New York

Bruce Nauman

Leo Castelli Gallery / Lorence-Monk

Bruce Nauman can be regarded as an emblematic figure, for he makes clear what one complex strand of ’60s—art variously and often simultaneously Minimalist, Conceptualist, and performative—was all about: the sense of entrapment, and the difficulty of springing the trap, even by dadaist means. Untitled, 1986—a circular floor piece resembling a closed tunnel—makes the point succinctly: one goes round and round, blindly caught in a system. Even when the system is structured by contradiction, it still remains closed. This, I take it, is the implicit point of the artist’s language pieces, where letters are both straightforwardly readable and reversed into mirror script. In Life Mask, 1981, “life” is comprehensible, as is “mask” underneath, but the words are not immediately legible, although it takes little effort to make them clear. It is too easy to call this work a Wittgensteinean language game, in which words lack predesignated meaning and become “relevant” only through their use. Nauman makes a perverse attempt to disrupt the game—the famous “fountain” pieces (“Studies for Holograms,” 1970), which disrupt both fountain and face, are equally perverse and linguistic—but ends up playing a new one, which is not clearly namable. At the same time, the visual disruption of the words only confirms how mentally trapped we are by their meanings.

From this point of view, Pay Attention, 1983—with the words “Pay Attention Mother Fucker” stacked on top of one another, their letters reversed, so that the “heap of language” (to use the title of one of Robert Smithson’s works) looks like concrete poetry—is the show’s most pointed work. In it, Nauman’s perverse, complex intention is clearest. The stacked words at once bait and dismiss the viewer, inviting attention through insult. Indeed, I would suggest that much conceptual/language art is unconsciously meant as an insult to the spectator’s perceptual and conceptual powers: simplistic language itself becomes the cockeyed spectacle, offering little to see and less to think about. In a sense, Nauman can be understood to academicize dadaist insult; outrage becomes cunning linguistic and visual dysfunctionality.

Donald Kuspit