Over the past five decades, Bruce Nauman has proven himself to be contemporary art’s leading conceptual chameleon and clown prince. From the 1960s on, Nauman, now 73, has used all the tools in his arsenal, from straightforward drawing to a vast array of multimedia—including sound, neon and video—to explore ideas more commonly pondered by the likes of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Samuel Beckett or John Cage. Consider this signature comment, (which consciously echoes Wittgenstein’s famous “The world is all that is the case.”) “If I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art” (Nauman quoted in Ian Wallace and Russell Keziere, “Bruce Nauman Interviewed,” Vanguard (Canada) 8, No. 1, February 1979, p. 18). Nauman’s entire oeuvre can be seen as a wide-ranging realization of that aphorism.
Beginning with blue-and-red spiral neon, displayed in the window of his San Francisco studio in 1967, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, Nauman seems to have set about doing just that, with equal parts sincerity and irony—and more than a dash of deadpan humor. Whether it’s a wax cast taken from his own body (“From Hand to Mouth” (1966), the early performance piece Art Makeup (1967), the explicit neon piece Seven Figures (1985), the scary Clown Torture (1987), or the multi-screen video installation Mapping The Studio (2009), which followed the nocturnal droppings of rodents,) Nauman’s work defies categorization, while at the same time encompassing much of the modern epoch, as exemplified by these five pieces from the Donald Young Collection.
Nauman’s drawings are a quintessential part of his work. While they are in themselves finished artworks, they are also quite literally the templates for his ideas, both before and after the realization of an artwork. As the artist himself put it, “Yes, I work in that way a lot, where there are drawings, and then the work, and then 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 “Ingrid Schaffner, Circling Oblivion/Bruce Nauman through Samuel Beckett” Bruce Nauman, Baltimore, 2002, p. 164).
Template of the left half of my body/every 10 in. spread out to 20 intervals (doubling my height), done in 1966, is the ink-graphite incarnation of Nauman’s famous, first all-neon piece of the same year, “Neon Templates of the Left half of my Body Taken at Ten-Inch intervals.” The sculpture (permanently ensconced at Philip Johnson’s Glass House) consists of seven curved aquamarine neon tubes, in a more or less half rib-cage formation, suspended from a clear glass-tube frame. Loops of cables connect each “template” to a transformer on the wall, creating a primitive cyber-human amalgam. Both this drawing and Study Body Measurement, seem to have preceded the sculpture, in that they show six, rather than seven, square components, arrayed horizontally in the first drawing and vertically in the second. Both drawings have a pale green/pale pink background—perhaps a color sample for the final work. In both, Nauman has given a post-modern spin to the time-honored anatomy drawing.
Double Poke in the Eye II (1985) combines several trademark Naumanisms: the use of neon to portray parts of the human body and an intrusive sense of humor. The piece, made in an edition of 40, is a play on the old saying, “Better than a poke in the eye [with a sharp stick].” The multicolored neon, blue, red, purple, green, orange and yellow is used to outline two heads. Two hands, cocked like guns, with index fingers as barrels, alternately poke the opposite head in the eye. The piece also relates to a video projection Nauman later did: Poke in the Eye, Nose, Ear (1994).
Good Boy, Bad Boy (1985) is a notorious Nauman work that embodies both his fascination with video and his witty wordplay. The piece consists of two video monitors on separate pedestals, one showing a young black male actor and the other an older white woman. They both repeat the same 100 simple phrases in a syncopated pattern, repeating each sequence five times, as they go from relatively calm to increasingly intense. The phrases also escalate from innocent to provocative from: “I was a good boy, you were a good boy, we were good boys, that was good” to “I have sex, you have sex, we have sex, this is sex,” etc.
Nauman has always returned to drawing as the underpinning of his art. This untitled 2005 graphite work of two heads is reminiscent of the cartoony heads he has used in iconic works like Double Poke in the Eye II.