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 A plaster cast of a hand looks banal until one notices that all the fingers have been replaced by casts of thumbs.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.