“His work is deliberately off-putting,” wrote Robert Hughes in a 1996 article for Time Magazine. “But Bruce Nauman has become the most influential American artist of his generation.”
Indeed he has, and in the 2020s, the artist’s legacy continues.
Loosely associated with conceptual and minimalist art, Indiana-born artist Nauman (born 1941) is known for his experimentation with a wide variety of media, and his work includes installation, sound, sculpture, performance, video, drawing and more.
He received his Bachelor of Arts in Maths and Physics from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, but eventually switched to art, pursuing his Master of Fine Arts at the University of California Davis.
After graduating in 1966, he moved into an abandoned grocery store in San Francisco and made it his first studio after graduating.
His works quickly made the rounds, and he had his first exhibitions at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles, Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, and Konrad Fischer Galerie in Dusseldorf.
By 1973, the artist was already headlining institutional shows at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, as well as various European exhibitions across Bern, Dusseldorf, Milan and Amsterdam.
Bruce Nauman in his studio in Pasadena, California, ca. 1970. Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and Frank J. Thomas Archives. Photo Frank J. Thomas.
STRETCHING THE IDEAS OF ART
Much like the South Korean artist Nam June Paik, Nauman was an early explorer of media art, and his videotapes challenged the formats that traditionally rendered art valid.
In his first works, he experimented with filmed performance, employing his own body for research like in Walk With Contrapposto (1968), where the artist himself is seen mimicking the Greco-Roman artist contrapposto figure in his elaborate walk through a makeshift corridor.
The corridor would eventually make frequent appearances across his shows in different iterations, each offering a varied experience of space and perception, like Corridor Installation (Nick Wilder Installation) (1970), which features closed-circuit cameras and television views that confuse and perplex the viewer inside.
“Neons Corridors Rooms,” exhibition view at Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, 2022
© 2022 Bruce Nauman / SIAE. Courtesy the artist; Sperone Westwater, New York, and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan. Photo Agostino Osio
Often playing with linguistic humour in his text-based neon lighting works – he employs wordplay like double entendres and visual puns, such as in Run From Fear, Fun From Rear (1972), and his large-scale One Hundred Live And Die (1984), where 100 words describing different permutations of the living experience flicker one after the other.
Despite abandoning his mathematical training – the field would continue to influence his work, mostly in his approach to investigation and manipulation of physics and space.
In 2009, the artist represented the US at the Venice Biennale with the show “Topological Garden”, a survey of four decades of his works structured around the mathematical study of topology. The exhibition won the Golden Lion for Best National Participation.
Nauman has continuously cited the Irish writer Samuel Beckett as a source of inspiration, and the two share a particular fondness for tragicomedy. Other major sources of inspiration for the artist include John Cage and Merce Cunningham.
MAPPING THE STUDIO II with color shift, flip, flop, & flip/flop (Fat Chance John Cage), 2001. Purchased jointly by Tate, London with funds provided by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery; Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris with the support of Mr. and Mrs. William S. Fisher Family Foundation and the Georges Pompidou Culture Foundation; and Kunstmuseum Basel, 2004. © 2022 Bruce Nauman / SIAE. Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York.
The artist has a lengthy CV listing shows worldwide, most recently a touring exhibition at Milan’s Pirelli HangarBicocca, London’s Tate Modern, and Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum.
He continues to be notable for his brazen experimentation across a range of media without having spread himself too thin (with the unique exception of painting, a medium that he quickly dropped during his postgraduate studies).
“It was simple in that in the 60s, you didn’t have to pick just one medium. There didn’t seem to be any problem with using different kinds of materials – shifting from photographs to dance to performance to videotapes. It seemed very straightforward to use all those different ways of expressing ideas or presenting material,” he said in a 1988 interview with Art In America.
Nauman is currently based in New Mexico, where he has lived since 1979.
FAMOUS WORKS BY BRUCE NAUMAN
Nauman’s most famous works span a wide range of creative mediums, from a large-scale neon lighting wall installation to performance art using his own body while experimenting with space.
Here’s a look at a few of the most notable.
‘THE TRUE ARTIST HELPS THE WORLD BY REVEALING MYSTIC TRUTHS (WINDOW OR WALL SIGN)’ (1967)
The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign), 1967. Kunstmuseum Basel. © 2022 Bruce Nauman / SIAE. Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York.
In the 1960s, the neon sign was at its heyday in the US and was frequently used across storefronts to incite passersby in.
In this early neon work, Nauman places a philosophical statement in a format typically associated with commercial transactions, degrading the existentialism of the text.
The spiral-shaped piece is inspired by a beer sign he spotted at the San Francisco grocery store where he had set up his studio; he created the work with the understanding that it might also be viewed reversed from the inside via the glass.
‘WALK WITH CONTRAPPOSTO’ (1968)
In his film Walk With Contrapposto, Nauman walks through a 20-inch, narrow, makeshift corridor with a studied walk, moving his feet and hips left and right in an interpretation of how the contrapposto (a posture commonly employed in Greco-Roman sculpture) would likely walk.
The artist had little income at this stage of his career, and to minimise the cost of materials, frequently experimented with his own body and space.
‘PERFORMANCE CORRIDOR’ (1969)
Performance Corridor, 1969. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Panza Collection, Gift, 1992. © 2022 Bruce Nauman / SIAE. Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York.
Upon a suggestion from art critic and curator Marcia Tucker, Nauman created an installation out of his video-performance work Walk With Contrapposto (1968), bringing the corridor to New York’s Whitney Museum with the use of wooden panels and inviting interaction from visitors.
It’s the first corridor by the artist and kicks off a lengthy series that would come to include works like Corridor Installation (Nick Wilder Installation) (1970), Kassel Corridor: Elliptical Space (1972), and Dream Passage With Four Corridors (1984).
‘ONE HUNDRED LIVE AND DIE’ (1984)
One Hundred Live and Die, 1984. Collection Benesse Holdings, Inc/ Benesse House Museum, Naoshima. © 2022 Bruce Nauman / SIAE. Courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York
Often considered Nauman’s most famous work, the large-scale neon lighting wall installation One Hundred Live And Die (1984) features a flickering light that moves from one phrase to another across four multicoloured columns.
Each phrase is a new, three-word permutation using 50 verb-based (for the most part) words. As the title suggests, these phrases are one hundred ways Nauman suggests one can live and die, and the work is just one example of how he tends to approach existential dread with humour.
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Cover Credit: Black Marble Under Yellow Light, 1981/1988. Installation view at Pirelli HangarBicocca Milan. 2022 Contemporary Art Collection “la Caixa“ Foundation. © 2022 Bruce Nauman / SIAE. Courtesy the artist; Sperone Westwater, New York, and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan. Photo Agostino Osio.
Writer | Bana Bissat
Bana Bissat is a Milan-based writer who reports on sound art for Sound of Life. She has written for Flash Art, Lampoon, and Cultured. @banabissat