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Bruce Nauman, Complex Cowboy

Viewing his influential artwork is like walking through psychoanalysis: full of obsession, anxiety and wisdom.

Bruce Nauman, Human Need Human Desire, Museum of Modern Art, 1983.

Bruce Nauman, Human Need Human Desire, Museum of Modern Art, 1983.

Attempts to sum up the work of Bruce Nauman don’t work. Most artists of the late 20th century have “signature styles,” repeating formal devices that make their art instantly recognizable. The guy who does paintings of comic strips. The guy who puts cinder blocks on the floor. Nauman is the guy who makes you feel incredibly upset and existentially nervous, but he can accomplish that end with a neon sign, animal casts, a video of himself, a shadow puppet, a chair hanging from the ceiling, or a constructed triangular room lighted in a hideous shade of yellow. You can recognize a Nauman by the way it makes you want to go home. “They’re night thoughts, the things that keep you awake and panicked at 3 A.M. with the gritty clarity of the irresolvable,” says Robert Storr, a curator in the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, where a retrospective of Nauman’s work opens today (to remain on view through May 23). It is Nauman’s first American retrospective in 20 years, covering nearly 30 years’ worth of art.

In Nauman’s own words, his work is “like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat. Or better, like getting hit in the back of the neck. You never see it coming; it just knocks you down.” Looking at a Nauman retrospective is like walking through someone else’s psychoanalysis: it’s full of patterns and recurring wishes, anxieties and obsessions; it’s sometimes rather comical and often quite hostile; it keeps turning out to be about something other than what’s apparently being said. Like someone else’s psychoanalysis, Nauman’s work is often boring and repetitive. Some of it doesn’t make much sense and some of it is so highly personal as to exclude the viewer. It constantly circles its most unresolved issues. “When I was at art school,” he explains, “everyone else would make art and find the best parts and then try to cover up everything else so that was all you saw. I would always become fascinated by the part that didn’t appear to be working and I’d keep working on that part until it took over and became the whole piece of art.”

Nauman’s reach is enormous: “He may be the most influential American artist around,” Michael Kimmelman wrote in this newspaper last year. Matthew Barney, Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer, Mike Kelley, Robert Gober, Tony Oursler: none of these catch-names in contemporary art could have arrived without Nauman, but their reinterpretations do not diminish the original. “He was a powerful example for the rest of us, and introduced a possibility into consciousness that has entered the general domain,” says Smith. “His chairs hanging in triangles made me crazy — there was so much strange resonance in them, I couldn’t understand how they were made. His ‘corridor’ pieces, when I first saw them, stretched my vision of what constituted art.” While the minimalists and others of Nauman’s generation have tended to repeat themselves, he has pressed on relentlessly into his own future, his art never indulging itself in its own success.

I had seen Nauman’s work for years and had never wanted to meet him. I had thought he was probably sadistic and controlling and brilliant and unforgiving and cold. When I once asked someone what Bruce Nauman was like, he said, “Oh, he’s a cowboy,” and I took this as metaphor, imagining Nauman as gruff and outside civilized rules. But it wasn’t a metaphor. Bruce Nauman lives on a 600-acre ranch near Galisteo, N.M., and he raises and breaks horses and uses them to herd cattle. His manners are impeccable and he is gentle and serious and kind, a bit shy, very decent. When I had first telephoned, the textual part of his work was playing in my mind, so I half-expected him to say, “PEOPLE DIE OF EXPOSURE” or “I CAN SUCK YOU DRY” or “SPIT AND DIE/SPIT AND LIVE.” But in fact he gave me rather straightforward directions and suggested a restaurant in Santa Fe where we could have dinner. Nauman can explain his work quite lucidly, but he comes much more to life for cowboy talk, especially about Ray Hunt, the trainer who taught him to break horses. “Ray makes you let go of your ego,” Nauman says, explaining what it’s like to watch a real master. He claims that he is just an amateur, that a real master like Hunt does in five minutes what takes Nauman years of experimentation.

I had seen the Nauman retrospective a week earlier at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. Matisse once said he intended his paintings to give pleasure to tired businessmen, and Nauman’s work does just the opposite — it gives acute anxiety and discomfort to those relaxed art lovers who enter museums especially to see it. Even if you understand nothing else about Nauman, the sheer intensity of his work penetrates your defenses. He’s feeling something and he’s feeling it very strongly and you’d just better watch out. Nauman explains that he is not interested in the gradual, repetitive process of much modern art: “I try to go immediately to the last step. The variations get worked through in a single work.”

It is critically dubious but pragmatically convenient to group Nauman’s work by media. Some early casts are quite humorous: the wax mouth and a bit of neck and arm and hand called “From Hand to Mouth” and which literalizes the cliche, and the solid concrete block called “A Cast of the Space Under My Chair.” There are many videos: My favorite is “Art Make-Up,” in which Nauman slowly covers himself with white, then pink, then green, then black makeup, until by the end he looks like a negative image. The earliest neon is “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths,” from 1967 — half ironic, half authentic, made to go in the window of Nauman’s storefront studio in San Francisco, where a neon beer sign had previously hung. Later, Nauman would do the famous “One Hundred Live and Die” — “LIVE AND DIE/LIVE AND LIVE/DIE AND DIE/DIE AND LIVE” — the hundred sentences flashing on and off like a depraved marquee.

