“Two color monitors placed in the window played one of Nauman’s most recent videos, that of a clown jumping up and down shouting ‘No, No, No, No!’ endlessly. Nauman’s videos confront the viewer with behavior normally thought unacceptable. The clown’s simple declarative statement takes on new meaning and creates tension and anxiety for the viewer.” The New Museum Annual Report, 1988
“I think the point where language starts to break down as a useful tool for communication is the same edge where poetry or art occurs.” Bruce Nauman
In Bruce Nauman’s No, No New Museum, the actor Vandi Snyder, made up in bright red and green jester regalia, repeatedly—and violently—jumps up and down while shouting “no, no, no, no, no!!” at the top of her lungs. No, No New Museum refers to where the work was first exhibited in September of 1987, a storefront window of the New Museum in New York City, where its grating audio was blasted at high volume onto the street. No, No New Museum can either be installed with one or two monitors—when using two monitors, the artist mandates that the audio tracks must not be synced, to create a ferocious cacophony. An assault on the senses, No, No New Museum establishes a powerful secondhand embarrassment by suggesting that a frenzied child is always seething below the surface of polite, adult behavior. With its shrill repetition and frantic movement, No, No New Museum taps into our neurosis, our insomnia; it captures the panic of a late night when the mind is racing with irrational mania, or the panicked cold sweat after a bad dream.
No, No New Museum, with its endless, repeated shouting of the word “NO!” also explores the artist’s longstanding interest in the point at which the relationship between language and meaning breaks down. In the mouth of the petulant jester—traditionally a cypher for sly, and witty courtly criticism--“No!” moves from an aggressive, whining refusal to a purely abstract sound, hammering in an endless rhythm. Says Nauman, “I think the point where language starts to break down as a useful tool for communication is the same edge where poetry or art occurs.” (Nauman, in R. Storr, “Beyond Words” in Simon (ed.), Bruce Nauman, exh. cat., Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, 1994, p. 55). “No” spelled backwards, is “on”— a word that could double as the artist’s directions to his exhausted performers. As curator Ben Borthwick explains, “The corresponding values of these two possible words (No and On) are particularly clear in (Nauman’s) drawing NONO (1984) and during the print-making process, where the image- in this case the word ‘no’- is made in reverse, thereby spelling ‘on.’ These works highlight Nauman’s fascination with Wittgenstein’s language games, such as the duck/rabbit conundrum, in which a single image can signify two different objects.” (Bruce Nauman: Raw Materials, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2004 p. 133). Professor David Robb stated, “Both (Clown Torture and Nauman’s puns) in the end (are) about representation’s inadequacy; pun and clown expose the seams in representation’s fragile masquerade.” (D. Robb, Clowns Fools and Picaros: Popular Forms in Theatre, Fiction and Film, Amsterdam and New York, 2007, p. 76). In No, No, New Museum, the unfortunate jester’s torturous shouting is endless, repeated on infinite loop. “My definition of anxiety,” Nauman has said, “is the gap between the now and the later. …We have no future if we fill this void, we only have sameness” (Bruce Nauman quoted in R.C. Morgan, Bruce Nauman, Baltimore, 2002, p. 229). While in the magnetic, arresting and simultaneously appalling presence of No, No New Museum, the viewer is trapped in Nauman’s funhouse—teetering at the edge of sanity and fascination.
Nauman began his infamous Clown Torture series in 1987, marking a triumphant return to video work after a nearly fifteen year hiatus and prefiguring his recent, more immersive room-sized installations involving monitors, projections and sculpture. Clown Torture, which includes Clown Torture (Art Institute of Chicago, 1987); Clown Torture: I’m Sorry and No, No, No, No (1987, Pinault Collection); Clown Torture: Dark and Stormy Night with Laughter (1987, S.M.A.K., Ghent); Dirty Joke (1987, Museum of Modern Art, New York); Double No (1988, Froehlich Collection) and the present lot, No, No New Museum (1987), places traditional clowns-- from circus and show clowns to French baroque clowns and court jesters--in strange, uncomfortable situations, disconcertingly coupling a squirming violence with a universal symbol of childhood innocence or comic relief. Nauman’s Clown Torture videos borrow Dadaist ideas about the procedures and operations of art making, but as Joanna Drucker describes, that is where their fine art referential ends: “The imagery and iconography of (Nauman’s) work comes from a banal world of mass meditation, pop’s playroom of neon and lettering. …Art references, except for Duchamp, are almost non-existent. Nauman’s attention was turned elsewhere, towards that hypnotizing instrument of pure banality, the television or video screen, or towards the signage and activities of rather ordinary life” (J. Drucker, Bruce Nauman: Make Me Think Me, exh. cat., Tate Liverpool, 2006, p. 40).
Within the Clown Torture Series, Vandi Snyder’s cackling jester is one of Nauman’s enduring muses—her character was also featured in Clown Torture: Dark and Stormy Night with Laughter as well as Clown Torture: I’m Sorry and No, No, No, No in which she recites a poem while a pierrot shouts “no!” In Double No, a later iteration of No, No New Museum, the jester is displayed with two monitors stacked on top of each other, one funhouse-inverted. Nauman’s clowns play nonsensical word games in grating, frustrated tones; they are the victims of cruel tricks, screeching as buckets of water are dumped on their heads; they attempt to balance objects with no success, cry wretchedly while pleading with an invisible captor, have tantrums on the floor, and shout “No!” endlessly while bouncing as if propelled by a pogo stick. Casting a clown as the perpetrator of an aggressive or uncomfortable act subverts the familiar; it reminds us that beneath their humorous veneer, clowns are just costumed people that can behave brutally. They may play cruel tricks, or make light of violence à la Punch and Judy while their disguises lend them a disconcerting anonymity-- perhaps adopting the face of the dark clown explored in popular culture through Stephen King’s horror novel It (1987) and Cindy Sherman’s series of ominous self-portraits in clown makeup.
Bruce Nauman is known for his groundbreaking, provocative work that renders poetic life’s laments. His prodigious and unconventional oeuvre encompasses sculpture, photography, neon, drawing, printmaking, performance and video, exploring the nature of confusion, boredom, anxiety and failure with his singular lightning-sharp wit. His highly conceptual work poses important questions about the nature of the creativity, often using the body as a starting point. As Nauman describes, “From the beginning I was trying to see if I could make art that . . . was just there all at once. Like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat. Or better, like getting hit in the back of the head. You never see it coming; it just knocks you down. …The kind of intensity that doesn’t give you any trace of whether you’re going to like it or not” (Entry, Film, Video, New Media, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 35, pp. 18–21).