Sculptor, video artist, printmaker, conceptual artist, installation artist, performance artist, and photographer. Among the most mercurial, innovative, and controversial artists of recent decades, he has sustained a freewheeling investigation into the limits of art and the role of the artist. His witty, disturbing, and profound challenges often interrogate art's relationship to language, politics, technology, and human communication. Repetitive, crass, emotionally draining effects force viewers to confront the superabundance of such qualities in contemporary American life. His art offers a series of propositions showing little sequential development. There is no Nauman visual style, nor much sense of technical progress, although more recent projects have tended toward greater physical and emotional amplitude. Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, he first studied mathematics but then turned to art at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he earned a BFA in 1964. His teachers included the Italian-born Italo Scanga (1932–2001), whose high-spirited sculpture and painting combined modern and folk art tendencies in diversified media, often with the addition of found objects. At the University of California at Davis, where Nauman earned an MFA during the following two years, he worked with Robert Arneson, Wayne Thiebaud, and William Wiley. He lived in the San Francisco area until 1969, when he moved to Pasadena. In 1979 he relocated to Pecos, New Mexico, in the Santa Fe vicinity. Since 1989, when he married Susan Rothenberg, he has resided on a ranch in nearby Galisteo.
Even as a graduate student, Nauman anticipated the work that distinguished a widely noticed New York debut at Leo Castelli's gallery in 1968. Much of this early work dealt with the implications of literalism. A Cast of the Space Under My Chair (private collection, 1965–68), offers a blocky chunk of concrete replicating the open area beneath a chair. Hand to Mouth (Hirshhorn Museum, 1967) presents a veristic cast of an arm, extending from fingertips to chin. This sort of humorous wordplay paralleled initial investigations into less obvious questions about language. In 1966 Nauman began to work with common words or short statements formed from neon tubing, pointing to a troubling intrusion of commercial advertising into the unconscious. Soon, he addressed interactions of perception and awareness in increasingly more complicated ways. Beginning in 1968, several corridor installations allowed a single viewer at a time to walk along a narrow hallway fitted with surveillance cameras and one or more television screens. These showed the corridor itself, as well as the viewer's progress from behind, producing disorientation within the claustrophobic space. With time, the interest in representing mental processes took on sinister implications. In the video installation Clown Torture (1987), two conventionally costumed clowns, stand-ins for the contemporary artist, are subjected to humiliation, while Carousel (Gementemuseum, The Hague, 1988) presents simulated wild animal bodies hung from a whirling metal structure, invoking the life of suffering and incomprehension we share with animals. Recent works offer a more relaxed but no less thorny worldview. Accompanied by an equal number of soundtracks, the seven-screen Mapping the Studio (2001) in its original form presented a nearly six-hour, infrared view of the artist's “empty” studio at night. (Alternative and edited versions followed.) Cats, mice, and insects provide animation that reminds us how little human presence matters. For Raw Materials, a 2004 installation at the Tate Modern in London, Nauman relied on sound alone. Twenty-two speakers arranged the length of the museum's enormous atrium offered spoken texts of varying audibility and intelligibility. These blended with visitors' conversations to create an acoustic collage mirroring the world's buzz. Janet Kraynak edited Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman's Words; Writings and Interviews (2003).
Subjects: Art & Architecture