Bruce Nauman: The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign), 1967, neon, 59 by 55 by 2 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Nauman works © Artists Rights Society, New York.

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.

Another consideration for the curators is that Nauman always wants to return to his big, cluttered chamber of ex nihilo, the New Mexico studio, to rethink, yet again, the whole existential problem of what an artist does to determine what art is. Art for Nauman has lately consisted mostly (if not exclusively) of sound. At first glance—or listen—it might seem that the visually immaterial medium would represent his work’s furthest departure from the raw physicality of his mid-1960s sculpture (e.g., the fairly self-explanatory Collection of Various Flexible Materials Separated by Layers of Grease with Holes the Size of My Waist and Wrists, 1966). These are the works that first put him on the map in such exhibitions as Lucy Lippard’s “Eccentric Abstraction” at the Fischbach Gallery in New York in 1966 (Nauman was picked for the show while he was still in school), and “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials,” organized by the late Marcia Tucker and by James Monte at the Whitney Museum in 1969.

But sound as a medium for Nauman arises quite reasonably, if indirectly, from his sculpture, via two other Nauman interests: performance and installation. Performances by definition include sound, if only incidentally, and two of Nauman’s early installations, Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room (1968) and Acoustic Wall (1969) have menacing in-wall soundtracks; the first says the work’s title, the second features the sound of exhalations. Sound—especially spoken words—is also more conducive to philosophizing, both on the artist’s part and the viewer’s. And it’s ambient—you don’t have to “aim” your ears to hear as you do your eyes to see—so the work’s content comes at you from every direction. The great example of that for Nauman was Raw Materials (2004) at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall: 18 pairs of speakers, 22 spoken texts (“Get out of my mind, get out of this room” was among them), and a sense of being buffeted by waves of sound.

The sound piece Nauman has created for the Biennale is, however, nothing if not sculptural. It involves multiple speakers in a public space, spoken words, a fugue- or ronde-like overlay of utterances and two versions. Tentatively, the Italian-language version is to be installed in the Università Ca’ Foscari (a school known for its humanities and economics departments) across from Palazzo Grassi, and the English one is in the Università Iuav di Venezia a Tolentini, the somewhat avant-garde college of architecture and design. Because, in the vision of the curators, Nauman’s bilingual, bipartite sound installation has as much to do with spectators moving about—indeed, being moved about—as it does with aural content, the sound piece links to one of the pavilion themes, “Sound and Space.” It extends Nauman’s public reach from the pavilion out through the entire Biennale and, finally, into the city beyond, which is itself a topological garden; pedestrian movement in space, to an accompaniment of serendipitous sounds, is practically the whole point of Venice’s existence.

In spite of his international reputation (he’s been called the most influential artist since Warhol), Nauman is inescapably American. He was born in late 1941 in Fort Wayne, Ind. His father was a sales engineer for General Electric and the family moved about a bit—to Schenectady, N.Y., and Appleton and Milwaukee in Wisconsin. When, at 18, he entered the state university at Madison, Nauman was a science student and, at an inch or two over 6 feet and suitably long-waisted, a competitive swimmer. But he didn’t win a lot of races and, though bright and talented, he found his scientific research drifting toward calculating the nose volumes of his dorm mates with calipers and a slide rule. Having taken some art classes and liked them, he switched his major, beginning as a painter and not thinking much about realigning the course of contemporary art. When it came time to pick a graduate school, he admitted to himself that New York was a little scary and headed west.

A teacher at Madison had told Nauman about U.C. Davis, and he landed there. In one of the more fruitful art-educational coincidences in modern art, a painter named Richard Nelson had been hired in 1959 to put together a fine-arts department for the new campus, and the studio faculty welcoming the young guy from the Midwest included Robert Arneson, Wayne Thiebaud (Nauman became his teaching assistant for a while) and, crucially, William T. Wiley. Nauman and Wiley made work together while Nauman was still a student, and doubtless Nauman’s seriously absurd (or the reverse) punning was spurred by Wiley. In a letter to me earlier this year, Wiley wrote, “Bruce had a nice sense of confidence and doubt. Where others sought to impress by size or effort, Bruce took more the approach to under-impress. His first object [presented at a crit] was a board, cut to rest against the wall at an angle. A small piece of one-by-three, maybe, painted almost the same color as the wall, a faint stripe of tan on it. It could be knocked over, or easily missed. I was impressed.”

Clearly, Nauman wasn’t completely raw. He’d read, extracurricularly and avidly, the proto-Vienna School philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. “I was only interested in the later work [Philosophical Investigations], and I read it diligently,” Nauman says. “He was a strange fellow.” Many people, including this writer, have dipped into Wittgenstein to try to see what the intellectual fuss is about and have come away feeling we’ve been thrown into a linguistic briar patch. But, says Jane Livingston (who, along with Marcia Tucker, curated his precocious retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1972), Nauman “got Wittgenstein. Then and since, he’s done work with Wittgenstein. There’s a common approach: both are concerned with fragmentation. Wittgenstein and Nauman share a kind of cold-blooded disinterest, combined with a curiosity and intensity. Bruce comes out of frustration, and he wants to get a reaction.”And reactions he has gotten. Over a career (the word seems somehow inappropriate for Nauman—too strategic, too nakedly ambitious) that will, shortly, amount to a half-century’s worth of drawings, prints, sculpture, installations, videos, films and neon signs (still and flashing), Nauman has been celebrated as the quintessential pan-media conceptual artist who describes the impossible contemporary task of cleaving art from non-art better, and more incisively, than anyone. On the other hand, Nauman has been dismissed as a mere prankster and, worse, reviled as a sadist

In fact, while Nauman’s exhibition is ostensibly about the variety of ways of signifying malice—tortured and murdered animals, decapitated human heads, nasty jokes about masturbation and homosexuality (mutual fellatio)—it is subliminally about Nauman’s own malice toward the spectator.—Donald Kuspit, Artnet.com Magazine, Mar. 5, 2001

Such criticism ignores an overall artistic generosity on Nauman’s part. He is not nearly the surly recluse he’s sometimes made out to be (you’d get a little fatigued with art-world ritual, too, if you were in his position), and in his work, he’s positively expansive. In the austere enigma of an installation such as The Consummate Mask of Rock (1975), which was accompanied by a self-lacerating text alluding to his divorce; the hilariously painful racket of the video Clown Torture (1987) or the iconographic overload of One Hundred Fish Fountain (2005), the artist is hard at work trying to reach an audience with his slapstick puzzlement at being alive in this society of excess. When I asked him about that Janus-faced blessing/curse of all artists, the market, he said, “Back when he was still writing poetry, Peter Schjeldahl said that what happened to poetry was that it got stuck in the universities. Well, art is in the universities, but it’s also out there in the commercial world, where it gets beaten around this way and that way. Art has lots of possibilities because it’s in both places, in lots of places. Art should be in as many places as it can be.” In the 53rd Venice Biennale, Nauman’s art, and his trenchant, visceral questioning of it, will be in the pavilion, in the universities and out in the city itself—and not just topographically.

[Peter Plagens is writing a book about Bruce Nauman, to be published by Phaidon in 2010.]