From the Archives: The Trouble with Nauman

Bruce Nauman: Fist in Mouth, 1990, printed paper and paper with watercolor and pencil on paper, 20 1/4 by 23 3/4 inches. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York.


“Emerging from the show on each of the several times I saw it, I felt exalted and beaten up,” Peter Schjeldahl wrote of “Inside Out,” a retrospective of Bruce Nauman’s work that debuted Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid in 1993 before embarking on an American tour that concluded at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1995. “After twenty-five years of following Nauman’s work, maybe I should be used to this feeling, but I never am.” Audiences in New York now have a chance to experience that sensation for themselves with “Disappearing Acts,” a major retrospective on view at MoMA through February 18, 2019, and its affiliate MoMA PS1 through February 25, 2019. Schjeldahl’s review makes a useful companion, with its discussion of Nauman’s exploration of the “mystic truths” of death and the human experience of space, and its incisive, elegantly worded descriptions of the effects the works have on viewers. We present it in full below. —Eds.


I FEEL IN a quandary, faced with writing about the gruelingly magnificent Bruce Nauman retrospective that opened in Madrid in December and has begun a high-profile tour of the United States. I think he is the best—the essential—American artist of the last quarter-century. No other contemporary artist means as much to me. And none so discomfits me. I rely on him for pleasures of a formal economy that is like manifested sheer intelligence—mind-made matter—and for a laconic humor that subtilizes amazingly upon reflection, becoming laughter ineffably knowing and wise. I have learned also to expect from him a lonely, painfully self-conscious state of soul that affects me rather like that most respected and least welcome human faculty, conscience: peremptorily, implacably, often harshly. I hesitate to recommend Nauman’s work to anyone innocent of it. Why promulgate anguish? I prefer to imagine that I am writing for the already afflicted.

Talking about his work with fellow Nauman fans, I note a peculiarly flat tone of voice inflecting statements of sincere praise. I diagnose it as a strain of spiritual laryngitis that strikes the heart all but speechless, caused by art that engages deep physiological mechanisms and psychic contents in ways thoroughly impersonal and demythicized. In this art there is abundant communication, but no communion. Enthusiasm finds no nexus of sympathy with the artist to feed on—not even the shady complicity of a Marcel Duchamp or the melancholy compunction of a Jasper Johns, to name two important influences on Nauman. (Nauman cites Man Ray’s defiant eclecticism as even more decisive for him, while also doing without the hook of that artist’s cavalier panache.) The question of “liking” Nauman or not seems impertinent. Confronted with his work, the rational mind is extraordinarily clarified, and emotional responsiveness, stricken, falls in a hole. Consider Clown Torture (1987) a raucous environment of video monitors and projectors showing clowns trapped in no-win situations. You “get the joke” at once, but the joke won’t stop. Those clowns are telling the same circular stories, getting bopped by the same water bucket and monotonously screaming “no! no! no!” as you read this. They do so for eternity. Nauman makes us squirm, and by “us” I mean fans. What he makes others do, in my observation, is glaze over, tense up and flee.

As installed by Neal Benezra and Kathy Halbreich in a sort of pharaonic maze at Madrid’s Reina Sofia, where I saw it, the Nauman retrospective gave no whiff of “development.” It was a labyrinth of situations, each discrete and as present-tense as an emergency. It began with the famous 1967 neon spiral Window or Wall Sign, whose silly and/or profound message—”The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths”—affects the mind like a pestering insect you can hear but not see. The show ended with Shit in Your Hat—Head on a Chair, a complex work that incorporates a video of a winsome mime being put through torturous paces by an offscreen voice—one of a 1990 series of videos that, I think, strip bare some eerie and stirring imports of the verb “to perform.”; The mime’s determination to obey, in high mime style, the voice’s humiliating instructions makes the work’s sadism a victimless crime, perhaps—and may induce a shocking reflection on the unpleasant things we all do every day, as well as we can and even with pride and joy, at the behest of unsympathetic powers. In between, there were worlds of enough meaning to exhaust anybody’s capacities for absorption many times over. Emerging from the show on each of the several times I saw it, I felt exalted and beaten up. After twenty-five years of following Nauman’s work, maybe I should be used to this feeling, but I never am.


