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.