New York

Bruce Nauman

Leo Castelli Gallery

That I happened to find several of Bruce Nauman’s pieces at this first one-man exhibition in New York City adolescent and contemptible in no way means that he is avoiding serious artistic issues. What Nauman is facilely sparring with, it seems to me, concerns the widest possible leeway in the fabrication of an art object, the least accredited result and the least predictable method. But these commendable aims carry him through a whole set of postures which, to all but the most short-sighted, already have been enacted with far more revolutionary results. Our present generation of War Baby Why Not artists take their cue from the promptings of Jasper Johns, their philosophical safety-pinnings from the Zen-Freud axis of John Cage’s amiable discourses and their self-blinding strength from the Community of Funk, Eccentric Abstractionists and Process Artists whose numbers increase alarmingly, doubtless because they are sired by the virile seed of Oldenburg. The rather dandified strain to which Nauman at moments frailly bends seeks comfort at the bosom of Rrose Sélavy, Marcel Duchamp’s pre-Piafian alter ego. Nauman’s benighted Pillsbury flailings speak less of a meaningful exploitation of flour as a medium than of the greasy tenacity of Duchamp’s Dust.

While I regard the fiberglass “fire-hose” channels (1965–66)—split down the center like a wiener or bent into T-formations—as arresting contributions to the repository of new and vital (and therefore permanent) forms of modern sculpture, so too am I offended by the infantile narcissism and possessiveness that appears to have crept into Nauman’s more recent productions. The image of the child terrorized by the loss of self symbolized in the flushing away of his fecal matter, haunts those works based, for example, on casts made of sections of the artist’s body. Their many elegant permutations in neon and gilt plaster only corroborate an issue kleptomaniacally lifted from 1) Duchamp’s Female Fig-leaf, 2) the casts of sections of his body appended to Jasper Johns’s early targets, and 3) interior molds of George Segal’s pieces—explicitly alluded to in the form encasing the reverse of Mr. Nauman’s left armpit. The “reverse,” the “left over,” is one of the areas, notwithstanding my revulsion, of curious and strong research for Mr. Nauman who also (according to the catalog) brings our attention to the undersides of sloping bookcases, the space left over between cubes and the impressions of the knees of five famous artists. Here, more than anywhere else, the potential importance of Nauman’s work, for all its flagrant derivativeness, is most immediately sensed.

The most vexing portions of Mr. Nauman’s work relate to his ingenuous literary punning. Several color photographs, in a kind of Vera Hruba-Ralston orange blue (the kind of “deluxe color” one saw in 1940 Westerns) show Nauman Waxing Hot, that is, literally waxing some Futura Bold letters which spell “hot.” Or Eating His Words. One feels that the luncheon plate of Bond Bread (?) cutouts which spell “words” spattered with peanut butter and jelly is less a social indictment (which it might have become in the plate of Oldenburg) than a frank avowal of Mr. Nauman’s taste in cuisine. Similar reservations are felt with regard to the curious sculpture called Hand to Mouth, a green wax positive of the hand, arm, shoulder and chin, presumably of the artist himself. The title discredits the strong impression made by this Johnsian fragment.

A short introduction to a handsome pictorial selection of Nauman’s work to date is also available. It is not my intention to flog Nauman with David Whitney’s words. It is Whitney who deserves the flogging. His top of the head skimmings—“the essence of neon light,” “a documentary photograph of what is there”—serve no one well. But it pales beside the illuminated exaltation of the artist who tells us in a neon spiral that “the true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths,” or, on a red Mylar banner, that “the true artist is an amazing luminous fountain” (Nauman sent out as invitation a color photograph of himself as that selfsame luminous fountain), in poorly lettered Roman caps. May I add my own “truth” to those of Nauman’s: In urban American culture today, the artist is always right—no matter how wrong he really is. I can almost hear in my mind’s ear the consternation caused by Nauman’s discovery that maybe the true artist is not a luminous fountain after all.

Robert Pincus-Witten