Bruce Nauman provokes mixed emotions by creating situations rather than presenting figures for us to fear, pity, or empathize with. His artworks position us not as viewers but as participants, often unwilling. These situations vary in effect from pleasurable to nearly intolerable, as evidenced by the 170 works featured in the artist’s mammoth retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1, “Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts.” Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room (1968), a sound installation in which Nauman’s voice is heard growling the work’s title in an empty room illuminated by a hanging light bulb, is unbearable. (I lasted a minute.) Clown Torture (1987), a video installation featuring a clown on multiple monitors engaged in unsettling activities, like balancing a fishbowl on a broom handle, while a nearby projection shows him on the toilet reading a magazine and attempting to take a shit, is truly bizarre. Still other works induce suspense, such as Kassel Corridor: Elliptical Space, an architectural work rarely seen since its creation in 1972 for Documenta 5. To enter the almost fifty-foot corridor, participants register to receive a key, which entitles them to one hour inside its seafoam green interior, and the luxurious sense of privacy in the midst of chaos that this affords. Yet, as I quickly learned, those outside the installation can peek in from its two ends, transforming the lone participant into a trapped animal. Even when a work by Nauman is pleasurable it can, and will, swing back toward intolerable.
Nauman is inspired by Samuel Beckett’s dead-end plays, Gestalt psychology, concrete poetry, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy, drone music, performance art, and horse training. Yet his oeuvre isn’t scattered. He focuses on a handful of themes in an astonishing range of mediums: from painting and drawing to architecture, installation, language, sound, film, video (closed-circuit and recorded), and light (reflected, neon, and projected). Lead curator Kathy Halbreich frames the exhibition around the theme of “disappearing acts” to highlight the way Nauman has explored the ephemeral and invisible by, for example, picturing the underside of objects, gesturing toward death in his practice, and leaving the art world to live off the grid in New Mexico, as he has since 1979, when he moved there from Los Angeles. The idea works well enough, though no single theme can encompass all the pieces on display. The body is also central, as are the figure of the artist, semantics, surveillance, sex, and violence.
The architecture of the two exhibition venues informs the experience of the work. PS1, a former schoolhouse, brings forth its punitive character, while the sixth-floor space at MoMA, with its open format, invites dialogue. Throughout both locations, the curators—in addition to Halbreich, Magnus Schaefer and Taylor Walsh from MoMA and Heidi Naef and Isabelle Friedli from the Schaulager in Basel—have organized the works in a suggestive manner. A provocative pairing greets visitors to the MoMA presentation: The True Artist Is an Amazing Luminous Fountain (1966) is a work on paper featuring the title printed around the paper edge, while Venice Fountains (2007) is an installation in which two wax heads gush water into soiled industrial sinks. Is the artist a luminous fountain or merely a spigot for the unending flow of fetid thought? The juxtaposition implies that both propositions are true: the artist is a truth-teller who reveals his futile condition.
The retrospective suggests a chronological narrative that begins and ends with Nauman studying Nauman. Early in his career, starting when he was in graduate school in the mid-1960s, Nauman used his body as a testing site. The works from this period at MoMA include Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at Ten-Inch Intervals (1966), a wall sculpture composed of seven curved green neons based on his bodily dimensions, and Manipulating the T-Bar (1966), a 16mm film in which he positions a large metal T-shaped form in a series of orchestrated movements.
From such self-studies, Nauman developed his architectural installations. Seminal in this regard is his 1968 video Walk with Contrapposto, which—screening in a hallway at PS1—shows the artist pacing a dark corridor of his own making with hips swinging in an exaggerated manner. Nauman went on to exhibit the corridor as a stand-alone work, his first architectural installation. Later he would incorporate video, mirrors, and other devices into such works to alter the participants’ experience. MoMA features a number of infrequently mounted examples, such as Going Around the Corner Piece (1970), where participants circle a large white cube while chasing their own image on monitors; the aforementioned Kassel Corridor; and the much later Days (2009), a virtual corridor created by voices reading out the days of the week from suspended speakers. The multipart Corridor Installation (Nick Wilder Installation), meanwhile, is at PS1.
In the 1980s Nauman departed from his focus on bodily experience to broaden his exploration of the human condition. Learned Helplessness in Rats (Rock and Roll Drummer), 1988, evokes a sense of institutional entrapment by combining a plexiglass maze placed on the floor with videos of a rat trapped within the maze, a teenage boy playing the drums, and live images fed by a camera surveying the empty maze. One Hundred Live and Die (1984) comprises a tall bank of candy-colored neon phrases that flash on and off, providing limited options for how people might pass their time, such as fear and live, sing and live, fear and die, and sing and die. While the work is depressingly programmatic, it is also mesmerizing. In Sex and Death by Murder and Suicide (1985), opposing figures flicker in red, pink, and orange neon as they give each other blow jobs, threaten each other with weapons, and finally turn the weapons on themselves. Again, limited options.
Recently, Nauman returned to examining his own body in a series that operates in dialogue with Walk with Contrapposto. Contrapposto Studies, I through VII (2015/16) is an assortment of projected digital videos wherein the artist enacts similar movements a half century later. His body has changed of course, and the image is now pixelated, repeated, shown in positive and negative form, and frequently sliced into horizontal segments. A related work, Contrapposto Split (2017), is a stunning 3D projection in which Nauman, a cancer survivor, seems to be seeking physical unification: he walks stiffly in his studio toward the camera, struggling to put one foot in front of the other, while the top and bottom parts of his body rotate away and toward each other.
Nauman’s work is generally thought to be hermetic. The catalogue’s introduction and eighteen essays shatter this interpretation, discussing the work in radically new ways. Suggested throughout is that Nauman offers commentary on race, gender, and social issues in the United States. Indeed, his work, exploring the dark corners of humanity, raises powerful questions concerning the state of a country in which mass shootings, jingoism, sexual assault, police brutality, xenophobia, political deception, greed, and privation are prevalent. By refusing to prettify the nature of human existence, and by interrogating the way people act when alone, with each other, and in uncomfortable scenarios, Nauman might inadvertently provide hope for those seeking a way to understand our current situation.