“I’ve always had overlapping ways of going about my work,” Bruce Nauman once remarked. “I’ve never been able to stick to one thing.” For more than 50 years, he has worked in every conceivable artistic medium, dissolving established 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 political and social 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 graduating from art school at the age of 24, Nauman took up residence in a vacant grocery store in San Francisco. Alone in this 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.” He often recorded his efforts 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 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. Anxiety courses through a series of sculptures that evoke absent bodies. In White Anger, Red Danger, Yellow Peril, Black Death (1984), a pair of steel girders hang from the ceiling and impale three handmade chairs, while a fourth chair dangles just beyond the armature’s reach. The toppled chairs are rendered useless and none appear intact, their missing legs or sunken seats suggesting something gone awry. The severity of Learned Helplessness in Rats (Rock and Roll Drummer) (1988) is also typical of this period: the installation pairs an empty Plexiglas maze with footage of a rat and the din of drumbeats. Within this atmosphere of an abortive lab experiment, the artist equates physical entrapment and mental tension.
In recent years, the tenor of Nauman’s work has become more meditative and its appearance more refined. The sound sculpture Days forms an audible passageway that is imposing yet nearly invisible. Here Nauman fills a gallery with a double row of speakers, which emit a surge of voices reciting the days of the week out of order. By tampering with the routine progression from one day to the next, he 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.
Nauman often circles back to his earlier concerns with new urgency. In Contrapposto Studies i through vii (2015/2016), he reinvests a prior work with increased formal complexity and emotional range. This multi-channel projection finds the artist on familiar ground, retracing the steps of his Walk with Contrapposto. That 1968 video was Nauman’s riff on a Classical pose, designed to enliven static sculpture and lend the body a pleasing curve. A stationary camera filmed the lithe young artist as he paced up and down a corridor, swinging his hips from side to side. The 2016 work again finds him walking the length of his studio in a grubby T-shirt and jeans, but his image now echoes across seven towering projections that leave the body in disarray. The effects of age are manifest in the artist’s heavier torso and wavering balance, making Contrapposto Studies an exceptionally clear-eyed portrayal of how time unmakes the body.
Introduction by Taylor Walsh, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints, 2018