Always pursuing a rigorous enquiry of human condition, Nauman's work is about the basic elements of love, hate, pleasure, pain and communication.
From the 1970s printmaking became central to Nauman's exploration of language and allowed him to experiment with reversal, mirroring and repetition of words as manifested in some of these inconic text works, which engage and communicate directly with the viewer.
In lithography, Nauman found that the directness of mark-making on the stone mimicked drawing and this appealed to him. Conversely, he also enjoyed the sense of removal that resulted from the intaglio printmaking process. In contrast, works such as Raw War, his first word-image print and M. Ampere play on the way in which, through simple reversal of letters, language can be easily re-interpreted and interplayed. Nauman had been exploring his ‘front/back interplay’ in his sculptural work with fibreglass where he inverted forms. He discovered through printmaking, particularly lithography, the automatic reversal of his initial image/text that provided an important new medium for his investigation into language as a system of signs.
As Nauman explained ‘I am really interested in the different ways that language functions. That is something I think a lot about, which also raises questions about how the brain and mind work…the point where language starts to break down as a useful tool for communication is the same edge where poetry or art occurs'.
Nauman constantly throws the conventional role of the viewer into question, and forces us to react. Nauman himself explained ‘From the beginning I was trying to see if I could make art that did that. Art that was just there all at once. Like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat. Or better yet, like getting hit in the back of the neck. You never see it coming; it just knocks you down. I like that idea very much: the kind of intensity that doesn’t give you any trace of whether you’re going to like it or not’.