Executed in 1967, From Hand to Mouth belongs to a formative series of pioneering works from the early career of Bruce Nauman. Exquisitely rendered in subtle washes of blue and gray ink, the painted image not only reveals the artist’s virtuosic capabilities as a draftsman, but also bears witness to the creation of an important sculpture that holds a seminal spot in the artist’s development. Also titled From Hand to Mouth, this sculpture—in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture and Sculpture Garden—renders in three dimensions the subject of the drawing, where the hand, arm and mouth have been recreated in wax and suspended from the gallery wall. In both versions, Nauman gives physical form to the familiar turn-of-phrase “living hand to mouth,” a colloquialism that seemed particularly apt to the young artist at the time, who had just finished graduate school and was living in an abandoned San Francisco grocery store. It was here that Nauman created many of the unorthodox yet exceptionally astute pieces that rank among his greatest contributions to the field of contemporary art, including Henry Moore Bound to Fail and The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths.
From Hand to Mouth is a beguiling work on paper that uproots established artistic conventions in its strange fragmentation of the human body. Here, an exquisitely rendered human arm is delineated in fine graphite traces and soft washes of colored inks, lingering with ethereal accuracy within a blank sheet of creamy white paper. A delicate pencil inscription reasserts the effect of the verbal pun, where the artist has written “from hand to mouth,” including arrows pointing to both features. Nauman’s technical skill as a draftsman is exemplified in the three-dimensional modeling of the figure’s hand, arm and lower part of the face. It calls to mind the anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci and the scientific renderings of isolated limbs in the medical textbook, Gray’s Anatomy. The delicate physical beauty of the work is distorted, however, by the artist’s fragmentation of the body into isolated parts, which is accentuated by its floating appearance within the empty paper sheet. By depicting a bodily fragment rather than the entire body, Nauman conveys more gravitas, pathos and mystery in the body’s absence than by its presence. Indeed, the notion of absence has been recognized as an important leitmotif in Nauman’s deep and wide-ranging body of work.
Drawings based on the body comprise only a small part of the many works on paper Nauman has created during his career, but they are of paramount importance in comprehending his work. Indeed, the process of drawing itself has long proved to be a crucial artistic undertaking. While the drawings are in themselves finished artworks, Nauman’s works on paper often act as the blueprint for his sculptures, which may indeed be the case in From Hand to Mouth. Other times, the artist will create a drawing only after the final sculpture has been finished, as a way to more fully engage with and understand its physical structure and ideological complexities. For an artist who ceaselessly engaged with radical and unorthodox materials, including neon tubing, plaster, wax, film and performance, it was Nauman’s knowledge of the traditional arts that underpinned much of his professional development. As the art critic Jonathan Goodman succinctly explains: “his drawings emphasize his remarkable skills” (J. Goodman, “From Hand to Mouth to Paper to Art” in R.C. Morgan, ed., Bruce Nauman: Art and Performance, Baltimore, 2002, p. 29).
Ironically, Nauman’s pioneering use of his own body developed from necessity. As a young artist, he lacked the means with which he could purchase supplies, and so he began to construct his artwork from what lay at hand. “I was working very little, teaching a class one night a week,” the artist described. “I didn’t know what to do with all that time...There was nothing in the studio because I didn’t have much money for materials. So, I was forced to examine myself and what I was doing there” (B. Nauman, quoted in A. Wagner, “Bruce Nauman’s Body of Sculpture” in October, Vol. 120, Spring, 2007, p. 55). This approach also had roots in Nauman’s education at University of California, Davis, where he was a teaching assistant for Wayne Thiebaud. According to a former classmate, one day Nauman “…had a revelation—that it didn’t make sense for students to sit in a circle all drawing a model in the middle. Then and there he decided he would use his own body as material” (C. M. Lewallen, A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s, Oakland, 2007, p. 16).
The body represented uncharted new material for an entire generation of artists concurrent to his own. These radical, young artists of the 1960s included Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, and a later generation of artists such as Janine Antoni and Marina Abramovic. Nauman was at the forefront of this rebellious movement, which constituted a fundamental break with the restrained aesthetics of Minimalism and their almost fetishlike reverence of the object, in favor of a more direct, bodily approach.
Developing out of this early and seminal period of time, From Hand to Mouth emerged in its sculpted and illustrated form in 1967. Nauman created the wax sculpture using moulage—a particularly detailed casting technique used in police forensics—in casting the hand, arm and mouth of his first wife, Judy, out of soft, pliable wax. The sculpture retains the uncanny precision of the moulage process, resulting in a truly lifelike representation where the warmth of its physical humanity belies the coolness of its waxen materials. Moreover, its display—protruding from the gallery wall—makes for an eerie, bewildering experience, ultimately demolishing established notions of artmaking and finding a future path for contemporary art. It featured in Nauman’s solo exhibition in January of 1968 at Leo Castelli in New York, where it caused quite a stir among the press, described by Castelli himself as “a little flicker of wild enthusiasm” in several prominent collectors. “Critics heralded the arrival of this ‘West Coast wild-man’ on the New York scene…[and] its embrace of verbal puns...seemed to incarnate the spirit of Dada” (quoted in Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018, p. 42).
Throughout the artist’s considerable output, the body has remained among his most significant themes. In ever more complex and challenging permutations, Nauman has used casts of his face, feet and hands in order to more fully engage with and recontextualize the role of the artist and his relationship to the viewer. From Hand to Mouth is a dazzling iteration of these key themes, combining Duchampian wordplay with the physicality of bodily form, which is executed in his characteristic raw, genre-bending way. In all of these self-referential works, the theme of autobiography provides an intriguing motif, connecting the viewer more deeply to its maker, making for what the art critic Brenda Richardson described as, “a silent and potentially more personalized dialogue” (B. Richardson, quoted in op. cit., 2002, p. 29).