Radiating with every stroke, Bruce Nauman's Marching Figure delights in simultaneously giving free reign to the evolution of the artist's own concepts as well as the autonomy of the drawing hand. While developing an aesthetic based not on the production of traditionally 'beautiful' objects, but on the experience of works that are often considered taboo for their unelaborated explicitness, Nauman's practice is underscored by a single common denominator for virtually every contemporary medium in which he works--drawing. Whereas often his works tend to function in a less conventional state and more as behavioral models that force viewer participation and provoke immediate responses, his drawings, which serve often as the artist's own conceptual blueprints through which he conceives his ideas and then later reexamines them, function not only in a technical sense, but also as elegant renderings fraught with signs of pictorial excess, which are often absent from their resulting product.
Evolving from a series of drawings and neon pieces that Nauman executed in 1985 on the themes of sex and power, Marching Figure reintroduces the full human figure back into Nauman's work, in the form of a clown, and anticipates a subsequent cycle of figural drawings and neons based on military identities. Revisiting a prominent subject in his earlier text pieces--such as Raw War--Marching Figure graphically ridicules fascist militarism, presenting a profile of a man marching an awkward goosestep, his penis choreographed to rise and fall with his legs in the ultimate form of masculine domination. His own form of political commentary, Nauman's intended medium, the neon light 'advertisement,' embodied the potential for making public that which is regarded privately as taboo. A life size blueprint for its consequent creation, Marching Figure is imbued with its creator's own convergent thinking-his thought process overlaid with the painterly corrections deemed necessary at every step.
Engaging in activities that more closely resemble Samuel Beckett's Theater of the Absurd, Antonin Artaud's Theater of Cruelty, or the French proto-Surrealist Alfred Jarry's fools, Nauman's electric clowns are engaged in frenetic activities that are at once funny and disturbing--slapping each other, picking their noses, shaking hands with their penises rising and falling, dangling at the end of a noose, or marching in goosestep as seen here. Having only recently returned the full-figure back into his work after years of absence, the figure inherently implies the practices and pleasures of solving representational problems, composing forms, as well as drawing for its own self-reflexive purposes. To illustrate the male figure, Nauman traced cardboard templates he had made of his own body parts, repositioning and retracing them to form a rudimentary template of Duchampian schematic movement by way of Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey. Employing the primary colors to indicate the blinking neon contours, Nauman's drawing lays the figure out on a single plane to investigate the ways in which it might appear to move forward as the neon elements flash on and off in their own calculated progressive movements. Possessing subtle signs of painterliness, Marching Figure is indicative of a new pictorial exploration in Nauman's conceptual drawings--often accredited to his wife, the abstract artist, Susan Rothenberg, whom he met that same year. Marked with signs of pictorial excess--the drips running off the legs, the elegant washes laid over his conceptual alterations, as well as its lurid lines and colors--the man's simple stride is transformed into a wildly lascivious expressionistic march.
Embarking on a dazzling circular effect among drawing as a proposal, sculpture as execution, and drawing again as a record of the artist's ideas, Nauman turns drawing into document. He explains, "Yes, I work in that way a lot, where there are drawings, and then the work, and then there are more drawings to figure out what I've done, to help me resolve what I'm in--as opposed to what I thought I was doing when I got started" (B. Nauman, quoted in I. Schaffner, Bruce Nauman, Baltimore, 2002, p. 164). While he is also known to make studies after the fact, revisiting completed sculptures and installations, Marching Figure presupposes the creation of two resulting neons, Five Marching Men and Marching Man. While the goosestep is made all the more awkward in the former, as a result of only two perpetually moving legs, it is important to note that the creation of the three-legged marching man was conceived first through drawing, while its subsequent neon was executed after its two-legged counterpart, thus actively displaying its creators tendency to reexamine and revisit his ideas.
Abandoning the pursuit of painting in the 1960s, Nauman began a restless investigation into the possibilities of sculpture, performance, installations, film, video, photography and neon. Nauman employed his drawings and sketches as instruments for which to both intellectualize and design. Grappling with the body's relationship to identity, Marching Figure evolves from a rich legacy of videos and neon sculptures that draw on the artist's awareness of his own body; seen in such videos as Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk),and Neon Templates of the Left Half of my Body, Taken at Ten-Inch Intervals. Part of his own mastery, Nauman regards his drawings as explorations into his own mind, rather than their traditional distinctions as mere sketches for grander works. Treating his drawings with widely differing functions and widely differing demands, they become masterpieces in their own right, equally as valid and with their own artistic justifications.