon sign Bruce Nauman clicked on in 1967, “helps the world by revealing mystic truths.” Scripted in sky-blue lettering with a pink underline, the sign extends not horizontally from left to right, but in a spiral, hooking clockwise from inner to outer circle, as if it were unfurling like a maypole, spreading its apparent goodwill, its promise of enlightenment, in all directions. Wait, however, before you give Nauman a hug. Two years later, as a participant in a group exhibit at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, he executed a performance in which he stood in a corner of one of the galleries and bounced his upper body against the walls for an entire hour. Midway through the piece an audience member burst out sobbing and begged Nauman to stop. The world, it seems, was having serious second thoughts about the “true artist’s” offer of “help.”

It’s no easy chore reconciling Nauman’s mixed messages, figuring out whether his works are altruistic or misanthropic, whether the pledge to illuminate hidden knowledge should be taken at face value or as a wholly ironic black hole. Indeed, critics have argued that there exists more than one Nauman. Writing in these pages in 1972, Robert Pincus-Witten pinpoints 1969 as the date of a Jekyll and Hyde about-face, diagnosing an early Nauman who was “cryptic and introverted” followed by a second who was “populist” and “democratic.”1 Such a timeline would credit the self-absorbed Nauman with the neon mandala—which would explain its skipping-record redundancy; how its promise of enlightenment seems to consume and negate itself. But it would also leave Nauman’s later, civil-servant alter ego standing in corners banging his head against the wall. The fact is, not knowing whether Nauman is coming or going is the most consistent impression the artist leaves. After all, this is a guy who went on to make art out of corridors. And it’s in such work—in his recent laboratory-rat labyrinths, his models for circular tunnels, his many dead-end and endless hallways, even his self-engulfing neon motto—that Nauman makes explicit the elliptical course rehearsed in all his art.

Today, looking back over his thirty years of output, the picture that emerges is of an Escher-like staircase on which every step toward an outer reality marks a turn inward, and vice versa. It’s not that Nauman doesn't vigilantly pursue truths about the self and the world, it’s just that the line of thought he follows doesn’t always seem capable of telling the two apart. When he started out, the artist and the world were all he had to work with, sole survivors of a scorched-earth vanguardism that by the mid ’60s had seemingly laid waste to art's traditional materials and conventions—not just painting and sculpture but any sense of historical and typological limits. No more a cynical jab at art’s higher purposes than a naive testament of faith, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths constituted a well-timed provocation in the face of reigning orthodoxy. Beneath its ready irony lurked a disarmingly honest question—what, in fact, should artists do?

What Nauman did was take the legacy of vanguard negations as a green light. The paintings he himself rendered while still in school were quickly swallowed whole by the metal and fiberglass shapes he affixed to them. Sculpture was also left in the dust—he drooped and leaned subsequent pieces so that they belonged equally to the floor and the walls. He worked with latex, Mylar, and fluorescent lights; he cranked out photos, videos, and films, he wrestled with language, erected architecture. And he immediately began using himself in his work, sitting under walls in his earliest performances and twisting his body into different poses as if it were just more pliant, latexlike material.

No doubt this snarl of disparate substances and activities could be chalked up to monumental eccentricity and left at that, but there does exist a persistent, albeit paradoxical logic to Nauman’s scheming, a consistency to the way he mobilizes inconsistency. One thread that circumscribes his work, at least on a practical level, is drawing—not only does Nauman prodigiously sketch planned projects (only some of which are realized), he often returns to already completed works and draws them over again. Moreover, while he may intend his ideas to pass through drawing on their way to other media, rarely do they leave behind drawing’s two-dimensional surface. Some materials, like neon, Nauman writes and draws with; others, like wax, are inscribed upon. The drafting table that looms as Nauman’s backdrop tethers his art’s physical manifestations to their cerebral precursors in studies and diagrams. There’s an abundance of geometric figures in his work, circles, squares, triangles, straight and perpendicular lines. (A video from 1968 shows Nauman trying to walk across his studio while keeping his legs straight and at a 90-degree angle from one another.)

Traditionally, drawing is said to be the medium in which artistic ideas are best worked out, where the mind confronts form and design most immediately, with the least amount of material interference. Painting, sculpture, and architecture are all supposed to share an origin in drawing. Still, as Nauman’s insistence on the two-dimensionality of drawing siphons off much of the sensual volume and materiality of his work, what zooms to the fore is not some unobstructed picture of the private, creative workings of the artist’s mind. Nauman approaches drawing not as a form-giving activity, nor as a method for inquiring into origins and meanings, probing the essential nature of things-in-themselves. He questions not why but how things exist, the way they perform and act. Ideas enjoy no better treatment than brute matter in his work—they’re not spawned so much as tested, shown responding to systems and processes, mechanical and logical operations. For Nauman, drawing serves roughly the same purpose as charts and diagrams: it’s the even playing field on which the mind and matter meet.

Nauman majored in math and physics before turning to art, and it shows. He tends to conceive space in cubic measurements, the wall and floor providing him with his x and y axes. Most all of his objects, enterprises, and environments seem snared within a Cubistic grid, with everything corresponding to a network of intersecting planes. It’s often hard to tell if he manipulates material with muscle power or through mathematical exercises: in an early photo, he pokes his fingers through the gridlike weave of a knitted pot holder, elongating its cross-hatched fabric by pulling his hands apart; in 1968 he exhibited a square steel plate, 24 inches across and 3 inches thick, and called it A Cubic Foot of Steel Pressed between My Palms. Over the years, Nauman’s diagrammatic grid seems to have accrued a disturbing omnipotence, tightening its hold on not just his working method but his world view. It reappears as the columns and rows of structural analysis in One Hundred Live and Die, a huge colorful neon sign from 1984, in which Nauman reduces lived time to a fatal logic, selecting 50 words representing the spectrum of embodied experience—eat, sleep, suck, smile, etc.—and plotting them as if on a graph, like so many possible coordinates suspended between the x and y axes of life and death.

