Dear Bruce: A Letter from a Fan

Ralph Pugay: Liondix, 2010, acrylic on panel, 12 by 16 inches. Courtesy Upfor, Portland.


Dear Bruce,

Back in August, my editor asked me to pitch some interviews, and I suggested you, Bruce Nauman. I have long been an admirer of your work and I imagined that we might have a lot to talk about around comedy and horror, two favorite topics of mine. At that time, I was preparing to move from Brooklyn to Austin. The idea of hitting the US-84 to New Mexico presented an attractive opportunity to readjust to life in the West (I lived in Arizona and Oregon for twelve years before moving to New York). I don’t know the exact communication flow, but I think the magazine contacted your gallery in New York about the possibility of me visiting you, but nothing panned out. This is what I expected. I always assumed that you moved to New Mexico to avoid things like interviews for art magazines.

So I was surprised to see Nikil Saval’s profile of you in T Magazine in October. But no hard feelings. With your current retrospective, “Disappearing Acts,” at the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1, I can see why you would grant the Gray Lady a glimpse into your life. Perhaps this letter will cross your path. I doubt very much that you have a Google Alert set up for your name, but I’d like to think somebody who knows you might pass the link along.

There are many things that I wanted to ask you. Some of them are, admittedly, purely conversational. For instance:

Do you get over to Albuquerque much? Have you ever been to Burt’s Tiki Bar or the Frontier Restaurant? Both have been highlights of my own visits there.

Have you read any of the Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee mystery novels by Tony Hillerman? They’re hard-boiled, but they capture so many of the cultural paradoxes of the American Southwest. Or what about High Country News? It’s a great magazine “for people who care about the West,” as I’m sure you do.

I’ve read that you like La Monte Young, and that you played in a drone band in the 1960s. Do you listen to any drone metal? If not, the bands Sunn O))) and Earth are good starting places, especially the albums Altar (a collaboration with Japanese band Boris) and Earth 2, respectively.

Be honest: in your 1973 lithograph Pay Attention, did you intend for the text to appear backwards, or did you forget that the image would be reversed once the print came off the stone? My undergraduate degree was in printmaking, and this was a constant point of argument in critique—students accused of making a mistake would insist that they’d wanted the text to appear backwards “conceptually.”

I also wonder if, at age seventy-seven, you spend any time thinking about the influence you have had on the generations of artists who have come after you. Very often, when encountering works that resonate with me, I find myself involuntarily thinking: “This reminds me of Bruce Nauman.” Typically, this is work that I find funny, though not in a laugh-out-loud way, at first. Then, the more I ruminate, the more disturbing, even claustrophobic, the work begins to feel. Whether or not the artists themselves would credit your influence is almost irrelevant; it’s as if the reverberations of your work are out in the ether, giving younger artists permission to experiment across disciplines with subject matter that is equally hysterical and unsettling. I would love to share with you the work of some of those artists, to find out if you can see the links between your work and theirs that I do.

Ralph Pugay, from Portland, paints bizarre, circus-like scenes: Catholic schoolchildren stripping a nun, a wrestler ripping an opponent in half (head to toe!), an ancient Greek jacking off lions. While they’re paintings, I can’t help but think of some your neons: the slapstick death-erection in Hanged Man, or the cycling penetrations and punishments in Sex and Death by Murder and Suicide. Those pieces, like Pugay’s paintings, amplify the unwieldy, wonky aspects of the human body through absurdist situations.

I think you might see a kindred spirit in Bridget Moser, a Canadian video and performance artist. In her post-minimalist comedy, she incongruously, but poetically, narrates existential social and cultural crises while animating arbitrary props like plungers or rubber rain boots. There’s a matter-of-fact quality to her pieces that recall your early studio experiments on 16mm film. You were in the studio, so whatever you did there was art; Moser is on a stage making people laugh, so it must be comedy.

Los Angeles artist Jordan Wayne Long has worked with claustrophobia-inducing environments, subjecting his body to duress. These days he is focused on directing movies, but from 2011 to 2015 he was known for performing borderline self-torture within complicated, constricting environments of his own design. Audiences watched—sometimes in person, sometimes via a surveillance feed—as he struggled through pieces that felt in conversation with the unsettling repetition of your Clown Torture videos, or the self-bondage sweater sculpture Henry Moore bound to fail, back view (a nod to one of your own artistic predecessors). One time Long tried to break a horse on video at his family’s farm in Arkansas and almost ended up breaking his neck. You might actually gasp at that one.

There’s an episode of Jayson Musson’s YouTube series Art Thoughtz with Hennessy Youngman about your work. He gives viewers advice on how to avoid looking like they’re copying you: don’t work with water, neon, hands, walking, clowns, torture, or torturing clowns. He shows a clip of your celebrated 1967 work Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square and says that you look like a peacock on MDMA. Trust me: it’s a compliment.

Maybe you don’t follow much of what the younger generations are doing. That’s understandable. But if that’s the case, I’d like to encourage you to do so. You might catch glimpses of yourself all over the place. I’ve got a whole list of people whose work I think you’d get a kick out of. And now that the dust has settled after your show opened, it seems like you might have a little more free time. Let me know if you’re interested. It’s a twelve-hour drive from Austin, but I’ll put together a little talk and bring a projector out to your place. All I ask in exchange is that you teach me to ride one of your horses so I feel a little more authentic back in Texas.

In Beckett we trust,

Sean J Patrick Carney