Works from the Cy Twombly Foundation
Post Lot Text
Witty, thoughtful and provocative, Bruce Nauman’s William T. Wiley or Ray Johnson Trap is a formative early work in the artist’s oeuvre, and underscores why Nauman is one of today’s most revered artists, able to convey meaning by destabilizing the philosophical and material underpinnings of art. The photograph, taken during a visit to Nauman’s friend and former professor William T. Wiley’s house, both documents the young artist’s collaborative and creative milieu of the 1960s, and manifests the significant themes that Nauman would go on to explore throughout his celebrated career.
Executed in 1967, one year after Nauman completed his MFA at UC Davis, William T. Wiley or Ray Johnson Trap illustrates an important moment in the artist’s then-nascent career. While at Wiley’s house, a bundle of correspondence art arrived from the maverick Pop and mail artist Ray Johnson. Inspired, Nauman arranged the objects from Johnson around Wiley as he lay on the floor, creating a contour of Wiley’s body with the various trinkets and ephemera from the package. After Wiley stood up, Nauman photographed the remaining outline, and in doing so created an indexical portrait of his friend’s body, bordered or “trapped” by another artist’s work.
When asked about the photograph, Nauman later claimed that it “had to do with the primitive idea of being encapsulated by artifacts and gaining psychic control over them” (B. Nauman, quoted in Bruce Nauman: Work from 1965 to 1972, exh. cat., LACMA/Whitney, Los Angeles, 1972, p. 15). As an artist whose wide range of styles, nonconformist nature and interest in cryptography were often likened to those of Nauman, Johnson symbolized a potential trap for Nauman’s conceptual development. Rather than become stuck, however, Nauman asserted his own agency over Johnson’s influence by creating a new form with Johnson’s mail art and photographing it.
Also indicated in the photograph is Nauman’s former U.C. Davis professor and frequent collaborator, William T. Wiley. A significant figure for the young artist, Wiley was a close friend of Nauman’s and one of the few professors who supported and believed in Nauman during his graduate education in California. However, in 1967 Nauman was ready to grow beyond what he had accomplished in school, and to bring his work into its next stage of development. With the present work, Nauman thus escaped the psychic snares posed by the influence of two of his forebears by capturing and then exorcising their spirits in an image of his making.
William T. Wiley or Ray Johnson Trap represents the culmination of several artistic strategies that began to develop during the young artist’s years at U.C. Davis, when he was advised by the faculty to simply go to his studio and work if he wanted to produce art. With this advice, Nauman suddenly realized that, regardless of the prevailing artistic conventions, anything he produced in his studio could be considered art, and he could use anything available to him, even unconventional tools and techniques, in his practice. Nauman subsequently began producing works that subverted not only notions about what art could look like and be made from, but the whole philosophy of art itself. “At this point,” Nauman claims, “art became more of an activity and less of a product” (B. Nauman, quoted in P. Plagens, The True Artist, New York, 2014).
As Nauman explored the different directions this radical philosophy could take, he created a body of work during these early years that is as clever, humorous and irreverent as it is groundbreaking. One of Nauman’s most innovative tools of investigation was his use of the artist’s body. As a former classmate of Nauman’s recounts, one day Nauman asked, “‘Why do we always make art about somebody else?’ That is, why do we look at the model and put our effort into presenting him or her? Rather, [Nauman] thought, artists could make art just about themselves—in all details. So, we explored the possibilities of this concept. We understood that it implied something of a shift” (F. Owen, quoted in P. Plagens, Ibid., p. 26). Following this line of inquiry, Nauman created a series of videos beginning in 1966 in which he explored the space of his studio through movement alone. Demonstrating the creative potential of the artist’s body, he made such seminal works as Wall/Floor Positions and Bouncing in the Corner, No.s 1 and 2, the latter of which shows the artist falling back into and bouncing out of a corner repeatedly. Never an artist to be tied to any one media, Nauman also created sculptures that relied on his body as the model, such as the landmark polyester resin piece Six Inches of My Knee Extended to Six Feet, produced in 1967. While he often used his own body in these investigations, he also, as seen in William T. Wiley or Ray Johnson Trap, at times coopted the bodies of other artists.
In tandem with his interest in the physical body of the artist and the philosophy of art, Nauman simultaneously created work that addressed the perceived role of the artist in society. When Nauman was entering the professional art world in the late 60s, artists were expected to style themselves as mysterious and unapproachable geniuses if they wanted to succeed. Artists, in other words, were invested with a mythology that was as daunting to young, emerging talents like Nauman as the rich art-historical canon that came before them. Nauman created several “trap” pieces in 1967, not just for Wiley but also for artists Henry Moore and H.C. Westermann, in which he claimed to catch their spirits with such simple and mundane materials as light, rope and mail, effectively refuting any perceived infallibility of the romantic artist-genius. In so doing, Nauman set his own course as an autonomous artist, free to operate outside of the conventions of art.
Influenced by the German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s investigations into how language constructs reality, Nauman’s remarkable oeuvre challenges the logical arguments bound up with art by directly addressing these contentions and drawing them out to their final conclusions. In questioning how artists should be perceived, Nauman demonstrates the fallacy of the art world’s argument in the present work by capturing the spirits of two artists with a level of performativity that recalls his contemporaries Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, Joseph Beuys and Marina Abramovic. With its use of unconventional tools, reliance on the body and conceptual depth, this photograph is a seminal early work within Nauman’s body of self-referential and experimental art.