PRINT April 1995

Cousin Brucie

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.
Peter Plagens, “Roughly Ordered Thoughts on the Occasion of the Bruce Nauman Retrospective in Los Angeles,” Artforum, March 1973

HEY, I WAS PRETTY PRESCIENT. That article was written 22 years ago, and a third of the paragraphs still stand up about as well as that one. It didn’t occur to me, however, until I reread that piece in order to write this one that my paragraphs were trying to be the equivalent of Bruce Nauman’s works. My article was trying to be the equivalent of his show. My appearance in Artforum was trying to be the equivalent of his appearance at the County Museum. At the time, thought I was just trying to give tit for tat: if an artist was allowed to go blithely from pillar to post with each successive but discontinuous work, a critic should be allowed to go blithely from notion to notion in each successive but discontinuous paragraph. Now I realize how much envy there was in what I wrote.

A long time ago, perhaps three years after “Roughly Ordered Thoughts,” I told Max Kozloff over the phone that I’d had it, that was it. I didn’t want to go on chronicling what was going on in Southern California for Artforum. He said something to the effect that I was a first-rate chronicler, and Los Angeles was on the brink of becoming the most important city in contemporary art, so why give up now? I replied that I wanted to spend more time painting and less time checking out the L.A. galleries. I wanted (I implied) to be a man of action (i.e., an artist) rather than a man of thought (i.e., a critic), to be a man who earned his reputation instead of draping himself in the mantle of somebody else’s glory. I think I might even have said that I’d rather be a second-rate artist than a first-rate critic.

But here I am again, back in the chronicler business, draping myself in the mantle of Nauman’s greatness. O.K., near-greatness. I reviewed the current retrospective for Newsweek when it arrived at the Walker Art Institute in Minneapolis. Then came an invite from the Los Angeles Times to write a little memoir about what the L.A. art world was like when Nauman was having that first retrospective at LACMA, what Nauman’s little corner of it in Pasadena (where we had studios a few doors apart) was like, and, of course, what Nauman was like in his pre-superstar days. Then I was invited down to the Hirshhorn Museum in January (when the current Nauman retrospective was there) to sit on a dais with Jane Livingston and Marcia Tucker (the curators of the 1972 retrospective). There, I made a confession similar to that in paragraph one, above. Then MoMA invited me to participate in another Nauman symposium when the current retrospective opened there. And now Artforum. Where’s my “Bruce Nauman World Tour 1995” bomber jacket?

I think I can smell a little reverse-bandwagon building around Nauman. “All right already”—I suspect a lot of people are saying to themselves—“enough! Too many people mindlessly adore Nauman’s work for it to have any edge.” Every out-of-touch and middle-aged art critic claims to like this aw-shucks Duchamp (I may have used that phrase before, in print) to prove he’s not out of touch and middle-aged, at least not in spirit. As a conceptual/video/installation artist, Nauman is thoroughly contemporary, but he slips on as easily by now as a pair of old mukluks. He’s Mike Kelley without the slacker nausea, Damien Hirst without the art-student hooliganism, Ann Hamilton without the New Age recipe for home-baked bread. Younger artists like Nauman because he pioneered the idea that you can—in a nonchalant, everyday way rather than a stop-the-presses, Cubism-never-happened kind of way—use any forlorn materials you want and make a legitimate work of art. Even younger artists like Nauman because he invented exactly the right attitude for graduate students. (Trying to get a degree in artistic rebellion from schools with enough weight to give their certificates some clout, graduate students are in an impossible position. If they do what their professors profess, they’re just academic suck-asses. If they want to be real rebels rather than rebels-within-the-system, they have to quit graduate school. If they decide that they and their professors together are rebelling against the world at large, they’ve fallen into a cozy little cult.) Nauman’s great idea was to do as he was told—literally. He treated William Wiley’s offhand remarks as if they were classroom assignments in freshman design. The British unions call it “working to rule”—obeying the fine print of a labor contract so scrupulously that it amounts to a strike.

A Cast of the Space under My Chair, 1965–68, looks an awful lot like one of Rachel Whiteread’s smaller casts from the last few years and, in a photograph that obviates scale, a lot like House, her famous 1993 work of public art. Of course Whiteread’s work comes from quite a different set of motives. Her objects are about narratives in a socially more intense sense (i.e., about the lives of people who live at the mercy of cruel forces bigger than they are) and esthetically less intense sense (i.e., the form resulting from playing the game of casting a positive object from a negative space isn’t the main point) than with Nauman. With Nauman, the inert idiocy of the form (it looks like something Adolf Loos might have made in angling for a commission for a workers’ hostel) is the main point.

But then again, it’s not really the form of the form that’s the point; the point is certain—how shall we say?—conceptual mysteries surrounding the form. In the first place, the “space under my chair” is bounded only conceptually, at least on the four vertical sides—as if by invisible planes coincidental with the outside vertical edges of the chair’s legs. So, to make the piece, Nauman had to make a box mold into which the chair would fit, from the top, very tightly. Maybe he had to spray the chair with oil to cram it into the box. The chair-in-the-box was probably more highly crafted and subtly articulated—more an objet d’art—than the cast of the space. By comparison, the cast of the space is a non-art object.

