View of “A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s,” 2007, University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, CA. Photo: Ben Blackwell.

View of “A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s,” 2007, University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, CA. Photo: Ben Blackwell.

“Bruce Nauman in the 1960s”

SOME FORTY-ODD YEARS after Bruce Nauman began tweaking the conventions of studio practice and the hallowed persona of the artist-as-seer, his station in postwar art history rests secure. His influence—whether through his affectless, task-based performances, his sculptural castings of negative space, or his intermedia mash-ups of language, video, and noise—is everywhere apparent in contemporary art. Nauman’s reputation is, in short, not at issue today; what remains unsettled is the specific nature of his contribution. Recent scholarship has made significant developments in complicating his particular story. Janet Kraynak’s 2005 collection of Nauman’s writings and interviews, Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words, for example, opposes the simplistic notion that Nauman is the pluralist artist par excellence, instead revealing him to be an artist systematic in working through problems of language. For the curator, however, such an interrogation brings with it a slightly different challenge: How might one stage an exhibition that says something new and concrete about such an established figure while simultaneously fulfilling the museum’s role in educating a broader public? And what happens, moreover, when that institution is a university museum, with its curatorial mandate tied closely to art-historical pedagogy?

These are the recurring questions raised by “A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s.” Organized by Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive senior curator Constance M. Lewallen, the exhibition walks a curatorial tightrope of sorts, teetering between a “greatest hits” survey of Nauman’s early work and an attempt to make an argument about the specifically Californian inflection of his practice during that period. As the promotional literature would have it, “This exhibition and the accompanying catalog are the first to explore in depth his relationship to the place where he created his earliest and often most innovative works.” In sharp contrast to the notion of “global Conceptualism” that has floated around the art world of late—a riposte to the sense that art historians have effectively limited Conceptual art’s purview to the United States and Western Europe—Lewallen stakes a claim for Nauman’s decisively local practice, a kind of West Coast Conceptualism of the Northern California variety. The trick, it seems, would be to reconcile the broad sweep of his famously wide-ranging practice with the relatively narrow optic of the exhibition’s argument.

To make such a resolution visually is no simple task, and on sight “A Rose Has No Teeth” is most likely to strike one as an early-career retrospective—an excellent one at that. Nauman’s work is presented in four galleries, from his first sculptures of 1965 to his groundbreaking video work at the end of that decade. And it’s plainly thrilling to see (especially for those who come armed with knowledge of ’60s art). The first gallery highlights Nauman’s process-oriented sculpture from mid-decade, with its attention to the subtleties of architectural context. Betraying the artist’s unorthodox approach to sculptural media, his equally unconventional methods of fabrication, and his tendency to internalize gravity in his sculptural compositions, these sinuous fiberglass forms and crumpled masses of latex directly align Nauman with Eva Hesse, Robert Morris, Richard Serra, and the other artists of the primarily New York–based anti-form generation. In the next gallery, Nauman’s “body measurement” pieces speak to larger issues of Gestalt psychology and phenomenology; hence we find Mold for a Modernized Slant Step, 1966—a peculiar and obscure device that resists any useful purpose—and renderings of his body in a variety of media, like the fiberglass sculpture Six Inches of My Knee Extended to Six Feet, 1967. In the remaining two galleries, black box installations featuring both video and holography demonstrate an insistent exploration of new technologies, and sculptures that use words as their principal media jostle up against the artist’s early forays into architecture (Performance Corridor, 1969). Throughout the exhibition, one encounters works that variously allude to the pantheon of intellectual figures that were influential among artists of the ’60s. (Take, for example, Nauman’s excruciatingly drawn-out video performance Slow Angle Walk [Beckett Walk], 1968, in which the artist carries out absurdly repetitive actions, à la Waiting for Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon, over the course of an hour—or, lending the show its title, his sculptural plaque, A Rose Has No Teeth [Lead Tree Plaque], 1966, with its nod to late Wittgenstein.) Works in neon, sound, and photography round out the offerings, which are all as witty and formally precise as their underlying thematics are deep-seated and serious. The selection, in turn, affords a perspective on Nauman’s early practice as largely continuous with the interests of his subsequent work. His investigations into both wordplay and what one might call the techniques of bodily coordination—the body’s subjugation to various task-based assignments and the sense of physical duress it endures in the process—find their thematic complement in later videos from the ’80s to the present, particularly those involving the studied repetition of sayings and gestures by their actors.

As a kind of survey, comprising so many of Nauman’s important early works and providing an entrée into many of his career-long themes, “A Rose Has No Teeth” is assuredly more focused than, say, Tate Liverpool’s exhaustive Nauman show this past summer or, more significantly for American audiences, the artist’s last full-scale presentation in the United States, which opened at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1994. But the Berkeley show inevitably brings these other examples to mind, particularly the latter. Organized by Neil Benezra, then the chief curator of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, and Kathy Halbreich, director of the Walker, the 1994 show was monumental not only for the staggering length of its checklist, which spanned Nauman’s production from the mid-’60s to the mid-’90s, but also in defining, and thus entrenching, a corpus of work as an art-historical object. While “A Rose Has No Teeth” bears no pretension to compete with any such huge retrospective—and it would be ridiculous to expect it to—the exhibition nevertheless has to justify its vision relative to what we have seen before in museums and what might be completely new material for its target university audience. This, one gathers, is where Nauman’s peculiar “site-specificity” makes the most sense.