ON THE retrospective’s evidence, Nauman was never not Nauman. At least from the moment in 1965 when he arrived in San Francisco from the Midwest and ended a brief involvement with painting, he has made only “mature” work. Perhaps he exhausted his growing pains in the disciplines, pursued before he switched to art, of mathematics and music. What, by the way, is the significance for his art of that early training? Only someone equally adept in math, music and art itself—and throw in Nauman’s lifelong vigorous involvement with animals and the outdoors—could say for sure. Our culture seldom produces such people. This artist routinely disrupts the settled expectations and predictable manners (bad manners included) of art-schooled art. He forbids us conditioned responses. He makes us start repeatedly from scratch: from our individual resources, such as they are.

Things don’t evolve in Nauman’s work. They happen. Early on, in the 1960s, an incredible profusion of things happened Nauman’s early production had an abbreviated representation in Madrid, but the variety of what was on hand still flabbergasted. There was one of his loaf-shaped fiberglass sculptures that splits the difference between Minimalist form and the human body; a wax cast of folded arms joined, with conceptually intoxicating effect, to knotted lengths of heavy rope; a video monitor that, as you turn a comer, gives you a glimpse of your body disappearing around the comer; a film (transferred to video, with recorded film-projector clatter) in which the artist gravely covers himself in layers of white, red, green and then black pigments (sumptuous images that can seem somehow to say all that needs saying about painting); a series of high-production-value color photographs literalizing word-plays and morphological japes (Waxing Hot, Self-Portrait as a Fountain); rather terrifying holograms (still the best work I have ever seen in this medium) of the artist in hellishly lighted, polymorphously grotesque poses; and a room in which a menacing voice growls and shouts “get out of this room, get out of my mind!” (If you stand in the exact middle of that room, by the way, the voice seems to come from inside your head.)

These and other early pieces—a concrete cast of the space under a chair; a hanging collection of glowing neon tubes formed to one side of the artist’s body; at intervals during the exhibition, an inconspicuously clothed dancer performing a subtly odd walk (“as though the ceiling were 6 inches or a foot lower than his normal height”); a video of the artist incessantly sounding a violin whose strings are tuned D, E, A and D; a tape loop draped across the length of a room and broadcasting the sound of someone walking in the room; etc.—the total of these inventions suggests a like number of artistic careers that the young Nauman, or somebody, might have embarked on. Looming from nowhere and returning there, the works are like flaring candles that a mysterious wind blows out.

The nature of that extinguishing wind may be the crux of Nauman’s art, found not in the works themselves but in the space around and the time between them. Such seems one, or perhaps the sum, of the artist’s “mystic truths,” whose sense was given by the philosopher most influential on Nauman, Ludwig Wittgenstein: “What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.”

Nauman’s art is positively oriented to the inexpressible: always smack up against it, abutting silence. His inclination toward what cannot be said recalls a remark of Wittgenstein’s apropos ethics, to speak of which is “to run against the boundaries of language. The running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. . . . What [any discourse on ethics] says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind.” Each work of art by Nauman documents a tendency in the human mind. It also documents the “perfectly, absolutely hopeless” fix—the linguistic dead end, the virtual aphasia—that befalls the tendency every time. (For a fine account of Nauman and Wittgenstein, see Robert Storr’s essay in the retrospective catalogue.) Nauman realizes as phenomena what can only be dreamed of, because unutterable, in anybody’s philosophy.


NAUMAN’S ART sets the mind on tiptoe and knocks the heart sprawling. When one has been exposed to enough of it, the effect is a sort of rapturous ennui. What possible utility is there in such experience? One could answer by asking what utility there is in any experience at all that increases our apprehension of existing in the world. But this second question merely postpones an admission that there is no answer. We will or will not seek experience for its own sake. Neither option brooks argument. Nauman illuminates the fundamental arbitrariness of any intention to comprehend life—a theme also of one of his favorite authors, Samuel Beckett—by taking a blind will-to-experience to preposterous lengths, creating situations that could only be willed because too irksome to be wanted. This burden of his work reached a peak with environmental sculptures of the early ‘70s that I remember hating very much when first subjected to them: variously oppressive constructed walls, corridors and enclosures with highly specific gestalts, including such things as a double cage (not in the retrospective) that yields the remarkable sensation of being trapped “inside” and “outside” at the same time.

