Bruce Nauman, (born December 6, 1941, Fort Wayne, Indiana, U.S.), American artist whose work in a broad range of mediums made him a major figure in conceptual art.
Nauman was educated at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (B.A., 1964), and the University of California, Davis (M.F.A., 1966), and became part of the burgeoning California art scene in the late 1960s. His Self Portrait as a Fountain (1966; original photograph destroyed, reissued 1970) showed the artist spouting a stream of water from his mouth. Witty and irreverent, Nauman tested the idea of art as a stable vehicle of communication and the role of the artist as revelatory communicator. The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (1967) sets those words in a spiral made of neon, revealing the wistful and subtle irony often encountered in his work, as the text’s optimism and sense of cultural continuity is undermined by the implications of the florid neon.
Nauman’s videos often featured the artist in his studio performing various mundane tasks, such as Bouncing Two Balls Between the Floor and Ceiling with Changing Rhythms (1967–68) and Walk with Contrapposto (1968). In the latter he strutted within a narrow corridor he had constructed, exaggerating the contrapposto pose of Classical sculptures. Soon after, he repurposed the hallway into a series of installations that invited observers to experience the space for themselves. Some of the passageways included mirrors, cameras, or coloured fluorescent light (as in Green Light Corridor ).
Nauman’s interests led him to widely diverse materials; beyond photography, performance art, and neon tubing, he also regularly produced drawings, videos, films, prints, installations, and sculptures in a range of mediums. The use of neon with words continued to intrigue him, and large wall installations such as One Hundred Live and Die (1984) impassively play out both the inevitability and the vacancy of language. Nauman also developed an interest in using casts of taxidermy forms to create variously stacked assemblages or mobiles of wild deer, foxes, caribou, and other animals, sometimes dismembered and reassembled, evoking an uneasy intersection of civilization and the wild. Works of this theme include Carousel (Stainless Steel Version) (1988), Untitled (Three Large Animals) (1989), and Leaping Foxes (2018).
While Nauman’s early videos often featured the artist as the actor, beginning in the late 1980s, he stayed behind the camera. In Clown Torture (1987) he filmed an actor in a clown costume in unsettling circumstances, while in Shadow Puppets and Instructed Mime (1990) he featured a voice giving demeaning instructions to a mime. In 2000 Nauman set a camera on the nocturnal creatures that crept into his studio when he was absent (Mapping the Studio 1 [Fat Chance John Cage] ). He returned to videos of himself later in his career, revisiting Walk with Contrapposto as an older man in Contrapposto Studies, i through vii (2015–16). Nauman also explored the possibilities and limitations of new media and the human body while documenting his studio using a 3-D video camera in Nature Morte (2020).
Nauman’s work was shown frequently at the Whitney Biennial, in numerous solo shows, and in several retrospectives, including those organized by the Walker Art Center (1993), Minneapolis, Minnesota; the Museum of Modern Art (2018), New York; and Tate Modern (2020), London. He was also commissioned by Tate Modern to create a work for the museum’s Turbine Hall (Raw Materials ). Nauman was awarded a Golden Lion at the 48th Venice Biennale (1999) and became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2000. In 2004 he received a Praemium Imperiale award, presented by the Japan Art Association to “artists who have contributed significantly to the development of international arts and culture.” “Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens,” featuring works from throughout his career, was awarded a Golden Lion at the 2009 Venice Biennale.
It was 1968 when the young Bruce Nauman, still at the beginning of his career, directed Walk with Contrapposto. In a narrow wooden corridor, the artist appears walking, his hands behind his head and his hips swayed to the sides in order to imitate the “contrapposto”, a famous body posture represented many times in history since Greece antique. For an hour, the man moves back and forth in this restrictive space and pushes his body to the limits of its classic artistic representation. Since then, Walk with Contrapposto has joined the MoMA collections and is among the artist’s major works.
If movement is of particular interest to Bruce Nauman, another medium of human communication also runs through his work: language. The latter is at the heart of the Good Boy Bad Boy installation, broadcasting respectively on two separate monitors a man and a woman speaking in front of the camera. In this production, similar to a television news show, the two protagonists repeat sentences based on the verbs “to be”, “to have”, “to love” or even “to want” on essential elements of everyday life. Depending on the turn of phrase used by the actor, these sentences adopt a positive or negative orientation which sometimes echo each other, sometimes contradict each other. As the camera gradually moves closer to their faces, their tone becomes more and more aggressive and their words develop a deaf dialogue of which only the viewer captures the two points of view. By reappropriating the official communication channels of television, the artist questions the value of information, its importance and its veracity when contradictory or even trivial remarks are pronounced with the same intensity. As if to underline his point, this work is one of Bruce Nauman’s first video works in which he does not appear himself.
Not everyone knows coulrophobia, but everyone knows clowns, whose painted faces, frozen smiles and grotesque clothing can make you laugh or scare you. It is precisely in this second register that the Clown Torture video is located, playing on this unexplained fear from which certain individuals can suffer, but above all inspired by the figure of the clown himself. Bruce Nauman also describes the latter as “the abstract idea of a person”, because clowns are anonymous beings with a secret life and identity, but also fundamentally melancholic – we paradoxically find among them a rate of suicide quite high. On four television sets, the artist broadcasts videos of one of them in scenes bordering on psychosis which generate a suffocating cacophony. Sometimes locked in a toilet, standing in a dark room or with his legs in the air in an empty studio, the character screams and cries, simultaneously expressing anger, frustration and sadness. A way for Bruce Nauman to depict the slide of an anonymous individual towards madness by arousing fear. Only a year before the creation of this work appeared It, the novel by Stephen King where the evil Pennywise was preparing to become the scariest clown in horror fiction…
Five years after the oppressive delusions of Clown Torture, Bruce Nauman continues his experiments on emotion and the human voice by accomplishing a new objective: transforming a man into an alarm siren. This time, it is the American actor and composer Rinde Eckert who complies with the exercise: filmed in close-up, his expressive face never stops screaming while his bald head turns on itself, like a disturbing rotating beacon. Listening closely to his threatening voice, we hear the words “Feed me, eat me, anthropology! Help me, hurt me, sociology!” (Feed me, eat me, oh anthropology! Help me, hurt me, oh sociology!”). The actor already formulated these strange injunctions in a previous Bruce Nauman video where he appeared in front of the camera and motionless. Here, the artist pushes his usual fragmentation of the body even further by reifying the head, multiplied on monitors and videos projected large on the walls. Immersive and sculptural, this installation once again shows all the artistic ambition of the American: to create through the work of art a holistic experience which reaches out to the viewer even before they approach it.