Thursday, December 6, 2007
After studying mathematics and physics as an undergraduate, Bruce Nauman discovered that he wanted to become an artist. “I didn't become a mathematician, but I think there was a certain thinking process which was very similar and which carried over into art, “ Nauman later said. “This investigative activity is necessary.” Born December 6, 1941, Nauman has always created an investigative type of art, an experimental brand that values ideas over the medium used. Using simple neon lighting, Nauman created The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (above, from 1967), hoping to light the way as a modern Diogenes to find the mystic truths our society has lost along the way.
If Arthur C. Danto is correct in believing that art has replaced philosophy as the deliverer of meaning to society, than Nauman has been delivering meaning for almost 40 years now. His Self-Portrait as a Fountain (above, from 1966) jokingly refers to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, one of the landmarks of early modern art, while also poking fun at the seriousness of the modern self-portrait. Duchamp’s Fountain ushered in the era of the reconceptualizing of things as art, in that case a urinal reimagined as a work of fine art. In his Self-Portrait, Nauman sees the body itself as a work of art, yet punctures the high seriousness of the issues of identity causing so much angst in the twentieth century. “If I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art,” Nauman said of his artistic process. “At this point art became more of an activity and less of a product.” Just breathing was an artistic process for Nauman, raising all of life to the level of art simply by extension.
Nauman’s art took a more somber tone in the 1980s when he began to cast figures of animals from taxidermists’ molds. He then would hang those animal figures in groups, such as Four Part Large Animals (above, from 1989), sometimes allowing them to move like a macabre mobile of death. As absurd as these “animals” appear suspended in mid-air, they powerfully convey a sense of menace in their resemblance to the real bodies found in the slaughterhouse. The hopefulness of his neon works and playfulness of the fountain photograph disappear in these animal mobiles. Many of Nauman’s video works, especially his Violent Incident, involve actual physical violence, perhaps reflecting the increased violence in the world after 1980. Looking at the arc of Nauman’s career, it’s hard not to feel a little nostalgic for the innocence and hopefulness of the late 1960s, when mystic truths still seemed within reach.