Bruce Nauman – “I felt it was OK to be on the edges”
Even without the pandemic, 2020 would have been a very difficult year for Bruce Nauman. In May, his wife Susan Rothenberg passed away. She was acclaimed for the raw and essential poetry of her paintings of horses, and Rothenberg’s loss was felt far beyond the New Mexico ranch where she and Nauman made their home.
Nauman’s grief is softly palpable as we speak on his landline. Mentioning Rothenberg several times, he says he has done little work this year, although usually he “would try to go to the studio every day even if I just read.”
Nauman is now in his 81st year, and even though the American artist has never produced another piece, he would still straddle the contemporary art world as an authoritarian and taciturn colossus. (His textual and audio works betray a penchant for imperatives, but it’s hard to find a description of Nauman’s personality that doesn’t mention his reluctance to argue.)
Nauman’s influence on future generations cannot be overstated. From early works such as “Self-Portrait as a Fountain” (1966-67), in which he captured himself squirting water from his mouth, to later pieces such as the video footage “Clown Torture “(1987) – as disturbing as it sounds – and” Days / Giorni “(2009) in which the voices sing the days of the week, not always in order, he has forged a reputation as often dark, sometimes confusing, often very funny and always very insightful art of the human condition.
In the 1960s, Nauman’s realization that “everything I do in the studio has to be art” fueled the emerging genres of process art and body art. As contemporary art evolved through video, photography, installation and performance, Nauman’s abrasive and playful spectrum was still there. Without him, the practices of artists as varied as Matthew Barney, Maurizio Cattelan and Mark Wallinger would be very different.
Did he know he was fueling a revolution? “No of course not… I needed to be what I thought an artist was supposed to be. It was a language that took me away from being a sculptor and an abstract painter. I wanted to involve more parts of my life at work, that’s what I was trying to think of.
Much of Nauman’s work – those repetitive phrases, the absurd wit – revolves around his fascination with language and its limits, which has been deepened through his engagement with the texts of Wittgenstein and Samuel Beckett. As he explains why he was excited about Wittgenstein’s method of following a process to a “conclusion that made sense or that fell apart,” a deep bark cuts his line. “I’m just going to calm this dog down,” Nauman said, his own hoarse tones synergizing with his dog.
When asked what kind of dog, he laughs and says, “Part Chihuahua and part Mini-Doberman.” I exclaim on the unusual mix, he laughs some more. “Susan and I have always had big dogs, when we lost our last [one], Susan saw the photo of this dog in the newspaper. We thought he weighed 45 pounds, but when we got to the pound he weighed 10 pounds. He pauses, then adds proudly. “We made him weigh up to 16 pounds.”
Although I suspect he would rather speak dogs than Wittgenstein, Nauman gracefully returns to the subject of language. In truth, he has strayed from the text in most of his more recent work. When asked why, he replies, “I always like to do things.
This craftsman anima, so elegantly elaborated in his sculptures of touching hands “Fifteen Pairs of Hands” (1996), was seeded in his childhood. Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Nauman was the son of a salesperson for General Electric and a mother who, he says, “volunteered a lot in hospitals” because her husband “didn’t want to. let her take paid work ”. Later, his mother became a museum guide and happily followed Nauman’s career. As he talks about his parents, Nauman’s affection is tangible even as he says his father “had a harder time” accepting the profession he had chosen.
With the family constantly on the move, Nauman became the kid who “was always trying to figure out how I was going to fit in. I was calm and vigilant. I always thought it was good to be on the edges.
Aware that he had inherited a drawing facility from his father – who drew submarine parts for the United States Navy – as a young man, Nauman focused on “making model airplanes and of railways ”. Originally, he enrolled to study mathematics and physics at the University of Wisconsin, but later switched to art at the University of California at Davis. The decision to get away from science, he says, came when he “got into advanced classes and started hanging out with people who were deeply involved in a way that I couldn’t be.”
Why art instead? “I never understood how I decided to make this change,” he replies. Whatever his motivation, it worked out pretty well. Since the late 1960s, when Nauman was snapped up by the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, the hottest space in town thanks to artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, his career has spanned, among dozens of ‘exhibitions, exhibitions at the Center Pompidou (1997), Tate Modern (2020) and MoMA (2012). In 2009, he checked the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale and he exhibited several times at Documenta.
He shows no sign of stopping. This year, many exhibitions include monographs at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and at the Punta della Dogana in Venice.
Is he always nervous on special occasions? “Yes,” he said, sounding like he meant it. I’ve heard, however, that it’s unusually low-key from a conservation standpoint. Nauman agrees, saying that often he does not own the works and that installation decisions must be approved with their institution’s curators. “I can’t just say, ‘Leave it alone!’ He said putting on an awkward voice.
Since many artists of his stature have no difficulty in imposing their will on exhibitions, I dare believe he might be too humble. He laughs and embarks on a charming and convoluted story about three curators from different departments of the same large institution who, during the installation of his exhibition at the Venice Biennale, wore gloves of different colors because otherwise they would steal each other. each other.
Oblique, mischievous, and surprisingly intimate given the chill that often emanates from her work, Nauman’s conversation is littered with such stories. Although a reputation for shyness precedes him, he is actually an attractive storyteller, a characteristic that might ring with his passion for “detective stories”, which began when he found himself in Düsseldorf sharing an apartment with the concept artist Sol LeWitt. “There was a library there [and] he said, ‘You must read Dashiell Hammett.’ “
At one point, Nauman continues, he was so fascinated by the genre that he carried a John le Carré novel “all the time when I was traveling” with him. Briefly, we stray into a celebration of George Smiley’s masterful command of Alec Guinness. “He didn’t look like Smiley in the books, but that didn’t matter,” Nauman said reverently.
When I say that the linearity of a detective story couldn’t be more at odds with the ultra-tight, anti-narrative cutout that distinguishes his own work, he gently hands me over. “But all the parts wear out. It is so effective.
How does he make these editorial decisions? “You have to choose something that. . . has wider possibilities. I have known artists to have a great idea and when they were done it was no longer there. They couldn’t go from there to art.
Nauman’s gift for the chin strap can make viewing uncomfortable. Does he ever struggle with dark matter which is so often his favorite clay? “Sometimes”, he whispers before recalling his 1981 series of sculptures “South American Triangle”. Created after reading the torture chambers of Latin American prisons, the finished work sees a cast iron chair suspended by its feet from the ceiling in a steel triangle suspended from cables. Exuding a nihilistic threat, its making traumatized Nauman. “I assembled it from scrap wood and hung it from the ceiling,” he recalls. “And it was so powerful I couldn’t work. It just stopped me. I had to absorb it before I could do anything else.
This paralysis is the price an artist pays to delve deep into our troubled collective psyche. So often Nauman’s art – bodies on the verge of breaking, despotic but desperate commands, those tender and crooked hands – begins at the point where language and power shatter.
Indeed, what brought him back to the studio during this difficult year was the gift of a textbook from his grandson. The book contained a copy of a treaty signed by the US government and a Native American chief. “The American general signed his name,” says Nauman. “But [the chief] just made a mark.
Nauman, who says he was forced to sign countless legal documents after Rothenberg’s death, had an eye-opening moment. “Why can’t I just have a mark? So I made these videos of my fingers and hands signing X’s. He laughed, suddenly looking loose and free. “I owe everything to my grandson.
‘Bruce Nauman: Contrapposto Studies’ as of January 9, 2022, palazzograssi.it