Bruce Nauman’s Seismic Impact on Contemporary Art

Tess Thackara
Oct 19, 2018 7:46PM

Bruce Nauman can provoke some eye-rolling from those skeptical of contemporary art. A random selection from his back catalogue might include a photograph of a spilled cup of coffee; an industrial fan blowing air into an empty corridor; a steel slab with a secret inscribed beneath its surface; a neon light in the form of a long, abstruse squiggle; and a close-up video recording of the artist rubbing black paint onto his balls. All of this could seem like an absurdist, profoundly unaesthetic send-up of a navel-gazing art world, but Nauman’s work is challenging beneath its deceptive simplicity. As the artist bellows in mirrored, uppercase script in a 1973 lithograph: “PAY ATTENTION MOTHER FUCKERS.”

“Bruce blew open so many possibilities,” said Kathy Halbreich, who led the curatorial team for the artist’s remarkable new retrospective, “Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts,” which opens at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1 this week, after a run at the Schaulager outside Basel, Switzerland. “If you’re interested in language, you can’t avoid Bruce; if you’re interested in video—and he was one of the first to use a Portapak—you can’t avoid Bruce. Bruce knew about performance before we even had a word for it. If you’re interested in any new technology, he was there early, if not first.” Nauman, she asserted, has even left his mark with more niche media: “I still think he’s made the only hologram that’s worth looking at.”

Bruce Nauman, Human Nature/Life Death/Knows Doesn’t Know, 1983. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA.


Like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in which two characters idle in the anticipation of the arrival of their maker, Nauman’s work is often about sitting and waiting for meaning to arrive. (As Halbreich said: “Life is like that, you wait for insights. They don’t come everyday.”) Sometimes, the answers don’t require looking any further than one’s own body or the four corners and walls of a modest studio space. The beauty, absurdity, existential dread, and inevitable failure of any pursuit of certainty—which is perhaps the pursuit of any artist—is what vibrates within Nauman’s 50 years’ worth of work. Over the course of five decades, that essential human impulse—to make some sense, some shape out of time and space—has led the artist to experimentations with a catholic range of materials and mediums, fueling his reputation as one of America’s most influential artists.

Among Nauman’s contributions to the world, as Halbreich sees it, is one that seems to extend far beyond any discrete notion of fine art: “How to live life.” Nauman left the bustle of the art world in 1979 and moved to Pecos, New Mexico. In 1989, he moved to the remote ranch in Galisteo where he still lives today with his wife, painter Susan Rothenberg. On the property, his life and art are seamlessly fused. Nauman has filmed himself riding a horse around a field repetitively. In another work, we see him building a fence on his property; at the end, a neighbor comes by and critiques the fruits of his labor.

Portrait of Bruce Nauman in his studio in New Mexico by Jason Schmidt. Courtesy of Jason Schmidt.

“I think this idea of good work, of a good day’s work—labor as something exquisitely well done—is so essential” to Nauman, said Halbreich. His consistent exploration of the physical world, she suggested, is what prevents the artist from being constrained to the label of “Conceptual artist”—though his influence in helping to liberate art from the object has been profound. He is also a sculptor, a performer, a Postminimalist, a light artist, a draughtsman, a photographer, and an artist of the moving image—mediums that he has employed, and reinvented, since the 1960s. How to make sense of this extraordinarily restless and slippery body of work?

When a 20-something Nauman was in school at the University of California, Davis, in the 1960s, he found himself in the grips of creative block. That paralysis began to ease, he later recounted, when he realized that everything that took place inside of an artist’s studio could be considered art—the process of making art became the art. He filmed himself moving around his studio, adjusting or inspecting materials, walking back and forth, stamping, bouncing against a corner, or turning his body into sculpture by organizing his limbs in various arrangements against or adjacent to the walls of the room. “Artist block is to him like gesso on a canvas is to a painter,” art critic Peter Plagens has said of Nauman. As an artist, “it’s the first thing you do.” He used his frustrations with artmaking as both subject and material.

The work is often about sitting and waiting for meaning to arrive.

These absurdly mundane, borderline-inane recordings—with the video an effort to “structure time,” as Nauman once described one of his preoccupations—evolved into instructions for viewers to follow. Body Pressure (1974) is a poster with printed directions that ask the reader to press her body into the wall “very hard,” while contemplating a duplicate self on the other side of the wall, pushing back. This imaginative union with the self is something of a sensual invitation—to feel your connection to the surrounding space, as much as to your own body. (“This may become a very erotic exercise,” Nauman warns at the end of the instructions.) The imaginative leap required of the viewer-performer recalls Nauman’s Lighted Performance Box (1969) of a few years earlier. As a self-contained rectangular metal box, roughly the dimensions of an average human, it suggests a performing body out of sight, as well as the magic tricks that Nauman learned from his grandfather as a child.

