Bruce Nauman, contrarian…


I have recently discovered just how arduous it is to write about the artist Bruce Nauman, who currently has shows in New York’s MoMA and its outpost in Queens, PS1. Part of the reason is that he belongs to a small group of revered living artists who are beloved by the art world for their ambition, risk taking and savvy predictions (other members include the African American artist David Hammons, Cady Noland and West Coast contemporary Ed Rusha). However the main problem is the potentially grueling task of condensing his vast, diverse practice in a slim essay, add to that the fact that he has been written about and discussed to such an extent it would be near impossible to bring forward any new insight, so what would be the point? And that last question is probably the best starting position to take when encountering his work because we are left with the suspicion that this is his most pressing occupation.

It helps that am writing this in a particularly Nauman-like space, a small office, little larger than a closet without windows and only the harsh neon light above me to compete with the glow of my laptops screen. It is claustrophobic and uncomfortable. There may or may not be a surveillance camera in the ceiling, but certainly I’m told that the computer I am working with, and maybe even my innocent looking cell phone, has one which could be turned on without consent.

Are the physical constrictions we place on ourselves a necessary part of a creative process? Nauman early on famously said that “if I was an artist and I was in the studio, then everything I was doing in the studio must be art” a comment that speaks of the need for boundaries and restrictions perhaps but also a statement of intent and a definition of the almost Shakespearean scope of his ambitions. He set a high bar as revealed in a neon work “the true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths” a statement that might equally be seen on a hippy’s tee shirt or on the walls of MoMA. There is a tendency to search for humor or irony, in his work; I rarely see it, but in the art world apparently the cleverer you are the more funny it is (in my marriage the words “clown torture” are part of our lexicon). This work is satire in its most satisfying form, using a tool of low commerce to describe high ideals. But when you see the show, particularly at PS1 where the large spaces allow his work to breath, you conclude that not only does he ask the most basic of all questions (what is art? and what is it for?) but he also seems to have all the answers……and has stolen all the tools. Instead of opening up the world to new mediums and idea’s, you are left feeling there are fewer, rather than more, prospects for other artists. In doing so he has helped to reveal truths, mystic or not.

At the beginning of his career he looked at his body and the space around it making art out of crude mould’s and a variety of unpredictable materials, sometimes not always stable. He had a few shows on the west coast that caught the eye of Baldessari more for the rawness of his work and being out of step with current fashions. Later he would explore the human experience in others, the fears of tight spaces, of conflict and the purpose and means of communicating, work which was about the human animal and his cryptic approach being more in step with social anthropology than the art world at that moment.

The work I like least is that derived from animal carcasses, it’s painful and a little obscene to see these forms bundled and bound, hung from ceilings or on machines. There is no beauty here, no feeling of redemption, just that of being a witness to the cold industrialization of slaughter. The most rewarding for me are those where he predicted the future as we live with technology, done in a most rowdy and perceptive way. This work involves participation in performances should you wish, sometimes filmed, where micro decisions must be made by the viewer – to walk down a tight plywood corridor or not, to enter a steel cage or not – each thought turning the tables from the role of a viewer in the museum to a bit player in an ephemeral drama.

The show at MoMA, seen on a cold, dove grey Saturday the sky, heavy with rain, was a Naumanesque experience before even entering the gallery. Somehow the day had brought out every tourist family, children ran into my legs, the elderly moved at an excruciatingly slow pace, which a kinder person would forgive, but not the young who would stop without warning to check their cell phones and block routes, meandering aimlessly, more interested in the tiny screen in their hands than the work around them which, to some degree, predicted this narcissism. The experience was for me a form of torture and I wondered if the artist was looking down through surveillance cameras and chuckling to himself.

His persona is also worth noting, someone who has turned his back on the art world which remains clustered around the main capitals of the world. He lives out on the flat desert plains of New Mexico with his wife the painter Susan Rothenberg. They manage a horse ranch and he has a large studio where the erstwhile cowboy contemplates the meaning of our existence.  The cynic in me wonders to what extent this is it a branding exercise, the making of a myth or a sincere, primal way to get in touch with the land. Some of my favorite work is linked to New Mexico, a man (the artist or actor) dressed in full Cowboy gear, hat, jeans, boots, riding and training a horse in the landscape projected upside down subverting Marlborough Man, the American male ideal. An instructional video of the artist building a fence with the soundtrack of a skilled fencer giving instructions; “look after your tools”, the irony lost on no one. Both of these pieces reveal a guy wrestling with incongruity, to state the obvious; it is not normal for a man in 2019 to be both a horse rancher and a leading voice in conceptual art, two very entirely contradictory activities, one almost exclusively physical and the other cerebral and that is perhaps the point, it’s as if he is asking the question “how should an artist live his life?”, there is almost a performative element, not unlike Gilbert and George. But it could also be a wonderful premise for a Thursday night sit-com.

