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Performing Identities

Artists ask, Who am I? Who are you? and demonstrate that the answers are not so simple.


Art Make-Up: No. 1 White, No. 2 Pink, No. 3 Green, No. 4 Black

Bruce Nauman
(American, born 1941)

1968. 16mm film transferred to video (color, sound), 40 min.

Bruce Nauman’s Art Make-Up: No. 1 White, No. 2 Pink, No. 3 Green, No. 4 Black grew out of his interest in questioning what artists do, what art is, and how it is made. The piece was originally recorded on film, and later transferred to video. As the film rolled through the camera, it made an incessant clicking sound. This serves as a soundtrack of sorts and also calls attention to the camera itself, reminding viewers that what appears on the screen is staged and constructed by the artist. Nauman addresses this fact—that a work of art is imagined, or made up, by an artist—in his video’s title.

Art Make-Up is composed of four individual segments, each 10 minutes long. In them, Nauman appears tightly framed by the camera against a blank background, shirtless, and visible from the torso up. The action begins. Dipping his fingers into a small dish of makeup, he smears his face and body with the thick pigment until he is entirely covered. As the work’s title indicates, he begins with white makeup. He then moves on to pink, green, and, finally, black, layering each color on top of the previous ones. These colors have distinct resonances, especially when applied to the skin. “And I suppose it had whatever social connections it had with skin color and things like that,”1 the artist once said about Art Make-Up, acknowledging the link between a person’s appearance and assumptions others make about their identity. His applications also have associations with gender, since it is women who are typically the ones to wear makeup.

Nauman has specified that Art Make-Up should be projected simultaneously onto four walls of a room, so that viewers are surrounded by the work and all of his color changes at once. Its clicking soundtrack comes through speakers, further immersing us in the work. We see the artist make himself up methodically and without expression, staring off-camera into what is likely a mirror to regard his changing image—just as we watch him transform. By coating his own body with pigment, he demonstrates that even the artist himself can be made into a work of art.

Bruce Nauman, quoted in Oral history interview with Bruce Nauman, 1980 May 27-30, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-bruce-nauman-12538.
Bruce Nauman, quoted in Oral history interview with Bruce Nauman, 1980 May 27-30, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-bruce-nauman-12538.
Bruce Nauman, quoted in Oral history interview with Bruce Nauman, 1980 May 27-30, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-bruce-nauman-12538.

A recording of moving visual images made digitally or on videotape and available for immediate playback.

1. A series of moving images, especially those recorded on film and projected onto a screen or other surface (noun); 2. A sheet or roll of a flexible transparent material coated with an emulsion sensitive to light and used to capture an image for a photograph or film (noun); 3. To record on film or video using a movie camera (verb).

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

A substance, usually finely powdered, that produces the color of any medium. When mixed with oil, water, or another fluid, it becomes paint.

A term that emerged in the 1960s to describe a diverse range of live presentations by artists.

A facial aspect indicating an emotion; also, the means by which an artist communicates ideas and emotions.

The arrangement of the individual elements within a work of art so as to form a unified whole; also used to refer to a work of art, music, or literature, or its structure or organization.

The perceived hue of an object, produced by the manner in which it reflects or emits light into the eye. Also, a substance, such as a dye, pigment, or paint, that imparts a hue.

The area of an artwork that appears farthest away from the viewer; also, the area against which a figure or scene is placed.

Through Questions, Art
Since the beginning of his career, Nauman has been interested in testing the limits of what art can be. Much of his work, including Art Make-Up, stems from questions. “When you’re out on your own…you have to reexamine why you’re doing that work,” he has said, describing his first years out of art school as he sought his place in his field and in the world. Nauman spent a lot of time in his studio asking himself “why are you an artist and what do you do, and finally that’s what the work came out of—that question, why is anyone an artist and what do artists do.”2

Taking a Cue from Music
Music is among Nauman’s early influences, especially the experimental scores of the minimalist composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Their music’s repeating rhythms and extended duration inform the compositions of his own films, videos, and performances. He has described his works in terms reflecting the looping, seemingly open-ended structure of minimalist music, stating that there is the “sense that there’s no progression, [they] just [go] on and on until you choose to stop. And so I really liked that idea of performance or videotape that went on longer than film, or film that went on in loops and things like that—you could walk in at any point.…You have the repeated action….”3