“Every great artist is at least an illusionist,” Halbreich said at the press conference for the MoMA retrospective. And Nauman’s magic is elusive, aggressive, and sometimes uncomfortable; he has not been shy to offer up a red herring or stage unsettling puzzles to confound his viewers’ expectations. The humor in his work is at turns dark, deadpan, or tongue-in-cheek. Consider works such as his four-channel 1987 video of a clown engaged in various acts of depravity, or a plaster cast of a hand made only of thumbs, or a neon sign that shows a group of men and women copulating—the figures rendered robotic in their blinking, never-ending thrusts.


Nauman has an eye for the absurd that places him in lineage with the provocations and linguistic tricks of Marcel Duchamp and the early 20th-century avant-garde—a connection he once admitted in a 1967 interview with ARTnews. “I suppose,” he said, “my work must have to do with some of the things the Dadaists and Surrealists did.” If those groups surfaced the more chaotic elements of human nature, Nauman dissolves any sense of reassurance or stability that language can offer in the world. “When language starts to break down a little bit, it becomes exciting,” he has said. Since the outset of his career, the artist has engaged in a promiscuous wordplay that has variously taken the form of neon signage, inscription in limestone slabs, and letters printed or drawn in bold, ferocious capitals.

The violence of language—the way words can twist reality, and easily slip from truth to falsehood—pulsates throughout. Signs, which we generally expect to be informative, in Nauman’s hands become poetic, cruel, and witty riddles that muddy the road toward enlightenment. Run from Fear, Fun from Rear (1972), rendered in seedy red and yellow neon, unfolds into numerous possibilities. Even as it demonstrates the way in which a simple shuffle of letters can result in a dramatic shift in meaning, it reveals disturbing truths about human nature—the erotics of fear, and the fear of the ultimate loss of one’s own boundaries. The flashing neon Violins Violence Silence (1981–82) reveals the perverse, musical pleasure of wordplay, even as its contents suggest aggression and subjection.

Nauman’s explosion of borders and binaries is the very subject of Seven Virtues/Seven Vices (1983–84), in which pairs of opposites—“Faith/Lust,” “Hope/Envy,” “Justice/Avarice,”—are inscribed over each other on limestone slabs, making them nearly illegible. Again, words obscure rather than illuminate, and the viewer, faced with a tangle of characters, must do the work to return them to order. (The satisfaction gleaned from separating the two words is revealing in itself: the relief that comes with clarity, structure, and classification.)

If language frequently betrays its promise of legibility, so, too, does it fail to fully reveal the self. My Name as Though It Were Written on the Surface of the Moon (1968) is, in fact, a spun-out rendering in neon of the artist’s first name. Nauman’s My Last Name Exaggerated Fourteen Times Vertically (1967) also represents an abstracted signature of sorts: a looping neon line that could double as the visualization of a heartbeat on a hospital monitor. With this, the artist not only rejects any stable representation of identity, but alludes to the fragility of the body and skewers both the stamp of art-world value and the heroism of authorship: the artist’s signature.

Bruce Nauman’s magic is elusive, aggressive, and sometimes uncomfortable.

Nauman treats art-historical ideas of heroism with no greater veneration. In his “Contrapposto” series, begun in 1968, Nauman paces awkwardly in his studio, one hip jutting forward, his other leg extended backward slightly to approximate the (impossible) male ideal of Greek statuary. In his 2017 version of the piece, visitors can wear 3D glasses to watch the septuagenarian artist pace once more, the screen split so that his legs seem to move independently of his torso, accentuating his disjointed gait. It’s curiously hypnotic, almost idiotically so, given the mundane nature of his action. But the two discordant screens give Nauman an endearingly artless, loose-hipped swagger that seems to bungle the image of the cowboy that has inexorably stuck to him.

Bruce Nauman, Contrapposto Studies, i through vii. 2015/16. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo courtesy of the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York.

Nauman seems to work against that same cowboy mystique in Green Horses (1988)—despite it undoubtedly having contributed to that very myth. The video shows him riding a horse around a field for almost an hour. While he certainly looks like a cowboy—with a wide-brimmed hat and open plains behind him—the repetitiveness of the action lets out its narrative steam. The image itself is periodically flipped, so that the horse appears on top, its churning legs made the subject. The simplicity of this inversion, like switching the letters in an anagram, is partially the point. This is reality subtly altered to make “a concession” to art, as Nauman has described the tilted viewpoint he once used in a video—“so it looked as if I did something to it, changed it.”