Also, the cast is a replica of “nothing”—as in empty space being nothing. But the space (unless the chair was on the moon when the cast was made) was, of course, actually made of “something”: it was made of air. And at least while Nauman was using the chair, day in and day out, that air was quite contiguous with the air around it, the air outside the boundaries described by the legs. Separating a certain chunk of air from identical air all around it on the basis of its being the “space beneath my chair” is a rather arbitrary, not to say capricious, esthetic decision. But it’s an interesting idea: to direct the viewer’s attention, by means of one silent, rather uninteresting object, to all those unthought-of unders, behinds, beneaths, and betweens of which we, in our daily lives, are barely cognizant. What would they look like if similarly cast? Almost offhandedly, Nauman takes the old figure-ground problem (in the form of the new space-under-the-chair problem) and turns it into a meditation on—yep—the nature of being.

Nauman is a master (if he’s a master of anything) of the underneath (Diamond Africa with Chair Tuned D E A D, 1981) and the backside (Yellow Room (Triangular), 1973), the unsaid (Violent Incident, 1986) and the pun (Waxing Hot, 1967–70). Meanwhile he has managed (by going so whimsically from pillar to post) to avoid the main pitfall of the video/installation/conceptual artists either following or wallowing in his wake: what I’d call the “bureaucratic mode.” Why is it that so much of the contemporary work that pointedly departs from conventional painting and sculpture looks like it slid off the desk of some dutiful county social-services bureaucrat? All those deadpan documentary photographs and surveillance-type videotapes, all that accident-report prose, all those solemn typefaces and pseudobibliophile colophons, all those dental-school-diploma frames, all those mock museum-labels! All that coldness without cool, all that self-righteousness, and (does anybody care but me?) all that sheer, numbing visual torpor!

If you buy my earlier proposition that somebody has taken the chocks from under the wheels of the Nauman reverse-bandwagon and it’s starting, slowly, to roll, that may be because Nauman is perceived in some quarters (I think) as not really doing his job; and that job would be, using art made from the flotsam of the real world to influence the political conduct of the real world. But the point is that Nauman’s not much of a political artist, and he’s not an activist artist at all. Activist art wants to move you to do something, to change your political conduct in some direct, specific way: vote for a particular candidate, demonstrate for a particular cause, give money to a particular cause, maybe even commit an act or two of civil disobedience. Regular ol’ art (a brand of which Nauman makes) just wants to move you, period. It wants to give you a kind of catharsis, make you feel something you haven’t felt. Whether or not that feeling causes you to take political action is not the artist’s business.

Of course, you can argue just what it means for an activist artist to get somebody to do something. If somebody in the artist’s audience goes off and writes an essay urging the same course of action the art urges, is that just passing the buck—merely translating the call to action into words—or is it doing something? In this “information age,” where so much “doing” is just sitting, pointing, and clicking (or pecking a few keys), is the continuum between “feeling” and “doing” seamless enough that the activist artist is entitled to risk merely prodding the audience to “feel”? After all, who knows where the hell it’ll lead?

In a strange way, these questions are exactly what Ten Heads Circle/Up and Down, 1990, raise for me. These disembodied heads are equipped only to feel or think, not to do. That they come in pairs obviously says something about being of two minds. The up and down trope has something to do with a vertical hierarchy (e.g., right and wrong, correct and incorrect), which is humorously flipped because the head on top in each pair is in the inferior/unnatural position (upside-down) while the one on the bottom looks a little more functional. But each pair is joined at the skull, meaning that all the contradictions circulate within a single mind. Compound that with the relative isolation of each pair—only dimly aware of the others, and rather wrapped up in its own problems—and you have a pretty succinct statement of what’s wrong with the world. That, however, is about as far politically as Nauman is willing to take it. The rest of our attention (OK, my attention) is consumed by delectating over the waxy over-the-top flesh colors (I keep thinking it should have been called Raspberry Bigot and Friends), tacky twisted-wire suspension system, and the easy luxury of the work’s taking up all that gallery space.

Of course critics who write minimonographs like this one are often tempted to read more into an artist’s work than is actually present, and to transform whatever is read into gauzy, into-the-sunset conclusions, especially in the final paragraph. Is all that hifalutin stuff really there? Artists who claim it’s there by actually saying so in complicated, theoretical, mystical rhetoric prove nothing. To his credit, Nauman doesn’t try to pressure people into grandiose readings of his work. It’s not exactly that he knows—by now, with his reputation—that he’d be preaching to the choir. It’s more like he knows the choir is leaning his way, trying to hear each word of the sermon, convinced they’re the ones meant to be saved.

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.
Peter Plagens, “Roughly Ordered Thoughts on the Occasion of the Bruce Nauman Retrospective in Los Angeles,” Artforum, March 1973