We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
I spent the summer of 1987 at the national lab in Los Alamos, N.M.—about 40 miles northwest of the studio Bruce Nauman then had in Pecos—doing bad physics and falling out of love with science. Nauman’s own dalliance with the subject ended in 1964, when he left the University of Wisconsin at Madison with a bachelor’s degree in science, and became an art grad student at the University of California, Davis.
I never saw any of Nauman’s work when I was out West. His is serious and often grimly comic art, informed by the mathematical rigor of his early studies, at times grisly, always idiosyncratic, and heedless of the confines of style and medium. A primary influence on the art of the past quarter-century in its embrace of an object-based conceptualism, it would have been plainly out of place in a market dominated by moonstruck howlin’ coyotes, turd-on-the-range outdoor sculpture, and landscapes that were never as good as looking out the window.
Looking into the Hirshhorn’s lobby, I got my first glimpse of the Nauman retrospective. It was a work from 1967 that recalled to me the admixture of irony, regret, and dimming awe that I felt in New Mexico. As I went up the escalator, I looked back at a red coil of neon framing the blue band of words, “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.” I don’t suppose anybody escapes a scientific education without being fed tripe like, “You’re reading the mind of God” or “You’re uncovering the secret workings of Nature,” and here it was, bleeding all over Nauman’s art. The shape of the piece, which is titled just as you’d expect, is one familiar to all popularizers of science, the mathematically perfect spiral of a nautilus shell. But Nauman’s flat screw of glass is no sign of the elegant simplicity of natural law. The words, lodged like a hermit crab in a broken-short, scavenged shell, stop after one-and-a-quarter turns, before the form is fully established, a garish advertisement of simultaneous doubt and faith in the ends of art.
A trip around the second floor of the museum unearths another twist, that the truths Nauman reveals tend not to be particularly mystical. Rather, they are registered viscerally, in the knotted stomach, clenched fists, and tightened jaw of the viewer. After an hour of being assaulted by the racket of the loud tape and video pieces, unsettled by the psychovisual blitz of such works as 1985’s Mean Clown Welcome, with its neon barrage of phony grins and tumid cocks, and disoriented by 1988’s Learned Helplessness in Rats (Rock and Roll Drummer), with its too-fast video switching, I came back around to the entrance and sat in one of the chairs then placed under Ten Heads Circle/Up and Down (1990). As I waited for the press orientation to begin, I tried to block out the screaming of 1987’s Clown Torture, two rooms away, by staring up at the wax-candy-pink disembodied head hovering in front of me. I wanted to bust it like a piñata.
It’s natural to want to avoid this sort of treatment, and if you’re afraid of being rattled, you can steel yourself against it. You’d be safer, but dead wrong, considering Nauman just another glib conceptualist, albeit one with a particularly nasty streak. (This attitude receives its highest expression in Hank Burchard’s Nov. 11 Weekend piece, in which Burchard, copping a blasé tone, but really just proud to be ignorant, clinches the heavily contested title of Worst Art Critic at the Washington Post. Personal to Hank: If you care to learn why the curators might make exhibition copies of the fragile, costly neons, see Page 9 of the catalog. Ask nicely, and they’ll give you one for free.)
If you are the slightest bit open to temptation, Nauman will suck you in and keep you looking. The first gallery entices you with several formal and witty early pieces. Just before the onslaught of the more aggressive work that follows, a 1973 slapdash of cellotape and Letraset implores, “PLEASE PAY ATTENTION PLEASE,” like a sign in a rollercoaster queue, mocking your impending terror.
A twisted fun-house air pervades the subsequent galleries. Through a corridor and behind you on the right, My Last Name Exaggerated Fourteen Times Vertically (1967) stretches the artist’s neon signature beyond legibility, as if in a pair of trick mirrors. Back on the left is a blackened room, illuminated only by the wine-dark sparks of ruby lasers lighting a row of five holograms. Peer into their projections and you see the artist’s image, as smooth and unreal as a figure in a wax museum, fixed in a fearsome array of contortions. Finger thrust into throat or legs splayed and fingers interlocked with toes, it’s a hellbound one-man Twister game using the body as a board.
This either triggers your flight or urges you on toward the next attraction. Across the room ahead is an empty chamber, white as the other was black. A 25-watt bulb hangs bare above the center of the room. Stand beneath it facing the back wall and two speakers embedded in the walls to either side blast the demonic croak of the title, Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room. Hang your head and the sound seems to come from a spot a few inches behind your crown. Linger and the shifting emphasis of each imprecation takes form as Cagey music. It is impossible to leave without feeling you’re agreeing to something.
