A new travelling survey of the early work of Bruce Nauman celebrates his emergence as a Conceptual artist. Nauman plunged into this new realm straight from college, as he exchanged painting for sculpture, then sculpture extended to more remote or commissioned objects, for recording or documentation of performance and texts. Nauman has supposedly exerted an enormous influence and such shows help to establish his contribution.
Nauman was based in San Francisco from the mid to late 60s, the period surveyed, but the initial influence would seem to have been Jasper Johns, with his inserted casts gauging the two-dimensionality of painting, of scale and identity for targets, numbers, alphabets and more elaborate text. Johns is really the departure point for Nauman’s A Rose Has No Teeth (1966) – especially with the nod to Wittgenstein – a lead casting of the quote with vigorous surface akin to Johns’ The Critic Smiles (1959) and The Critic Sees (1961). Nauman uses Wittgenstein’s whimsical proposition as a way of directing attention back upon the words, teasing their sense. Self-reference here is not directed toward painting and abstraction though, as in Johns, but toward sculpture and three-dimensional properties for text, to its material and situation (originally as a plaque on a tree).
But text is also a peculiar – not to say original – point from which to review sculptural qualities, far more so than for painting and depiction, and the perversity and frustration of finding useful links - of reconsidering sculpture - quickly figures as the real content. This frustration remains a central feature of Nauman’s work. Later text works adopt neon tubing and similarly distance the work from traditional sculpture,stress obvious even tedious word play to cue a reflexive reading, grant the artist a remote, designer’s role.
Apart from texts, Nauman’s early sculptures variously measure the artist’s body parts, such as Storage Capsule for the Right Rear Quarter of My Body (1966) or Collection of Various Flexible Materials, Separated by Layers of Grease with Holes the Size of my Waist and Wrists (1966) much like a cast, but using only the most rudimentary of construction – underlining the artist’s presence on the merest of physical and skill terms. Here Nauman coincides with wider developments, with the shift toward performance in painting, in Yves Klein’s Anthropometries (where the artist’s assistants coat their naked bodies in paint, press themselves against the canvas upon his instruction, before an audience) and with the mere recording of the artist’s presence by Piero Manzoni with his breath captured in balloons, or more notoriously, his excrement in sealed cans.
Recording mere bodily presence with a work then prompts consideration of activity or performance on some equally basic or minimal level, and this to suitable recordings, by stills, film, video, audio tape or text. (see also Post 17). The transition for Nauman is aided by acquaintance with Meredith Monk, her emphasis upon the aural or audio and the wider influence of Fluxus. The artist resists obvious, emotive engagement with the work, becomes impersonal and detached. But again, the distinctive feature of Nauman’s minimal person is a confinement to terms of striking banality and repetition or frustration. Nauman repeats various trivial tasks or utterances, often with mounting exasperation for either or both performer and viewer. Simple motor skills elicit surprising emotional baggage. But exhibiting the minimal person soon begs greater scope, more complex performance, props and setting and steadily expands throughout the 70s. In this, Nauman cannot really compete with a Joseph Beuys or Herman Nitsch, a Gilbert and George or Chris Burden, a Carolee Schneeman, Ana Mendieta or Adrian Piper. At most Nauman adopts the clown’s costume, the stereotype hinting at a hidden identity, the underlying aggression and ridicule directed to performer, by the artist.
Finally, in addition to texts, performances and recordings, Nauman is noted for installations. These firstly took the form of constructed corridors or confined spaces, often supplied with confusing surveillance cameras and monitors, in which the viewer struggles for orientation. These follow both from an expanded sense of sculpture and an interest in performance or participation by the viewer. Again the theme is one of frustration or an engagement limited to self-reference, to the minimal person (as mere orienteer) in retreat from more sustained context. Subsequently Nauman’s work encompasses larger outdoor commissions, takes on an architectural scale, much like the trend in contemporaries such as Vito Acconci or Dennis Oppenheim. But works such as Stairs (2000) retain an uneasy orientation, a focus upon bodily engagement at the expense of wider concerns. In this Nauman remains true to his youth, even hostage to it.