A 1973 triangular room shown in Madrid raises and immediately settles the question of why architects do not regularly give us triangular rooms. Made fiercely bright within by yellow neon lights that minimize the attractiveness of any other viewers present, the room proves conclusively that it is impossible to stand anywhere in a triangular space without feeling cornered. Now, why couldn’t we just be told the bad news about triangular rooms? Why should we want to learn it at all, for that matter? Who cares? Why use up so much institutional floor space merely to stimulate a recherché misery? The occasional Skinner-box aspect of Nauman’s work can trigger such resentful questioning. One rebels at feeling cast as a guinea pig—as also in corridors barely wide enough to squeeze through, let alone pass someone corning the other way. (Nauman’s architectural works can give rise to awkward social situations.) To submit requires faith that one is in good hands and that the grimmer phases of Nauman’s process are not dispensable to its purpose, which is to render the condition of being alive more fully, sharply real. To submit or not is of course entirely optional. No one is obligated to be conscious.

A payoff for those who do undergo the rooms and corridors may be a heightened appreciation of the 1988 installation Learned Helplessness in Rats, comprising an empty Plexiglas maze and a video projector showing, in alternation, rats negotiating the maze, the maze scanned in real time by a surveillance camera and a punk rock drummer beating a loud, repetitive tattoo. (It helps to know that Nauman, as he told me, came across the title phrase in a science magazine after making the piece.) I lingered often with this work in Madrid. Its content of wild impulsion and maddened futility became very strangely soothing to me. Here Nauman’s fascination with experiences of entrapment is not imposed but confessed, made the shared subject of a zone of contemplation. The three alternating video tracks cause different configurations of consciousness: detached and scientific-analytical (the rat behavior); helplessly and immediately implicated (the surveillance scan); and more or less transcendent (music’s comprehension of regimented time as an at once physical and spiritual pleasure, figured in the drums’ catchy, incantatory din). The experience is definitively Naumanesque: self-consciousness intensified to a pitch of impersonal enlightenment, whereby the real existence of the body and some real working of the mind are held in a lofty, lucid regard.


THIS IS A NOISY retrospective, beautifully so. In Madrid one passed sound sources and the lap dissolves—fading behind, swelling ahead—between them as on an aural conveyor belt. The sources could be as ferociously loud as the drums of Learned Helplessness or the shouts of Clown Torture. (The intention of such pieces plainly includes ensuring that you cannot hear yourself think.) Or the sources could be as incidental as the humming and clunks of neon-light hardware. Those soft noises give dispassionate accompaniment to the social-anthropological burlesque of Mean Clown Welcome (two sour-faced clowns salute each other with random combinations of bowings, extended gloved hands and penises leaping to attention) and to the great, blazing, wall­sized paean to the possibilities of existence, upbeat or downbeat according to association with living or dying, of One Hundred Live and Die. The soft scrape along the floor of Carousel‘s cast-aluminum taxidermist animal forms, hung from slowly rotating beams, persists in memory as a song of unutterable sadness. The literally silent majority of the works in the show profited from the ambient aural soup, their hush becoming a kind of sound in itself that tacitly said, in the words of a drawing in the show’s second room, “PLEASE PAY ATTENTION PLEASE.” Then there was the pregnant silence of the open microphone that along with a video camera was buried underground outside the museum in a coffinlike concrete box. A closed-circuit monitor broadcast what was happening in the box, which was what you would imagine. (This work is Audio-Video Underground Chamber, 1972-74.)

The haunting joke of the buried box, previewing the ultimate lodging that awaits us all, epitomizes Nauman’s penchant for themes of death. The themes are a practical expedient, in a way. They open the most direct possible route to “mystic truths.” Certainly they get a viewer’s attention. Violent Incident (1986), a wall of 12 video monitors playing variant tapes of a loud male-female spat that leads inexorably to mutual homicide, tests the effect of repeating a cartoonish death scenario. (So does the neon Hanged Man, 1985, with its stick figure from the game of hangman repeatedly subject to a travesty of the lethal instant: body jerking, tongue out, penis erect, eyes replaced with Xs.) Incident’s battle of the sexes is absurd, with an actor and an actress trading roles from tape to tape in the piece’s stagy choreography. But the idea of death—here as a consequence of hostile feelings hardly uncommon in male-female relations—can be kept at an amused remove for only so long. The longer the idea is present to the mind, no matter how artificially and archly, the more dangerous it becomes to equanimity. At last even the most trivial things are contaminated with dire seriousness by association to it. Incident offers a chance that you may or may not opt to stick around for: to witness the flower like blooming in your mind of pure horror.