Nauman’s grid stands equal distance from notions of inside and outside, as something like their connective tissue, or perhaps the rubble of their partition. It certainly disallows the transmission of much depth, whether psychological, metaphoric, or corporeal. Take his long-winded Collection of Various Flexible Materials Separated by Layers of Grease with Holes the Size of My Waist and Wrists, 1966, which ends up having nothing to say about its own stacked-up mass—even the body it refers to, Nauman’s, is registered only in surface measurements, diameters. Likewise Nauman seldom reads through language to its underlying meanings—he takes everything at face value (e.g., Feet of Clay, 1967, a photo of Nauman’s feet literally caked in clay). Recently, puns have given way to punishment. A 1990 video installation features a mime absently carrying out spoken instructions—here language directs thought, rather than being directed by it. Even when Nauman does invoke mental activity directly, as when he attempts to levitate his body or has a friend try to sink into the floor, those activities seem as much physical as conceptual, instances of the mind concentrating so hard it clenches into a fist.

The looking glass Nauman peers through is thin indeed, inching him back from the world but never fully removing him from it. His peculiar brand of representation avoids privileging ideas over material, or subordinating matter to concepts and commentary; rather, it gauges forces and records impressions, weighs and measures, counts and calculates. Of course, Nauman limits himself to certain types of representation. Over the years, he’s favored casting, a means of nudging physical reality onto the threshold of signification: motivated not by artistic vision or cultural or esthetic convention but by actual physical contact, casts advertise as their absent referent only the particular material surface they trace. Nauman’s grid also performs the task of tracing, of transferring properties point by point from one register to another. Examples of mirroring and transcription pop up throughout his art—the photos that translate figures of speech literally; the mime repeating verbal commands through her gestures—and in each case the result seems the same: a precise reiteration of hard facts, unencumbered by anything so nebulous as invention, expression, or metaphor.

While Nauman’s project has migrated far and wide in search of new data and new ways of recording it, the one thing he keeps catching in his crosshairs is the human subject. His many constructed corridors and rooms are each designed for a lone occupant, tailored to hug the body, interface with its nervous system, train its eyes. These projects also borrow specs from behaviorism, with its just-the-facts demand that subjectivity be reduced to behavioral traits and their external stimuli. Nauman intends such works to refer to emotional states in the most unmediated way possible—by triggering them. His isolation chambers submit the individual to intimate scrutiny, yet everything is kept on the surface, the subject’s interiority flattened into pattern, treated as physical evidence to be tallied and designated, charted and diagramed. In a work installed at the Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, in 1984, Nauman evoked a wall-less chamber out of the intersection of two dark hallways; a hallway-sized shaft, leading from the second floor of the building down to the basement, penetrated this intersection vertically, and a metal grating, a grid, was placed where the floor used to be. All this made the room’s inhabitant available to observation from every angle—and yet something was missing. It seemed like, with nothing to hide, there was also nothing to find, no secrets to uncover. Nauman called the piece Room with My Soul Left Out/Room That Does Not Care.

The primary subjects Nauman’s art first took up, the self and the world, have always been imagined to stand just beyond the either ends of representation, as immutable truths to which the whole enterprise testifies and from which it secures its meaning. But the more Nauman has endeavored to access these truths more directly, the more they’ve seemed oddly to disappear. His investigation into their nature has revealed only the nature of investigating, its procedures and operations. Evidence proliferates, yet the objects of his inquiry appear more displaced than disclosed by the information they yield. This is the dynamic, the kind of energy that characterizes his art—it evokes a feeling of being at once boxed in and overly exposed, of seeing both too much and too little. Nauman once described the artist as a “luminous fountain,” and a ricochet reflexivity does pervade his work—he finds in every material a record of thought, in every thought a material record—but the result is more like delirium than enlightenment. Nauman never seems to sit comfortably within himself, nor is he able to achieve an objective distance. This is how he redefines the self and the world: to him, they look like a dog chasing after its own tail.

What we’re left with, then, is the same spiral Nauman drew in neon in 1967. Only the tone has changed, grown more troubling: now the true artist, though he might want to help the world, can’t seem to get out of his own way. Self-entanglement is one of Nauman’s most cherished themes, but that doesn’t automatically make his work narcissistic. If there is a mythological figure to best compare Nauman to, it’s not Narcissus but Oedipus: here the artist is cast as chief investigator, a master at solving riddles—he pledges to reveal the truth to those withheld from it, yet his solution to the crime comes with the discovery that he himself is its perpetrator. Likewise, the only truth Nauman arrives at is that the clues he turns up are ones he’s planted, that the unknown can only be revealed once the desire for knowledge creates it. Nauman is equal parts problemsolver and troublemaker, which makes his offer to serve as our guiding light all the more a mixed blessing, as he himself admits in a poster from 1973. It’s a revised message to a curious world: “Pay Attention Motherfuckers.”

Lane Relyea lives in Los Angeles. He contributes frequently to Artforum.


1. Robert Pincus-Witten, “Bruce Nauman,” Artforum X no. 6, Feb. 1972, p. 31.