New York

Bruce Nauman, Pencil Lift/Mr. Rogers, 2013, two asynchronous video projections, color, sound, continuous loop.

Bruce Nauman, Pencil Lift/Mr. Rogers, 2013, two asynchronous video projections, color, sound, continuous loop.

Bruce Nauman

Bruce Nauman, Pencil Lift/Mr. Rogers, 2013, two asynchronous video projections, color, sound, continuous loop.

If one had to imagine a sound track for this exhibition, it could be only the music of John Cage. The leitmotifs in Bruce Nauman’s new videos and drawings are chance and instability—themes central to Cage’s practice.

In both of the paired, asynchronous videos of Pencil Lift/Mr. Rogers, 2013, Nauman manipulates three yellow pencils that have been sharpened on both ends. He presses them together, lead to lead, lifts them into the air, and holds them there in a state of suspension; after a moment, he sets the pencils back down. In the nearly four-minute video on the left, Nauman performs this trick against a white background. We hear him speaking to the cameraperson about the position of the objects in front of the lens. In the video on the right, which lasts only forty-six seconds, Nauman performs the trick above a worktable; a cat, Mr. Rogers, walks by in the background. The intrusion of life into art in the form of an animal has become a familiar element in Nauman’s videos. The video installation Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage), 2001, for example, famously documents the nocturnal movements of mice scurrying around his studio. Here, Nauman emphasizes the absurdity and instability of the situation by reducing forms to a minimum; he has simplified the works to let the message, the existential question, prevail. His demonstration of impermanence strikes like a Zen imperative, like an admonition to rethink the transitory nature of human certainties.

The videos Thumb Start and 4th Finger Start, both 2013, derive from Nauman’s For Beginners, 2010. In For Beginners, displayed at this gallery four years ago, Nauman’s hands appear on-screen and make simple movements in response to his spoken instructions. In Thumb Start and 4th Finger Start, the same thing happens, but whereas the earlier work featured well-defined hands positioned against neutral backgrounds, here Nauman has doubled and superimposed his footage in such a way that the hands overlap, become mixed up, and split in two: The view is distorted, confused. The hands lose their vital physicality, becoming shadows of themselves. Likewise, the rigorous and repetitive verbal instructions have been edited into an obsessive, trancelike singsong. The cadenced movement of Nauman’s fingers recalls a metronome registering the passage of time, a reflection on the approach of death.

Finally, the show featured twenty-three drawings and nine silverpoints and goldpoints. For these works, Nauman made drawings based on stills from Thumb Start and 4th Finger Start, with each image showing the hand in a different position. Because these are drawings, the video-editing effects Nauman employed are less apparent, and the hands seem even more ephemeral, fractured, contingent. At the same time, there is an appeal to order: The hand movements are presented in a sequence—an implied system that guards against collapse.

This work’s affect is sorrowful and it is extreme from a formal viewpoint. Nauman concentrates all his attention on the force of gesture, action, and intention. And he achieves a certain level of subtle and precise communication, wherein the message is clear, the meaning is manifest, and we viewers are left bewildered, faced with the fragility of order.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.