Bruce Nauman (American, b. 1941)
For the past 50 years, Bruce Nauman has worked in every conceivable artistic medium, dissolving inherited genres and inventing new ones in the process. His expanded notion of sculpture admits wax casts and neon signs, bodily contortions and immersive video environments. Coming of age amid the upheavals of the 1960s, Nauman never adhered to rigid distinctions between the arts, but rather has staked his career on “investigating the possibilities of what art may be.”
After completing his graduate studies at the University of California, Davis, Nauman took up residence in an abandoned grocery store in San Francisco. Alone in the studio with time on his hands, he resolved that anything he did there could be art: “Sometimes the activity involve[d] making something, and sometimes the activity [was] the piece.” His efforts were often recorded on camera, as in Composite Photo of Two Messes on the Studio Floor (1967), which shows the plaster dust and refuse that litters his workspace—the dregs of the creative act. And in a series of now-iconic videos, he used his own body as raw material, engaging in humble, repetitive tasks that could be maddening (Bouncing in the Corner, 1968), coy (Walk with Contrapposto, 1968) or haltingly graceful (Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk), 1968). Each tedious exercise drones on for an hour—the standard length of a videotape—and subjects both artist and viewer alike to a minor test of endurance.
By the 1980s, Nauman’s setups were more elaborate and the tone of the work more caustic. The severity of Learned Helplessness in Rats (Rock and Roll Drummer) (1988) is typical of this period: the installation pairs an empty Plexiglas maze with footage of rats and the din of drumbeats. Within this atmosphere of a lab experiment gone awry, the artist equates physical entrapment and mental tension. Nauman consistently gives form to inarticulate feelings, making art that both rattles the nerves and forces us to think.
In recent years, the tenor of his work has shifted to a quieter register. His later pieces continue to exert a hypnotic pull, but the cycles hum with stark beauty and a newfound refinement. The sound sculpture Days was conceived for the 2009 Venice Biennale, where Nauman represented the United States and was awarded the Golden Lion. The work fills a gallery with a double row of slender speakers, which emit a surge of voices reciting the days of the week in random order. By tampering with the familiar sequence of days, Nauman disrupts the conventions by which we mark the passage of time. Pared down in appearance but profound in scope, Days invites reflection on how we measure the unfolding of a human life.