On the wall to your left as you exit is 1968’s “Study for Poem Piece,” a simple grid of words that make different sentences as they drop in and out of play, telling you exactly how you feel, “You may not want to be here….You may not want to…hear….You…hear.” Such acute placement abounds throughout the Hirshhorn’s installation of the show. As you circle the outer galleries, guided like the rats in the one-way maze of Learned Helplessness, the first exit is guarded by the 1972 neon Run From Fear, Fun From Rear, a black-humored spoonerism that encapsulates the tenor of the show by uniting aesthetic thrillseeking with genuine terror.
Just as this work is illuminated by its placement in the exhibition, John Coltrane Piece (1968) is transformed by its context. A 3-foot-square metal slab resting on the floor, it could have been taken as a coy postminimalist irony, revealed only by the wall label specifying materials: “aluminum with mirror-finish bottom face.” But placed in a passage filled with the cacophonous sonic bleed of previous rooms’ work (Learned Helplessness‘ pummeling solitary drumming, the low squeal of Carousel), and accompanied by the shrill scraping of Nauman’s Violin Tuned D E A D (1969) an unmusical joke made darker by the rotation of the image so that the artist’s standing figure is stretched out horizontally like a corpse, the sculpture, completed the year after Coltrane’s death, becomes an eloquent memorial to his vanishing.
Nauman has a knack for eerie remembrances, even if some still await consummation. Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at Ten-Inch Intervals (1966) limn the topography of one side of the young artist’s thin body. Intervening years have already rendered it a record of an extinct physique, but after Nauman’s death it will specify the size of his physical absence. The following year’s From Hand to Mouth, a wax cast of the strip of skin connecting one to the other, will eventually perform a related function for the model, the artist’s first wife.
Death takes a balletic turn in the slow, wheeling Totentanz of Carousel (1988). Five aluminum casts of taxidermy forms dangle from a spindly metal armature reminiscent of an outdoor clothes dryer. Spun by a quietly clicking motor, all but one drag the fiberboard-covered floor. As the heels and rumps of the animals turn to powder, they draw rings on the fiberboard. At the opening, on a Wednesday, the deer had started to catch on an uneven patch of board, cutting a chord across the circle as it spun to the outside. I watched for minutes as the accident repeated itself, a small, wayward miracle of engineering. When I returned on Sunday, the deer had fallen into line and was obediently inscribing a circle, which had darkened considerably. A week later the coyotes were bucking and jerking as they stuck against the floor. The hollow deer form emitted a loud, thrumming shriek as friction struck up a resonance within it. By the time the show closes, the feathery lines on the floor will have smeared into broad, black bands.
A lot of the language whirling around later Nauman invokes the shaky dodge of “the human condition” (the artist himself resorts to it in Michael Blackwood’s film Four Artists, one segment of which is showing continuously downstairs), as if the things he hits you with are somehow about life in the abstract or maybe about someone else’s life, but at least never about your own. This is just the power of the recent work to bring out the coward in you. It has an uncanny ability to take depicted pain and force it inside you, to make you take it, to make you recognize it as something real. That it does so using the most contrived and stagy of means merely underscores the keenness of Nauman’s Occam’s-razor-sharp approach to making the conceptual physical.
Nothing illustrates this better than the 1986 video installation Violent Incident. Twelve monitors are stacked in a grid, four across, three down. The array gently bows outward in the center, opposing the curve of the wall behind it, and calling to mind the arcing shape of a gigantic apartment building. In each compartment, a couple plays out the same soap-opera skit of domestic violence, which escalates rapidly from a cruel, pratfalling prank to mutual stabbings.
The initial impulse is refusal—shrug it off with a nervous chuckle and move on. Keep looking and you open yourself to the terrible realization that this dystopia, pairs of lovers suspended in room-size boxes and striking the life out of each other, exists in reality and is at this moment scattered throughout the city. Remain and you’ll discover something even more unpleasant, something about yourself you’d rather not know, that in the face of prolonged suffering, empathy and horror yield to a sturdier taxonomic urge. You start classifying the gross then the subtle differences between the performances—first, the male-female role reversals, then the shifting camera perspectives and the costume changes, and eventually, the way a chair falls and the color of the tablecloth. Watch longer still and you aestheticize the violence. You discern the four symmetrically interlaced patterns of monitors by observing which display identical images and are thus linked to a common disk. The struggle becomes dancelike, repeating again and again, as you find yourself waiting for his head to hit her stomach or anticipating the moment, lovely in slow motion, when she’s flinging around in the air, about to land a slap. You learn to expect the inevitable, the woman prostrate on the floor, the man sitting with his legs in a V in front of him, clutching his stomach, both dying as the camera circles overhead.
Throughout Bruce Nauman’s oeuvre, it is made clear that no amount of data, collected through surveillance or observation or recording, and no analysis of it, via taxonomy or mapping or linguistic description, and no technological aids, not motors nor cameras nor transformers, and no application of new materials, not fiberglass, not foam, not neon is going to correct us. These things can be made to occupy the mind, but the body’s progress is limited and the soul makes none at all. Providing no alternative, Nauman dismantles the idiot faith of our scientistic age.