It may argue for the moral worth of everyday labor, but Green Horses is an art of humility, not of heroics. And it’s one that emphasizes the physical prowess of the horse over its rider. Nauman has long had an affinity with animals, a subject that has surfaced in sculptures of taxidermied animals—like the painful-to-watch Carousel(Stainless Steel Version) (1988), in which polyurethane foam animals are dragged along the floor by a rotating steel carousel—and videos that feature rats and mice.

His reverence for the natural world also surfaces in the ephemeral piece Leave the Land Alone (1969/2009), which spells out the titular letters as a fleeting skytrail made by an airplane. The piece has been read as critique of the land artists, who made a sometimes-forceful mark on the earth. For Halbreich, as she writes in the catalogue, it is more “a command to tread lightly on the Earth.” Nauman’s work leaves room for numerous interpretations—sometimes conflicting, but always intriguing—that touch on race, gender, and art history.

The artist Nicolás Guagnini, for instance, also writing in the exhibition catalogue, reads in Nauman’s Black Balls (1969)—the aforementioned work in which the artist rubs dark paint onto his testicles—a critique of the Abstract Expressionists, as well as a reflection of anxieties about race and white male sexual inferiority. And the artist Jacolby Satterwhite, writing in Artforum, has argued that Nauman’s work can be understood as “an interrogation of the banality of his white male body: its scale, identity, and relationship to his environs.”

Nauman has always been preoccupied with his own body, and the way in which it occupies space—yet, as the underlying thesis of this latest retrospective posits, he also has a canny penchant for disappearing his body altogether. The casts he has made of his limbs and skull—the negative space left by a knee; the gap left by the mold of a head; one streamlined arm stretching down from shoulder and skull—often amount to a kind of self-erasure, as opposed to the assertion of himself.

Bruce Nauman, Wax Impressions of the Knees of Five Famous Artists, 1966. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Ben Blackwell.

This zen-like mystical quality is countered elsewhere in Nauman’s practice by raging paranoia and anxiety. In the sound piece Get Out of My Mind, Get out of This Room (1968), we hear a comedically deranged and breathy voice filling an empty room with a desperate injunction leveled at the voice in its head. In the claustrophobia-inducing Double Steel Cage Piece (1974), viewers can traverse a body-squeezingly narrow passage around a cage, while others watch. A combination of having one’s body constricted while simultaneously being subject to voyeurism—and the discomfort that produces—characterizes several of his architectural spaces. Kassel Corridor: Elliptical Space (1972) is composed of two curving walls, with a narrow gap between them; visitors must request a key to enter the piece. (Meanwhile, spectators on either end can watch their cramped progress via openings at either end of the sculpture.) In the tight corridors of Corridor Installation (Nick Wilder Installation) (1970), surveillance monitors capture the unwitting subject’s image and project it into one of the other passageways so it’s out of her view, conjuring a powerful sense of anxiety about the loss of one’s own digital form.

But in Nauman’s apparent worldview, this existential unease is a product not only of the watchful eye of states or governments, but of individuals themselves. Indeed, in the noisier, more transgressive components of the work, Guagnini sees an expression of human nature that is perhaps as dark as the state’s tools of control that Nauman invokes—the origin of what he describes as an “axis of abjection later extended by Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley: baseness, sex, repetition, death.” This description most readily calls to mind Nauman’s four-channel video Clown Torture (1987), in which clowns engage in various squalid or puerile activities in contained spaces—sitting on a toilet, writhing on the floor and shouting, attempting to affix something to a ceiling. It’s difficult to tell who is actually being tortured here: the viewer of the scenes, or the clown himself, who appears locked into a cycle of wretchedness. Either way, Nauman seems to point to something deeply perverse and primitive that lies within us all.

What unites all of this is the artist’s inquiry into the limits of human psychology and experience, and, indeed, the limits of art. “I think why Bruce is so influential,” Halbreich said, “is when you look at his work, study his work, you know that his animating force is about finding freedom.” True freedom, it seems, can be a painful process. It’s one that requires facing up to all of the losses, uncertainties, labor, and ethical quandaries that life entails—not to hide from its difficulties, but to enter into them willingly.

Tess Thackara

Header video: Bruce Nauman, Walk with Contrapposto, 1968. © 2018 Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix.

Corrections: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Nauman’s work Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room as Get Out of My Head, Get Out of this Room. Additionally, the work in the header video is called Walk with Contrapposto, not Contrapposto.

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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019