MORE THAN one person in Madrid wished out loud that there were more “sculpture” in the show—meaning things that stand still and somehow reflect on traditional forms and functions of sculpture. So extravagant are Nauman’s gifts for this art that we tend to forget how little pure sculpture he has made—an opus as relatively small, perhaps, as Wittgenstein’s output of systematic philosophy. Very much like Wittgenstein, Nauman pointedly conveys the strict insupportability of the métier that constitutes his job description. The sculptor’s preponderant anti-sculptures are like the “language games” with which the philosopher, by imagining cultures with rules of grammar radically different from our own, attacked faith in any language’s ability to capture the essence of anything. At issue is no mere exercise of iconoclastic glee, but a tragic skepticism that poisons anything savoring of tradition. Nauman has managed some series of sculpture only by a fierce straining of his imagination, a sort of dreamlike trance. Such is the charge of his “Models for Tunnels” (floor-hugging, jury-rigged plaster mockups of impossible underground chambers, visceral elaborations of solitude) and of the hanging chairs surrounded by eye­level metal bands, such as South America Triangle, that allegorize political torture. All these works display the physical appeal of Nauman’s startling frugality of materials and labor: everything only and exactly substantial and finished enough to serve. Rough craftsmanship underlines the artist’s all but crippling doubt about sculpture’s capacity “to mean.” Still, a will-to-meaning clings about the works’ crumbly plaster edges and brusquely wire-trussed components.

Likewise forced, and of interest to me as a work that has always given me special difficulty, is Consummate Mask of Rock, a 1975 room-girdling array of eight pairs of low-lying stone cubes in two sizes: the larger cube to the right of the smaller in all pairs but one, where the reverse obtains. The overall look of the piece and its trick variation have seemed to me acutely boring—rousing unhappy memories of “site-specific” sculpture in the 1970s with its imperatives to “define the space” and “energize the space.” (Nothing happened to the space at all, of course.) In Madrid I stayed with my boredom to see if something would grow in it as in a petri dish, and something did: a sense of failed sculptural metaphor as a deliberately emphasized matter of fact. The rhythmically arrayed cubes “yearned” for circle-dance-like ”wholeness” by means of internal asymmetry, except for the pair that “yearned” to assert “independence” by means of symmetry with its neighbors. Something like that. (The story doesn’t matter.) This hopelessly jejune drama unfolded all around me and so could not be held in view. It insisted on commandeering my mind.

Does Nauman make his own problems the viewer’s problems? Or, like a scientist testing a new serum on himself, does he incur problems of significance to everyone? Whatever the case, a willing viewer receives a revealed sense of the problematic as a true state of affairs attendant on, and maybe definitive of, being alive. This revelation seems to me the ultimate action and possible value of Nauman’s art. The action can be completed only if valued, only if granted a viewer’s self-interested participation. You must have a personal use for Nauman’s work if the work is even to exist for you. Otherwise yon will be overwhelmed by tedium and will want to be away from this thorny, importunate stuff. Nauman does not add to my own experience of art so much as cast in an unflattering light, and even plunge into tormenting doubt, the generality of that experience. He gives me a sullen sense of knowing less than I thought I knew and a sinking feeling that what I do know may depend on flawed, perhaps sentimental assumptions. I come away from his work with less confidence of all kinds than I bring to it, but with a whetted appetite for whatever in the world may be genuine.

Bruce Nauman is a great artist. There is no other kind or degree of artist he could be. The material, technical and formal (or anti-formal) range and mastery and, most of all, the philosophical density of his work demand that he be admitted to art’s first rank. The alternative would be to exclude Nauman from art altogether. This could almost be argued. One might suggest, putting it nicely, that he is overqualified to be an artist. He can indeed seem to mistake art for something more difficult and substantial—more intellectually rigorous, more ethically urgent, at once more developed in thought and raw in feeling—than our surface­happy visual culture has any sustainable uses for. He more than ignores our appetites for aesthetic satisfaction. If Nauman has a single overriding subject, it is frustration. Certainly he poses a steep problem for the “art lover”: no love, only a guarantee of practically barbaric integrity. The problem has no solution. Sometimes, though, in the charm-proof vicinity of the work the problem disappears, replaced by the fact of an illumination that, call it what one will, is like being newborn to the real.