He is now considered one of the most influential artists of our time and his ideas can be seen in the work of many artists around today. His show at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1986 was a rare opportunity for the British to see these multi-media and challenging pieces and it’s perhaps no surprise that students in Goldsmiths a few years later were knowingly or not producing some minor versions of these. Rachael Whiteread in particular explored, and has made a career out of, negative space sculptures, several artists used their own body parts as a basis of their art, Mark Quinn and Sarah Lucas to name two and neon was almost universally adopted, acclaimed by the likes of Tracey Emin, Martin Creed and Tim and Sue Webster. Not all of this was necessarily derivative, and it would be mean to suggest it is, but to my mind many of these works have a tendency towards decoration, which is the British tradition, they look nice in homes. What they lack is the ungovernable urgency and discomfort, the unruly and rowdy, which is the core of his work and which captures the temper of the American West.

Many years ago there was an art gallery on West Broadway in downtown Manhattan that we loved to go to which even then still held the ambiance of possibilities and the new. I liked its owner very much, an elderly, unmistakably Jewish man who always made time for us. Mary had one of the first digital camera’s which he studied with an intensity, equally fascinated and undecided, as if it was either a relic of times past or a harbinger to the future. For me he past that most simple test of art world personalities; if he liked Mary, I liked him. He would fawn a little over her and she would flirt and call him Mr. Castelli. A kindly man with the wisdom and humor that only the richest of lifetimes can provide; adversity and success that we cannot even imagine…the aura of someone who did not waste a minute of his time on earth. It was only recently that a single line in his biography caught my eye; he worked in Europe in US Counter Intelligence during the Second World War. In his case it was relegated to a mere aside partially because his main action was cancelled and he found himself translating instead, yet I thought of him in a new way, holding Mary’s small camera, a memory that comes with a flash of sadness, with the sense of time slipping by, as that moment is remembered as if it was yesterday. I knew little more than most about Leo Castelli, he was famous in the Art world for promoting and even discovering many key artists of that period. He also played a major role in Nauman’s career and can rightfully claim to have at last partially moved the energy and trajectory of art away from Pop and minimalism, towards conceptualism.

Castelli’s promotion of the young artist was a significant deal in the late 1960’s. The gallerist’s space on the Upper East Side was the vortex of the art world at that moment. His main success was with Pop Artists, a handful of hugely successful male artists who absorbed and manipulated imagery from commercial, news and government institutions and sent it back through the machinations of their artistic practices. But it should be said that also in the air at that time was minimalism the search for purity in form and color and he showed Judd, Morris and Serra. But Nauman was on a very different track and one without any obvious influences (yes, Man Ray and Duchamp) but from the beginning there was already something deeply contrarian about the artist. He even credited that most unfashionable artist, Henry Moore, not necessarily because he admired his work but I think as an admonishment to the minimalism movement where the classical tradition of looking at the body was being dismissed. But the other huge contrarian idea was his choices of medium, which included almost everything imaginable (video, plywood, neon, speakers, water, concrete – the list is endless), except the paint, canvass and brushes which were, and still are, the tools in trade of career artists. That is not to say he does not paint, his works on paper are frequently words or simple forms, sometimes renderings to work out sculptures and they are more preparatory sketches than an end in themselves.

In both shows I circle some of his work as if I’m encountering an unleashed dog, something wild and unpredictable never sure of whether it will roll over on its back or suddenly turn and bite. Even if I was fully alone, I would not walk down some of his claustrophobic corridors to confront a small video screen, but my experience of his work has mainly been in crowded events, where the atmosphere is more fun fair and his work is viewed almost with amusement and celebration, totally out of keeping with its intent and I think he must be very aware of this element to the overall experience, it would be naïve otherwise. Sometimes the museum turns into a playground, and at least for the duration of the show it is no longer a sacred place held up by the dead weight of institutions and his work is not all gloom, not always a totally despondent, disruptive experience.

It strikes me that Contemporary Art increasingly is branching in two directions, ironically mirroring the highly toxic and divisive political climate we live in. During the weekend I saw his show I also visited other exhibitions that help illustrate this divergence. On one side there is the aesthetic, spiritual, beautiful road, one populated by the current artist de jour Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and whose gorgeous show has had me dreaming of not just owning a piece of her work, but fantasizing about where I would place it in my home…..if I had all the money in the world. Also the Dana Schutz show, someone who explores some of the same ground as Nauman, disorderly despair, but using a very different process; traditional paint and canvass. The other road is occupied by pure idea’s, described in a multitude of methods, work that asks you to re-evaluate and re-see your environment, yourself, in order to know it for the first time, no matter how unpleasant this is. There is a lot of work like this now (maybe he has too many disciples) too academic and too sterile, but all of them have some form of debt to the pioneering work of Bruce Nauman.

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