Other pieces are mostly aural. In one small empty white room, a paranoiac voice crescendos, “Get out of my mind, get out of this room, get out of my mind, get out of this room” (if you stand in the middle of the room, the voice seems to come from inside your head). Nauman once designed a series of underground tunnels that were never intended to be built, but for which he did make enormous gangly models. There is also a series of “corridor pieces.” In the one included in this retrospective, from 1970, you walk down a very narrow and oppressive hallway; video monitors show you what is going on in another piece of the installation, and you know that you are being observed by surveillance cameras, but it’s hard to figure out where people are seeing you or where the people are whom you’re seeing. The experience induces severe panic. Nauman’s mobiles are about torture: the hanging steel constructions, welded triangles with empty chairs hanging inside, were inspired by the politics of South America, and the pathos of the chair, the rigidity of the steel, how it isolates and imprisons — it’ll scare you to death. More recent mobilelike work includes “Carousel,” in which casts of taxidermists’ models hang like butchers’ carcasses from a revolving frame, scraping the ground.

Bruce Nauman, Clown Torture, 1987

The later video installations are alarmingly complicated. In “Clown Torture,” videotapes are projected on the walls and playing on monitors, some of which are sideways or upside down. There are five different tapes, among them a clown trying to defecate in a public lavatory, a clown endlessly repeating a cyclical joke and a clown shrieking, “No, no, no, no!” to an invisible torturer; all the clowns are at once terrified and terrifying. In “Learned Helplessness in Rats (Rock and Roll Drummer)” — the title comes from a Scientific American article — a yellow Plexiglas maze sits in the middle of the room; the video alternates between scenes of rats struggling through the maze and footage of a drummer playing loudly and furiously and badly. In the video “Shadow Puppets and Instructed Mime,” an androgynous-looking mime struggles to follow harsh and humiliating instructions from an invisible commander. In the more recent installations, video monitors sit on packing boxes, as though this maze of impossible technology had just been set up, on the spot.

The noise at the Nauman retrospective is horrendous. You have the buzzing of neon tubes; the spoken part of video pieces; grating voices saying: “I am a good boy. You are a good boy. We are good boys” or “Get out of this room”; the rock drummer, the horrible shrieking grating sound of the metal animals of the carousel dragging along the floor (it’s far worse than squeaking chalk on a blackboard). There’s a video piece in which Nauman plays tunelessly a violin tuned to the notes D, E, A and D. Lights are flashing on and off all over the place. It’s a fun house pushed way past fun. “I don’t like it here,” a little girl was wailing to her mother when I went through, and when she started crying, you hardly noticed an increase in the noisy disagreeable emotion in the room.

Bruce Nauman, Violin Tuned D.E.A.D., 1968 (extract)

If you haven’t encountered the work, it’s hard to extrapolate from what’s described here the extent of the queasiness it engenders. “Nauman’s dread seems to float, suspended, above any particular anxiety,” Adam Gopnik wrote in The New Yorker. Peter Schjeldahl, Nauman’s longest-term champion, has written in Art in America, “In this art there is abundant communication but no communion. . . . The question of ‘liking’ Nauman or not seems impertinent. Confronted with his work, the rational mind is extraordinarily clarified, and emotional responsiveness, stricken, falls in a hole.” At the Hirshhorn exhibition, I felt like I was being split open by the relentless, repetitive drive of a jackhammer. But the work is not entirely negative, either in its content or its impact. As Nauman points out: “I wouldn’t work if I were a pessimist. You don’t work if you don’t have hope.”


Nauman was born in Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1941, but his father’s work as an engineer for General Electric meant that the family moved regularly. Nauman went to the University of Wisconsin, where he began by studying science and mathematics. After he changed his major to art, he headed off to the University of California at Davis where he studied with Robert Arneson and William T. Wiley. Classmates from Davis recall that Nauman’s artistic intensity was striking even then; a young Nicholas Wilder, already an influential Los Angeles dealer, came by the school one hot day in 1966, took one look at Nauman’s work, and said, “I really need a Dr Pepper.” Between sips, he offered Nauman a show.

For a while, Nauman was in the funk circle of art — a world of ironic, playful West Coast artists. In 1968, he was taken on by the dealer Konrad Fischer, who elevated Nauman to the upper echelon of contemporary art (Fischer still represents Nauman in Europe). That same year, he began his long relationship to Leo Castelli, and in 1972 had a retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which traveled to, among other places, the Whitney in New York. Still, Nauman has always enjoyed greater popularity abroad than at home; in Europe, he is almost as well-known as Warhol, and Jan Hoet asked him to be the centerpiece of the last Documenta, an honor that he politely declined. (He also declined, also politely, to participate in this year’s Whitney Biennial, which opens next month.)

