“Samuel Beckett/Bruce Nauman”

What exactly is Molloy doing with his sixteen stones? “Watch me closely,” he says: “I take a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, suck it, stop sucking it, put it in the left pocket of my greatcoat, the empty one (of stones). I take a second stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, suck it, put it in the left pocket of my greatcoat. And so on until the right pocket of my greatcoat is empty. . . . Pausing then, and concentrating, so as not to make a balls of it, I transfer to the right pocket of my greatcoat, in which there are no stones left, the five stones in the right pocket of my trousers, which I replace by the six stones in the left pocket of my greatcoat.” The increasingly complicated system of moves from pocket to pocket via mouth finally reaches full circle, and Molloy concludes, “Do I have to go on? No, for it is clear that after the next series, of sucks and transfers, I shall be back where I started.” And the result of the operation? Well, simply this: “My sixteen stones will have been sucked once at least in impeccable succession, not one sucked twice, not one left unsucked.”

It’s precisely this kind of obsessive-compulsive behavior, so typical of Samuel Beckett’s protagonists, that must have influenced Bruce Nauman when producing his sixty-minute video Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk) in 1968. Showing the artist walking back and forth in his studio with strangely stiff legs (the pattern of his movement presumably following some weird set of rules), this piece seems to reference not only Beckett in general, but Molloy’s obsessive rituals concerning steps and numbers in particular. What does such a line of influence imply? Nauman is, of course, just one of a large number of American artists who emerged in the ’60s and found inspiration in Beckett’s texts, but it would seem that the Nauman-Beckett connection is somehow exemplary. No other contemporary artist has worked so intensively with repetitions that turn the minor absurdities of the everyday into something unendurable. And then, of course, there are the ambivalent performances of Nauman’s suffering clowns.

The organizers of “Beckett/Nauman,” Kunsthalle Wien curator Christine Hoffmann and art historian Michael Glasmeier, aren’t really out to prove anything, but their juxtaposition of works by the two artists provides ample ground for comparison and analysis of thematic affinities. This is not a major Nauman show in the ordinary sense, even if a number of important pieces—A Cast of the Space under My Chair, 1965–68, lots of videos, and two “corridors,” one shown for the very first time—are effectively installed. It’s not a major Beckett show either, for there’s no such thing. This is something else entirely: a gray inventory of impossible connections or an archive of discontinuities. It’s a genealogical space rather than a show. Full of detailed information—manuscripts, drawings, notebooks, and sketches—the exhibition piqued curiosity and made the viewer attentive. I liked it a lot.

If recent art-historical theorizing has tried to drive home one point, it’s the importance of repetition. It has often been claimed that the neo–avant-garde of the ’60s merely repeated the subversive strategies of the original avant-garde of the early twentieth century, but recent theorists have argued forcefully for a more productive reading of such returns. The neo–avant-garde is no mechanical copy of some once-and-for-all–given original, but must instead be said to retroactively produce the “original.”

On the face of it, Beckett and Nauman would seem to exemplify the “original” and the “neo” as characterized by the revisionist paradigm. Beckett—who was James Joyce’s assistant and the author of a book on Proust published in 1931—could be seen as the perfect representative of the “original” avant-garde culture in Europe; whereas Nauman—based in California and influenced by texts published after World War II such as Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations—would be the quintessential neo–avant-garde artist. It’s only through creative rereadings such as Nauman’s that Beckett’s themes are kept alive, the revisionist might claim.

But once you start to look closer, the very dichotomy falls apart. Beckett went through so many phases that in the end he provided his own imaginative repetitions. And one must keep in mind that the late Beckett and the early Nauman were, to a certain extent, contemporaries. The author of Murphy (1938) was also, don’t forget, the producer of a number of works for television, including Ghost Trio (1976), . . . but the clouds . . . (1976), and Quad I & II (1981), which strike me as more radical and contemporary than most of the work by artists who came of age in the full flush of postmodernism. What are these TV productions? Not literature in any traditional sense and hardly film. They are beyond genre, and that is true of certain Nauman works as well. What, for instance, is False Silence, 2000, an unusually narrow corridor with two triangular rooms at the center, resounding with a recorded voice saying things like “You can’t hurt me, you can’t help me, shuffle the pages, find me a line”? Having claustrophobic tendencies, I’m the perfect victim for Nauman’s passages, if physical unease is the point. They work on me, but the voice is superfluous. If Beckett’s late works reach a point beyond genre through sheer economy and concentration, Nauman is here adding redundant elements. That never happens with Beckett—and this has nothing to do with his having been one of the original avant-garde; it has everything to do with his uncompromising rigor and fanatical economy of means. In Not I, for example, a theater piece Beckett recast as a BBC production in 1977, all you get is a mouth and a voice that doesn’t seem to understand its own words. In Quad I & II, even the voice is gone. Four monk-like figures move across a square according to some obscure pattern. The first part is accompanied by the rhythms of various percussion instruments, the second—and ultimate—is silent but for the sound of footsteps.

Daniel Birnbaum is a contributing editor of Artforum.