The joker in the pack

Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts
Schaulager, Basel; Museum of Modern Art, New York; MoMA PS1, New York
17 March – 26 August 2018; 21 October 2018 – 18 February 2019; 21 October 2018 – 25 February 2019

Bruce Nauman’s retrospective, which I saw at the Schaulager in Basel during the northern summer, is now at MoMA in New York. The first substantial survey in the United States for twenty-five years, and the largest ever mounted, it is overdue anywhere, everywhere. In Australia, Nauman is surely the least understood of all the great postwar American figures. Individual works, like the National Gallery of Australia’s well-loved neon The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths (Window or wall sign) and the enchanting Self-Portrait as a Fountain (both 1967), have securely established Nauman’s antic wit, and there are reasonable holdings of videos in various Australian collections. But the depths of the practice have never been plumbed here in a major exhibition.1 

What is the core of this famously polyglot practice? Disappearing Acts is predicated on Nauman’s origins as a sculptor, and his long interrogations of its genres, materials and limits across many media. Counter-intuitively at first glance, curator Kathy Halbreich argues that Nauman’s consistent propensity for staging strategic disappearances is the obverse of the physical stuff of the sculptor’s studio.2 It figures: what exists can also be disappeared. So while I have been accustomed to think Nauman through the frames of conceptual interrogation, or linguistic play—both undeniably important—I had never come to grips with his long sculptor’s arm-wrestle with body and materiality. 

Yet that is exactly Nauman’s territory, from the rigorous bodily studies of the late 1960s / early 1970s, to the recurring figuration seen in the performative videos and more recent neons. From 1967, for example, a lovely suite showed six inches of Nauman’s knee extended to six feet, explored in fibreglass, and through drawings in charcoal and pencil (the last belonging to Jasper Johns). These knees were followed by an entire wall of works from 1966/67 about the sculptor’s own body as measure. The sequences were demonstrative, seemingly effortless, as the exhibition revealed the logic of Nauman’s thinking (more or less chronologically). It was a tour-de-force investigation of spatial reasoning, teasing out how his works often play ambiguously with the established tropes of painting and sculpture, and between materiality and language. And throughout the entire exhibition Halbreich’s generous selection of exquisite drawings and prints, sometimes tightly hung, traced the artist’s physical as well as conceptual explorations. 

Nauman’s joker credentials were established early. The second room opened with the now canonical A cast of the space under my chair (1965-68), a challenge in the negative to trip you up. Nearby a video sound track was triggered by visitor proximity: Untitled (Flour arrangements) (1967) (note the typically punning title) takes the form of an hilarious TV interview, both participants smoking like chimneys. This performative repertoire was also established early, as the project with sculptural measurement began to open out; in the dance performance script, Untitled (Square knot – rope and folded arms), for example, or in the mesmeric Walk with contrapposto (1968). The titles are clues: to Nauman’s Western American idioms, on one hand, and his affiliation with European figurative sculpture on the other. Some works are just plain wicked: Pay Attention (1973), a lithograph with the words ‘Mother fuckers’ reversed. The celebrated Self-Portrait as a Fountain is more complex: usually read as a Duchamp spoof, I now think it also proposes the photographed Nauman as a Baroque putto, spitting in the face of the gods. 

It is not all lighthearted clowning: most of the joking is deadly serious. On the lower floor of the Schaulager it was clear that Nauman had ramped up the social engagement of his work in recent decades, and it was on an increasingly ambitious scale. This is often challenging: Seven Figures (1985) is the rudest crudest piece of major art I have seen for some time. There is an additional conundrum: this tough work, like MoMA’s Seven Virtues/Seven Vices (1983-84) is so damned pretty! Along with a great selection of neon works, and an entire room given over to large mid-1980s studies for neons, one found the huge and scary Shadow Puppets and Instructed Mine (1990), a seven-channel work for puppets and actor that the exhibition brochure rightly suggests concerns ‘powerlessness and disorientation’. Here Nauman considers violence in various unpalatable varieties: social violence in America, the military violence of the state, the deformation of masculinity through habitual aggression. It is a very strong brew. 

That said, and perhaps not contradictorily, a distinctive mordant deadpan humour runs through the entire oeuvre. It seems you cannot take the Mid-West out of the boy. Nauman’s postwar American-ness is, from the start, not that of the eastern seaboard cities and their self-consciously aspirational art communities. Nauman has lived on a ranch in New Mexico since 1979, where he is a serious breeder of quarter horses: we see them in Green Horses (1988). Certain details are carefully Western: the beautiful leather sling chair, the Panasonic box serving as a plinth for the projector in an approximation of a makeshift campsite. This is a deliberately situated body of work, and its inspiration is located a very long way from the standard tropes of American post-conceptualism. Setting a Good Corner (Allegory & Metaphor) (1999), for example, is the epitome of dry cowboy wit, as precise as it is simultaneously leg pulling. To describe it, let us say, as ‘a philosophical exploration of language’ does not even come close to accounting for the work’s irreducible elegance and outrider awareness. 

The 2015/16 Contrapposto Studies, revisiting the 1968 works in negative, are magnificent, a huge set of projections that extended from floor to ceiling. It was moving to see how such a basic pose from classical sculpture might be rethought with different media, here digital recording and editing. In some ways Contrapposto Studies is highly formal, but it is also very matter of fact: Nauman has simply sliced his body horizontally with the editing. Very basic, very rich. The Contrapposto projections were placed towards the end of the exhibition, in the same sight line as the Wall-Floor Positions (1968) of nearly fifty years before, underscoring the persistence of Nauman’s interest in the human body, his own sculptor’s body. 

Nauman’s anomalous status first occurred to me forcefully some years ago at DIA Beacon. There, where the sublime character (and aspirations) of canonical post-Abstract Expressionist American art is the overarching project, a substantial display of Nauman’s work is collected in the basement, sequestered from the conceptual rigour on the main floor. Louise Bourgeois that other undeniable exception to the rule, is seen in the small rooms on the upper floor. (The joker in the basement, the madwoman in the attic?) 

Unlike the older Bourgeois, with her European history and training, Bruce Nauman sits squarely in the American post-war conceptual questioning of Modernism, the great collective project that saw American artists consolidate the attention of art historians and theorists in the 1960s and 1970s. But Halbreich is correct: Nauman has consistently taken himself out of the main frame of that endeavor, has been persistently evasive. 

In a word, Disappearing Acts is a stupendous account of Bruce Nauman’s huge and intriguing oeuvre, with dazzling loans based on MoMA and the Schaulager’s exceptional holdings of his work. It does what the best exhibitions do: despite the exhibition title, it makes its subject clearly visible. I would not have missed it for quids.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

notes: 

1. The National Gallery of Australia has the richest holdings, with 50 works. Self-Portrait as a Fountain is one of the suite Eleven colour photographs, acquired in 1978. A number of Nauman’s works were seen in the NGA collection show Gary Hill / Bruce Nauman: International New Media Art, 14 December 2002 - 21 April 2003 in Canberra, which subsequently toured widely. 

2. See the exhibition catalogue (ed. Kathy Halbreich), Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts, MoMA, New York, 2018.