And yet the viewer finds relatively little tangible evidence in the museum to support and clarify the show’s thesis. In fact, save for the opening wall text, which mentions Nauman’s graduate work at the University of California, Davis, which he began in 1964, there is almost no explicit information throughout the galleries that might elaborate upon his art’s “California-ness.” Research into the proposed regional influence remains curiously off-site, displaced by Lewallen (most likely in the interest of giving the work some much-needed breathing room) to the brochure and catalogue. These are both, in fact, highly informative. One can read at length about Nauman’s graduate work, his storefront studio in the Mission district of San Francisco, and his relationships and collaborations with various artists strongly identified with the Bay Area, including William T. Wiley and William Allan. Who would have thought that Nauman’s 1967 output bore intimate ties to Mill Valley, a suburb just north of San Francisco? That Nauman lived and worked in Wiley’s studio there that summer, producing Art Make-Up—a multiscreen video installation that shows the artist covering his body in white, pink, green, and black paint—doesn’t jibe with that town’s current reputation as a most affluent enclave for the Marin County set, but it might prove useful in determining a Californian influence on the work. In their catalogue essays, Lewallen and art historians and critics Robert R. Riley, Robert Storr, and Anne M. Wagner make unimpeachable cases for the context of Nauman’s work, all the while hedging their bets against accusations of what Wagner refers to as “Bay Area boosterism.” In her text, Wagner attends very closely to the language of sculptural process that Nauman’s work systematically dismantled, and she does so with an eye cast toward the particular brand of studio pedagogy he underwent in Northern California. The material is fascinating and is driven both by the archive and by dozens of interviews (some forty of which, in total, Lewallen conducted while researching the exhibition)—and the implications are far-reaching not only for a historian’s understanding of Nauman’s practice but also for the prevailing Manhattan-centric conception of ’60s art.

One ultimately wonders, then, how “A Rose Has No Teeth” might have provided some comparative visual material against which its thesis could have better played out. The exhibition is a remarkable collection of objects but is nevertheless hermetic in terms of its underlying curatorial goals. Why not, for instance, install a few choice examples of Nauman’s Davis cohorts alongside his earlier work? The funk aesthetic we associate with Wiley, Wayne Thiebaud, and Robert Arneson—all of whom, having taught Nauman at UC Davis, played formative roles in his practice—might offer a radically provocative counterpoint to what we think of Nauman’s post-Minimal phase, not to mention the near-compulsory habit of understanding “process” art in relation to the artists in Robert Morris’s 1969 “Nine at Castelli” exhibition at the Leo Castelli warehouse. (In this regard, Lucy Lippard’s largely discredited rubric of “Eccentric Abstraction”—as put forth by her 1966 Fischbach Gallery exhibition and accompanying essay—gains something in explanatory power. Lippard proposed a far more inclusive notion of post-Minimalism that addressed the surrealistic and funkier elements of the process-minded work from that period. Nauman himself was featured in her show, and, while he would certainly reject being classified as a “funk” artist, the decisive influence of Dada and Surrealism on his work—most notably the photography of Man Ray—considerably shifts the terms of his art-historical evaluation.) Or why not screen footage of Anna Halprin’s groundbreaking movement workshops alongside Nauman’s task-based video performance? Rather than render Nauman a more provincial figure due to these influences (which might well be the charge directed at Lewallen’s thesis), such visual touchstones would only reveal him to be a more worldly artist because engaged in a social milieu with greater implications for the rewriting of the history of ’60s art.

These references would, in fact, go far in complicating the oft-told récits of Nauman’s studio investigations. The conventional wisdom holds that Nauman had to reinvent the activities of the studio because he had too much time on his hands and not enough money to hire an atelier to fabricate his objects. Hence, or so the story goes, the role of the artist’s body and other such unorthodox media progressively took center stage. And yet the extensive and impressive research behind “A Rose Has No Teeth” gives the lie to any notion of Nauman’s work as solipsistic, closed off as it might appear from a context formative to his practice. If only this extremely strong showing of Nauman’s early work had provided an overarching framework for gauging the centrality of his art in toto—actively explaining his importance rather than assuming it—perhaps the relevance of its more narrow argument would register much more clearly. Without such prior understanding of his practice, however, one misses both the declarative and didactic punch that would have stressed Nauman’s larger place within ’60s artmaking even while more tangibly relating his work to the Bay Area.

“A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s” remains on view at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through Apr. 22. The exhibition travels to Castello di Rivoli, Turin, Italy, May 23–Sept. 9; and the Menil Collection, Houston, Oct. 12, 2007–Jan. 14, 2008.

Pamela M. Lee is an associate professor of art history at Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA.