New York

Bruce Nauman

Leo Castelli Gallery Downtown/Sonnabend/Sperone Westwater Fischer

Bruce Nauman’s career as a famous artist in New York went by as fast as you could say “phenomenology.” It began in late 1968 and ended early in 1972 with the pronouncement that Nauman, by giving up Duchamp, had ceased to “interesting.” This was also the year of Nauman’s “retrospective,” which had been “several years in planning.” Although Nauman has continued to show every year, little attention has been paid to his work. Successive pieces have displayed increasing difficulty and waning collectability.

After the abstract “split” sculptures came the punning word games; these gave way to the sensory-bombardment/perceptual/performance pieces which were more psychology lab than art. Surprisingly enough, the new work is really sculpture, and has forsaken aloofness for allusion. (Neither does it represent a return to Duchamp or ontology.) As a rule, West Coast art doesn’t travel well; something is lost in transport. Nauman has always been part Irwin disappearance school and part California punk, so it’s easy to build defenses even before seeing his art. And the three-gallery hype doesn’t help overcome a certain queasiness about how one is going to respond.

There were two sculptures at Castelli’s, both plywood boxes shoved into the back office. The more interesting one was topped with loudspeaker forms radiating from the center, with chicken-wire tops and plaster plopped over it, allowing the plaster to drop through. The effect was like bird droppings or miniature Carlsbad Caverns. The boxes were all “pedestal” from the floor to just below eye height, so the bizarre geography was presented right where you couldn’t get away from it, while the oversized supports did their best to attempt neutrality.

In the same category was the gray wire-mesh box-within-a-box at Sperone Westwater Fischer. It had an inner box approximately human height with the outer box about a foot larger all around. The doubling of the see-through wire created pleasing patterns when I walked around it, like the flickering you perceive when riding a bicycle past a storm fence.

The new floor sculptures, one at Sonnabend and two at Sperone, were, first of all, great to look at, especially the one done in metal rhomboids. Second, they were good puzzles, like the best Bochners. Third, although small in size, they had nothing to do with the current rash of tiny sculptures à la Joel Shapiro. The positioning of the units is similar in all three pieces. Pairs of these boxlike units, equally spaced, are set in rows, creating a square. A pair is situated so that one of the vertical edges of each unit is touching. Along any given row, all the pairs are fixed with their units in the same quadrants, except for the end pair, which switches the positioning by changing the shared edge. If that sounds complicated, it’s not really; the works are arranged in clear and sensible relationships.

While the “cut rock” sculpture and the “plaster-for-stone” work used a square grid pattern to describe space, the metal rhomboid piece used a diamond grid—diamonds as squares seen obliquely in perspective. Consequently, the units did not sit idly like normal Minimal sculpture; they did not simply refer to themselves. The lines shooting out from the edges took off in all directions into the space above the work, energizing it the way an Andre is supposed to.

What was especially nice about the metal units was their double nature as both “large” and “small,” depending on your point of view. As themselves, in relation to the other two floor pieces, and notably in relation to human size, the units were small. But they also could be read as greatly enlarged mineral crystals. A poem was hung in the gallery which supposedly referred to the plaster floor piece, but was really a wonderful verbal companion to the metal rhomboids. Called “Diamond Mind II,” it reintroduced Nauman’s propensity for puns and word games:

Diamond Mind
Circle of Tears
Fallen all around me

Fallen Mind
Mindless Tears
Cut like a Diamond

Nauman has taken up the idea of the “cut,” certainly a reference to early Serra, but with a strong psychological inflection where cut is identified with breaking stone, loss of self, and schizophrenia. This psychology was less enigmatically expressed in a large poem derived from the children’s game, part of which reads:

(passive) paper covers rock
(active-threatening) scissors cuts paper
(active-violent) rock breaks scissors

The “moral” of the poem is:

Paper cut from rock, releases rock to crush scissors. Rock freed from restrictions of paper/scissors/rock, lacking context, proceeds.

The paper is obviously the verbal element—the poems. The paper, the words, cut the rock, that is, they “explain” the sculptures. The rock crushes the scissors—that is the violence which is in store for the artist who allows his work into the world—part of self is lost, separate from him. Implicitly, if Nauman were freed from showing his work, freed from having to give it “context,” the work could then “proceed.” Never has Nauman relied so heavily on such Johnsian games of “explanation.”

I really can’t accept this attitude except insofar as it infuses Nauman’s work with an emotional structure of loss and alienation. Perhaps freed from verbalization and explanation, the sculptures could “go on,” but they would not have the same resonance.

Jeff Perrone