In the 1980s, Nauman made a series of works that evoke absent bodies, using a chair that he said “would somehow become the figure.” Here a pair of steel girders hang from the ceiling and support three chairs, while a fourth chair dangles just beyond the armature’s reach. Suspended at eye level, the massive I-beams encroach on the viewer’s space, affording no clear view of the sculpture as a whole. The toppled chairs are rendered useless, and none appear to be completely intact, their missing legs and sunken seats suggesting something gone awry.
The work’s title strikes an ominous note, pointing to the recurring role of color in metaphors for anxiety and grim events, from anticommunist paranoia to outbreaks of disease. The four hues are also crude and bigoted terms for antiquated racial categories, so that the sculpture functions as a silent, forceful reminder of long histories of violence. If the chairs in Nauman’s work indeed stand in for people, injured and divided, the sculpture posits a dim view of civic life and our relations with one another.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
Bruce Nauman began his career in the mid-1960s, joining other artists of his generation in abandoning traditional forms of painting and sculpture. Instead, he and his peers reinvented artistic processes and mediums in a way that mirrored the revolutionary social changes defining the culture of the time. Nauman’s work has retained a fierce radicality throughout the ensuing four decades, even as it has constantly and dramatically transformed its own means and appearance.
During the 1980s, when Nauman was in his forties, his work often directly voiced his concern over profound sociopolitical problems. White Anger, Red Danger, Yellow Peril, Black Death, belongs to a group of sculptures that use I-beams and chairs to address the practice of torture, still employed by governments worldwide. “I thought of using a chair that would somehow become the figure,” Nauman said, “torturing a chair and hanging it up or strapping it down.” While such a sculpture has no political efficacy per se, for Nauman the work of art does its job by calling attention to issues that may otherwise remain unseen and unspoken.
Gallery label from 2012.
Two steel girders hang in an X-shape. Slid over them are three chairs (variously seatless, backless, and legless) in different metals, one red, one yellow, one black, while a fourth metal chair, in white, hangs adjoining—the girders may hit it if they swing or spin. Usually designed for rest and comfort, chairs here grow precarious, both menaced and menacing.
Escaping convenient labeling by school or style, Nauman has explored many materials and art forms—fiberglass, video, neon, installation, drawing, and more. He emerged alongside the Conceptual artists of the 1960s, and although his work is often more concretely physical than theirs, he shares their interest in the functioning of language. Nauman sees artmaking not primarily as the creation of aesthetic form but as a question of picking apart the habits of perception and structures of language that dictate the meaning of the work of art.
The title White Anger, Red Danger, Yellow Peril, Black Death invokes perennial fears and prejudices: racism, xenophobia, plague. Nauman’s art, he says, “comes out of being frustrated about the human condition. And about how people refuse to understand other people.” Given the animosities and anxieties cited in the work’s title, the chairs’ tensely dangling balance can be seen as conjuring the instability of the global equilibrium, but with a stringency surpassing verbal metaphor.
White Anger, Red Danger, Yellow Peril, Black Death. 1984
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 307.