Arguably no artist of the last half century has been as formally inventive and repeatedly provocative as Bruce Nauman. Long ensconced on his ranch in New Mexico, he seems in one sense the quintessential American artist—as laconic and lonesome as the mythic cowboy he resembles in some of his videos. Yet his highly conceptual work is cast in a visual language that speaks directly to audiences and fellow artists around the world. Given the many phases of his career and the protean nature of his work, Nauman has garnered much fragmentary study and analysis—some of it hostile—but few attempts at a critical and biographical overview.
Now, in the book Bruce Nauman: The True Artist (due out May 5 from Phaidon), the painter, critic and longtime Nauman acquaintance Peter Plagens seeks to view the subject whole. During a recent conversation with A.i.A. in New York, where the writer is based, Plagens talked about the challenges of taking on Nauman’s iconic status as well as every aspect of his oeuvre, including sculpture, performance, sound pieces, video and installations.
RICHARD VINE Your approach is not one of scholarly distance but of personal engagement and strong opinion. You even subtitle your book The True Artist. What do you say to those who might accuse you of being too prejudiced?
PETER PLAGENS I’m a bit proud of the subtitle and the “Oh yeah—why?” response it invites. Phaidon had wanted Bruce Nauman: Mapping the Studio, but I thought that was a little too inside baseball—it’s the name of a particular (albeit great) work, but it wouldn’t mean much to the casual reader in the bookstore. I thought Nauman’s 1967 neon work The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths was more iconic.
Far from being too close, it’s more likely that I’m not close enough. I’m not the painter Frank Owen, Nauman’s longtime friend from all the way back in graduate school at UC Davis; I’m not one of his dealers like Angela Westwater or Gian Enzo Sperone, or one of the people he knows in New Mexico, where he’s lived for 35 years. I knew Nauman somewhat for about 10 years in L.A., then saw him periodically when he came to New York for shows. When I first talked to him about the book project, I asked him how he thought of me back then (we had studios less than a block apart in Pasadena), and he said, “I always thought of you as that painter down the block.”
VINE You make a case for Nauman as the most important and most thoroughly American artist of the post-Ab-Ex era. Yet you identify Ludwig Wittgenstein as his single greatest influence.
PLAGENS Nauman’s interest in Wittgenstein had nothing to do with European-ness. In college, he was attracted to the philosopher’s idea that language has a built-in paradox of being free and abstract when used in metaphysical discourse (which Wittgenstein called a realm of “frictionless ice”) yet simultaneously stuck in the mud of the everyday world and incapable of leading anywhere. The affinity had to do with both of them operating ex nihilo in regard to language.
VINE Samuel Beckett also turns up as a guiding figure. Do you see in Nauman’s work a strain not just of dark comedy and existential despair but perhaps of the Theater of Cruelty, in Antonin Artaud’s sense of the term?
PLAGENS Nauman is a bit—a teensy bit—”cruel” toward the spectator in that he tests us. Some pieces, such as the somewhat gruesome text Flayed Earth/Flayed Self , are hard to figure out and demand some thinking, while others, famously the frantic Clown Torture video piece , test one’s irritation threshold.
VINE You say at least two times in the book “I was wrong” in having a negative opinion about some of Nauman’s art. If you were wrong then, how certain are you that you’re not wrong now?
PLAGENS The only thing I’m certain about is that Nauman’s work frequently moves me. Back then I wrote only an article or a review; this time it’s a book that took six years and involved a lot of research and revisiting. So the odds of being right are better now.
VINE How can Nauman have been so successful, when so many prominent critics—e.g., Robert Pincus-Witten, Donald Kuspit, Robert Hughes—wrote so negatively about his work? You quote a lot of bad press.
PLAGENS The negativity is understandable. Abstract Expressionism, say, felt radical early on, and then we got used to it. But Nauman keeps on being, if not radical, unpredictably irritating. You just got used to the neon templates of his body, and then suddenly you had to deal with the “tunnel” pieces; when you got used to those, along came the Setting a Good Corner video , where we watch him, step by step, setting up a barbed wire fence. With each development—or, rather, each branching out from a new zero point—there’s something that’s a bit hard to take.
VINE Do you think Nauman deserves to be as influential an artist as he is?
PLAGENS Influence is not a question of deserving, but of fact. Younger artists—and, since Nauman had a museum retrospective over 40 years ago, that includes artists in their 60s today—have simply taken some of his ideas and attitudes and run with them. It’s not too hard to see why. Not only was Nauman a breath of fresh air himself, his art gave younger artists permission to relax and be quirky.
VINE How does Nauman’s ability to draw well in a conventional manner play into your evaluation of his work?
PLAGENS You’re asking, in effect, if Nauman’s acute drawing sensibility shows up in everything he produces. To me it does, just about, and not only in works like the word-drawing Pay Attention  (where it’s evident in the reverse hand-lettering) but even in works such as Consummate Mask of Rock , with its limestone cubes and printed text.
VINE Do you consider Nauman a sculptor?
PLAGENS Yes, but not only. It’s fashionable—even kind of de rigueur—for artists today to skip around among and combine mediums. Most of them can’t change modes effectively. Nauman can. That’s part of his talent.
VINE You and Nauman are similar in many respects: white males, born in the Midwest in 1941, holders of MFA degrees from university art departments (not art schools), with some interest in language, both fans of basketball. Might you be a little too close to your subject?
PLAGENS First, there’s no such thing as an absolutely “objective” perspective on Nauman’s work, or anybody’s. Second, if those similarities do skew my understanding of his work, it’ll be evident in the approximately 50,000 words of text in the book. Third, it’s a matter of degree; if I were, say, a female Japanese-speaking surgeon and totally uninterested in modern art, I’d be too dissimilar to have a perspective of any value to a reader. Fourth, I may be similar to Nauman in terms of race, age, sex and class of upbringing, but I’m still an abstract painter with much less matter-of-factness in my own work—and that’s a big governor of my attitude toward things artistic. So I do come at Nauman’s art somewhat from the outside.