New York

Bruce Nauman

Janet Kraynak on Bruce Nauman

Bruce Nauman’s recent exhibition at Sperone Westwater was introduced by Untitled (Study for Slow Angle Walk [Beckett Walk]), 1968–69, a small, diagrammatic pencil drawing in which lines and arcs of various densities are interspersed with arrows, circles, and x’s. While modest, the work nonetheless succinctly embodies the conceptual conflict at the heart of the artist’s drawing production (and thus the exhibition as well): namely, what exactly are Nauman’s drawings? The answer may seem obvious; the majority of them are graphite, charcoal, or crayon works on paper. Yet moving among preparatory sketches, installation plans, instructions, studies, proposals for unrealized sculptures, and imaginative responses to existing works, this aspect of Nauman’s production is difficult to categorize, encompassing a broad range of functions that surpass conventional ideas of the medium.

The show focused on a subgenre of this practice, “drawings for installations,” in which, as Michael Auping observes in his catalogue essay, “we can seemingly experience Nauman contemplating the peculiar types of space his installations explore.” Sculptural installations, by design, exist only as drawing or plan until realized for an exhibition. And in the case of Nauman’s, given their inherent complexity—they may incorporate video, audio, lighting, sound, and/or text in addition to architectural structures, as in the prose/floor piece Cones Cojones, 1973–75, installed for the exhibition—they seem doubly inaccessible. The selection was thus illuminating. If we consider the works included in relation to one another, however, ambiguities persist.

Take, for example, Untitled (Study for “Floating Room” Installations), 1972, and Consummate Mask of Rock—Layout, 1975. Aesthetically, the two are utterly distinct: The former achieves visual impact through an accumulated mass of thickly applied charcoal lines, while the latter painstakingly details the specifics of an installation plan through instructions. Also notable is that the particular version of Floating Room pictured here was never made, while Consummate Mask of Rock has been installed more than once. Together, these works reveal the way in which the artist’s drawings “mark” sculpture in various ways, representing notational as well as physical space—with the drawing remaining autonomous, or, alternatively, generating multiple, materially diverse iterations.

Returning to Untitled (Study for Slow Angle Walk [Beckett Walk]), what is apparent is that “line,” rather than functioning in the traditional sense (i.e., in the formal dichotomy of line/color), here indicates movements for a body to perform. “Drawing” is thus simultaneously a choreographic “score,” a different notational language altogether that yields physical actions. Moreover, given that in this case, a body (Nauman’s) had already performed the Beckett Walk (in the 1968 video of that name) by the time the drawing was completed in 1969, the temporal succession (and hierarchical relation) of drawing to completed art object has itself been inverted or dislodged—saying something quite different about the temporality and status of drawing itself. Nauman’s contemporary, Mel Bochner, in 1969, aptly described this transformed condition through his notion of “working drawings,” noting that their “graffiti” appearance was due to “the process by which they came into being; a process at once notational and speculative.”

The drawings in the exhibition share a wonderfully interstitial, intermediary, and indeed unfinished quality. Deliberations abound, with words crossed out, questions posed, options offered, additions made, and measurements altered. This resolute incompleteness and metonymic structure might productively be extended to describe Nauman’s work in general, representing a wholesale internalization of the provisional nature of drawing. More than just windows into the artist’s internal thought process, however, they are insistently dialogical, charging the beholder with the work’s completion, if only through a seemingly simple question about the type of light fixture, as in his Untitled (Study for Natural Light, Blue Light Room at Ace Gallery), 1971: W/ BLUE FLUORESCENT?

Janet Kraynak