A work by one of the most significant artists of our generation, Bruce Nauman’s Untitled (Hand Group) examines that fundamental building block of their craft: his or her hands. In the present work, phosphorous bronze hands interlace and abut as if to form some sort of ontological bulwark. Opaquely gestural, the hands appear to communicate meaning to one another in a manner that is virtually hieroglyphic to a viewer. They have a peculiar beauty—the wrists roughly hewn; the individual fingerprints and fine lines of the hands perfectly rendered in delicate detail; several of the meticulous fingertips transgressively indented with Nauman’s thumbprints. Nauman first produced waxen body casts in the 1960s when he came of age as an artist; his 1967 wax cast From Hand to Mouth, which also explores the form of the hand in a sculptural language game, is a seminal work. In the mid-1980s, Nauman revisited and began to expand upon this line of aesthetic questioning, a development that gave rise to Untitled (Hand Group) in 1997. Whether working in freestanding sculptural objects, drawings, neon tubing, installations, videos, Body Art, sound pieces, or language games, postmodern master Nauman makes work that is resoundingly idiosyncratic. Drawing the viewer in with its wealth of surface variations, impenetrable gestures, and indubitably visceral presence, Untitled (Hand Group) is a potent picture of the explorations at the heart of an exceptional oeuvre.
With the present work Bruce Nauman delves into the language of the body (and, of particular interest to Nauman, the communicative abilities or inabilities of hands). Recalling the uncanny sculptures of Louise Bourgeois, the present sculpture features a collection of—an anagram of—cast hands, which have been made using body casts of plaster or wax. Each hand has performative digits that curl and extend in unique arrangements, wrists and fingers distinctly punctuated. In a sense, the piece feels “undone,” or poised on the verge of wholly becoming. Its constituent hands feel fragmented, like a collection of cast body parts from Auguste Rodin’s studio. Its bronze surface at once masterfully evokes the look and texture of skin and retains irregularities like bulges and perforations that testify to the casting process.
With Untitled (Hand Group), Nauman works with an awareness of sculpture’s traditions, but ultimately defies them, “focus[ing] on the process of making itself by analyzing the venerable tradition of casting” (N. Benezra, “Surveying Nauman, 1994,” R. Morgan (ed.), Bruce Nauman, Baltimore, p. 120). His use of bronze in Untitled (Hand Group), as opposed to the fiberglass, resin, or latex he employed earlier in his career, alludes to the artist’s new relationship with the history of sculpture as he locates himself in its canon. In previous work by Nauman such as From Hand to Mouth, a wax-cast wall-hung sculpture of the region of a body from its hand to its mouth, literal language is necessary to complete the pun or communicate the message. In the untitled work at hand, Nauman allows his sculpture to speak for itself.
Untitled (Hand Group) was made in 1997, shortly after a major Nauman exhibition that was organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. and traveled to the Reina Sofia in Madrid and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In the wake of the major retrospective, the artist retreated to his New Mexico home to read, think, and reset. Untitled (Hand Group) was among the first works that Nauman was inspired to make following this multi-year retreat from art-making.
Declared “the best—the essential—American artist of the last quarter-century” by art critic Peter Schjeldhal, Bruce Nauman is one of our most important contemporary artists (P. Schjeldahl quoted in C. Tomkins, “Western Disturbances: Bruce Nauman’s Singular Influence,” New Yorker, 1 June 2009, p. 73). Nauman’s work has been a powerful influence on younger artists: as Andrew Solomon wrote in a 1995 article in Times Magazine, “Matthew Barney, Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer, Mike Kelley, Robert Gober, Tony Oursler: none of these catch-names in contemporary art could have arrived without Nauman” (A. Solomon quoted in C. Tomkins, “Western Disturbances: Bruce Nauman’s Singular Influence,” New Yorker, 1 June 2009, p. 67). Crisscrossing media, Nauman’s innovative, provocative, and highly conceptual oeuvre asks important questions about the nature of the creative act, often using the artist’s own body as a starting point. From this premise the seminal artist has expanded the field of sculptural practice, mixing sculpture and performance to make avant-garde work that is deeply felt.