Unfamiliar Territory

Bruce Nauman at MoMA

Cover Image - Bruce Nauman, "One Hundred Live and Die," 1984. Neon tubing with clear glass tubing on metal monolith, 118 × 132 1/4 × 21″ (299.7 × 335.9 × 53.3 cm). Collection of Benesse Holdings, Inc./Benesse House Museum, Naoshima. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Dorothy Zeidman, courtesy the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York. Header Image - Still from Bruce Nauman, "Contrapposto Studies, i through vii. 2015/16," Seven-channel video (color, sound, continuous duration), dimensions variable. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Jointly owned by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired in part through the generosity of Agnes Gund and Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder; and Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, on permanent loan to Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo courtesy the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York.

BY: Zach Wampler

In the 1960s, art moved on from the traditional production process. Instead of painting a canvas after an idea or urge or request, art became a series of questions and experiments, not just a finished result to take pleasure in. The work of Bruce Nauman is one of the primary reasons for this shift. Rightfully so, Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is the artist’s largest retrospective to date. It is also an absolute success, and not because of its sprawling size, but because it compellingly illustrates Nauman’s career and work as a series of experiments and journeys into undefinable and unfamiliar spaces.

Nauman has been producing art for over fifty years, and yet no one is quite sure how to label him. He makes sculptures, video installations, performance, paintings, drawings. You name it, Nauman has probably done it. However, all of the work of Bruce Nauman tends to cause unease and discomfort. A plaster cast of a hand looks banal until one notices that all the fingers have been replaced by casts of thumbs. Colorful neon signs pop off the walls, yet you might notice erect phalluses, or phrases such as “SCREAM AND DIE.” No matter the medium, size, or style, the result of viewing Nauman’s art is always an odd mixture of humor, tension, and revulsion.

Like his work, Nauman is hard to pin down. He moved to New Mexico in the 1970s for both the space and the privacy. His written texts and interviews are direct, yet often repetitive and not very illuminating. He is difficult to unwrap. Some say that the personalities of artists are reflected in their work, but that generalization certainly does not apply to  Nauman.

The title of this exhibition, Disappearing Acts, is a stroke of particular brilliance. Nauman’s art flies from medium to medium, style to style. His own personality isn’t available to us, and his work is so strange that you don’t know if you should laugh or run away. Much like the titular magic trick, Nauman manages something seemingly impossible. He remains cold and experimental as and artist and producer, yet his experiments yields multitudes: humor, honesty, fear, sadness, and so much more.

 

Print by Bruce Nauman
Bruce Nauman, “Composite Photo of Two Messes on the Studio Floor,” 1967. Gelatin silver print, 40 1/2″ × 10′ 3″ (102.9 × 312.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Philip Johnson. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital image © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar.

 

Video still by Bruce Nauman
Still from Bruce Nauman, “Green Horses,” 1988. Video installation (color, 59:40 min.) with two color video monitors, two DVD players, video projector, and chair, dimensions variable. Purchased jointly by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, with funds from the Bequest of Arthur B. Michael, by exchange; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, with funds from the Director’s Discretionary Fund and the Painting and Sculpture Committee, 2007. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Ron Amstutz.

 

Drawing by Bruce Nauman
Bruce Nauman, “Fist in Mouth,” 1990. Cut-and-pasted printed paper and paper with watercolor and pencil on paper, 20 1/4 × 23 3/4″ (51.4 × 60.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchased with funds given by Edward R. Broida. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital image © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: John Wronn.

 

Sculpture by Bruce Nauman
Bruce Nauman, “Henry Moore Bound to Fail,” Back View. 1967/1970. Cast iron, 26 15/16 × 23 3/16 × 2 3/8″ (68.5 × 59 × 6 cm). Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, on permanent loan to the Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Bisig & Bayer, Basel.

 

Neon work by Bruce Nauman
Bruce Nauman, “Human Nature/Life Death/Knows Doesn’t Know,” 1983. Neon tubing with clear glass tubing suspension frames, 107 1/2 × 107 × 5 3/4″ (273.1 × 271.8 × 14.6 cm). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Modern and Contemporary Art Council Fund. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA.

 

Neon work by Bruce Nauman
Bruce Nauman, “My Last Name Exaggerated Fourteen Times Vertically,” 1967. Neon tubing with clear glass tubing suspension frame, 63 × 33 × 2″ (160 × 83.8 × 5.1 cm). Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Tim Nighswander/ Imaging4Art.com.

 

Print by Bruce Nauman
Bruce Nauman, “Pay Attention,” 1973. Lithograph, edition of 50; each 38 1/4 × 28 1/4″ (97.2 × 71.8 cm). Collection Robin Wright and Ian Reeves. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Pay Attention, © 1973 Bruce Nauman and Gemini G.E.L.

 

Video still by Bruce Nauman
Still from Bruce Nauman, “Setting a Good Corner (Allegory + Metaphor),” 1999. Single-channel video (color, sound, 59:30 min., transferred to DVD). Edition of 40. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Gift of Alan Hergott and Curt Shepard. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

 

Drawing by Bruce Nauman
Bruce Nauman, “Untitled (Heads),” 2005. Pencil on paper, 30 1/8 × 44″ (76.5 × 111.8 cm). Private collection. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Jason Mandella.

 

Sculpture by Bruce Nauman
Bruce Nauman, “Model for Trench and Four Buried Passages,” 1977. Plaster, fiberglass, and wire, 65 × 360″ (diam. outer circle) (165.1 × 914.4 cm [diam. outer circle]); 192″ (487.7 cm) diam. inner circle. Glenstone Museum, Potomac, Maryland. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

 

Neon work by Bruce Nauman
Bruce Nauman, “One Hundred Live and Die,” 1984. Neon tubing with clear glass tubing on metal monolith, 118 × 132 1/4 × 21″ (299.7 × 335.9 × 53.3 cm). Collection of Benesse Holdings, Inc./Benesse House Museum, Naoshima. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Dorothy Zeidman, courtesy the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York.

 

Video still by Bruce Nauman
Still from Bruce Nauman, “Contrapposto Studies, i through vii. 2015/16,” Seven-channel video (color, sound, continuous duration), dimensions variable. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Jointly owned by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired in part through the generosity of Agnes Gund and Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder; and Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation, on permanent loan to Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo courtesy the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York.