Venice It’s a long way from a horse ranch on the high plains of Galisteo, N.M., to the teeming multicultitudes of the Venice Biennale. There are 7,000 miles of continent and an ocean to leap, a gasp-inducing rise in population density after that, and, most important, the sudden presence of whole centuries’ worth of art with a capital A. But Bruce Nauman, the 67-year-old American artist who was selected early last year to be the U.S. artist-representative at the Biennale, has spent his entire career trying to bridge the gap between the received wisdom concerning Art and what an artist actually does. From the moment in 1964 when, as a recently arrived graduate student at the new, we’ll-accept-anybody-who-shows-up MFA program in art at the University of California at Davis, he was given a private (if rudimentary) studio in a World War II-era barracks known as “Aggie Villa,” Nauman has been asking the nagging question, “What is art?”
Of course, in the wake of Andy Warhol, if not Marcel Duchamp, thousands of young artists have asked the same encompassing question. What has set Nauman apart is that he’s kept answering the question with—to employ a word meant to suggest both visual deliciousness and philosophical pungency—convincing works of art. They do the job by bringing up the question once again, in more acutely angled and urgent ways. As more than one critic has observed, Nauman has been at the prow of every progressive art medium and movement of the last 40 years, including post-Minimalist sculpture, Conceptual art, performance, video, artists’ films, installation and sound art. Yet he’s never been an evangelist for any one of them. Nauman is, in short, simultaneously above the fray and a primary source within it. What better artist to feature at the Venice Biennale—still the “world’s largest art show,” according to Biennale president Paolo Baratta—especially at a time when a pervasive sense of stylistic, political, social and now economic fatigue has settled over the international art world?
To rehearse Nauman’s procedural path to the Biennale: The U.S. Pavilion, a modest 1930s domed edifice that looks like a small-town bank in Iowa, is owned by the Guggenheim Foundation but, during the Biennale, is under the aegis of the United States Information Agency (yes, that USIA). The agency entertains proposals from curators and makes its choice. This time, the curatorial team of Michael Taylor, who hails from Great Britain, and Argentinian-born Carlos Basualdo, both of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, won out. Most art-world insiders suspect that Nauman had been solicited before but demurred. Nauman himself doesn’t go into stuff like that, and the curators have passed on answering the question, but, considering his reputation and influence on several generations of artists, it stands to reason that he has been solicited. So, how did Basualdo and Taylor manage the trick for 2009?
Nauman is quietly jealous of his studio time. “I’ve always been interested in what happens in the studio,” he told me last December in New Mexico. Making art, for him, is a question of “watching yourself figure out what to do next. Even if you have an idea, you have to sit down, work and see what really happens. What’s really there after you’ve putatively finished?” That puzzle has, he explained, “helped me think about how to be an artist.” Nauman, in other words, didn’t want to spend time concocting a festival of individual new pieces, and Basualdo and Taylor are therefore mounting a themed mini-retrospective at the pavilion, called “Topological Gardens.” (Topology was the last math class Nauman took as a mathematics major at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1960s, before he switched to art.) The roughly 15 works are to be dispersed according to three themes: “Fountains and Neons,” “Heads and Hands,” and “Sounds and Space.” The Big Bang piece in Nauman’s oeuvre, the ur-neon The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign), 1967, serves as the pavilion’s epigraph.