Nauman has never lived in New York. Since 1979, he has been in New Mexico, self-consciously distant from an art world whose complex social dynamics do not suit his severe view of himself. He has none of the performative, worldly, self-promoting charm of an Eric Fischl or Jeff Koons. Time alone in his studio is what he wants and gets. His work is sold to museums, or to such big collectors of conceptual work as Ydessa Hendeles, Susan and Lewis Manilow and Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo.

He manages to tell you a great deal without giving up his air of privacy (“Self-exposure does not make good art,” he remarks). His strongest influences are Man Ray, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Samuel Beckett. The structure of the work, he says, comes very directly from Wittgenstein: “I pursue an argument to the point where I give up on it.” In mathematics, he explains, “you lay out a proposition and then attempt to prove it. My work uses that structure, but from Wittgenstein I learned that it is also valuable to look at the process of examining something that doesn’t lead to a proof or even a real conclusion.” Much of his work looks Duchampian, but most of the Duchamp influence came through Jasper Johns; Nauman’s work has an unforgiving Americanness to it, a stripped-back, deliberate quality that owes as much to the puritan work ethic as to the game-playing of French Dada. “You have to mistrust your own skills,” Nauman says, “and avoid whatever is too easy.” Much has been made by critics of the visible casting marks on his animal sculptures and the indifferent picture quality of his videos (Nauman is an excellent draftsman and does beautiful, detailed drawings; it’s a shame that none of these are in the exhibition). “As soon as the idea or meaning is clear, you can stop,” he says. The rough finishes are economy, not slovenliness.


Bruce Nauman's studio. Photo: Bruce Nauman.

Bruce Nauman’s studio. Photo: Bruce Nauman.

Nauman’s studio, an enormous shed that lies between the house and the animal pens, is very, very cluttered. There are old pieces of furniture, chunks of steel, some casts of animals, a lot of books, a cup half-full of tea, some scraps of paper with sketches on them. There’s a typescript tacked to the wall, which Nauman says is for his next installation. The title is “World Peace.” It begins: “I’ll talk to you/You’ll listen to me/ You’ll talk to me/I’ll listen to you/ I’ll talk to them/They’ll listen to me,” and goes on through countless variations. “It sounds so convivial,” I say, and Nauman explains that he will have two actors working on it. If each actor reads two lines, then it’s a friendly dialogue. If each actor reads one line, then it’s a hostile confrontation. Nauman hasn’t decided yet quite how he’ll do it; he’s got the actors coming tomorrow. “World Peace” may end up being an ironic title, or it may end up being entirely in earnest. Or — more likely — both.

Nauman is now married to the figurative painter Susan Rothenberg, whom he met at a dinner party in New York in 1988. After two years of commuting, she gave up the New York scene, which she had never particularly relished, and moved out to Nauman’s ranch. Nauman does everything but paint, and she does virtually nothing but paint, so they suit each other perfectly. If you’re interviewing him, she keeps her distance from the professional conversation, although she occasionally wanders in to say something smart and funny or to show you the arrowheads she found when she was out walking the dogs. They seem very much in love with each other in a quiet way. There is nothing self-conscious in their house; the only art on the walls was made by a neighbor friend, and shows the local landscape with an endearing lack of formal skill. There are a lot of dogs and a cat in addition to the horses and cows and the two Tibetan yaks Rothenberg bought last year; the delineation between outside and inside is vague.

Rothenberg and Nauman make dinner together and it is really good, and when I mention the long drive back to my hotel, Rothenberg tells me just to stay over, and I do. I am in the late stages of a particularly disgusting flu, and they are very nice about it. Lots of tea, lots and lots of alcohol, lots of warm blankets on the bed. If you have questions, they get answered. If you don’t have questions, silence is no problem. We can talk about Wittgenstein or about the pueblo village that used to be on the ranch site or about what we’re eating — it’s all fine.

Late at night, drinks in our hands, we watch videotapes of Ray Hunt, the master, breaking horses. Rothenberg goes to bed, but Nauman and I watch on, exchanging occasional comments, and then he turns off the sound and narrates. “See how he’s doing that?” Nauman asks. “He’s going back to that rough spot. In order for that mare to get better, she has to get more confused and afraid first. Watch, you’ll see, she’s getting used to him. See how he’s approaching her now? He couldn’t have done that a minute ago. There she goes. He’s letting her figure it out. She’s O.K. now.” Later he explains, “If you have a horse who’s afraid of having someone come up to her near flank, you can’t just avoid it. You can’t have her buck when you’re out and something comes up to her near flank. That’s what breaking horses is. You don’t beat them up, but you can’t be too soft. You establish that you’re in control and then you’re gentle and firm and you keep going back to that near flank over and over again until she gets used to it and she’s not afraid any more. When you ask for something from a horse, you have to do it in a way so that she understands you. That’s how you break a horse.”

There’s a master at MOMA this month — maybe not yet Ray Hunt, but close. He figures out which are his viewers’ vulnerable spots, where they are frightened or anxious. And then he goes and he vexes those spots. It seems sadistic, how he won’t leave them alone, how he won’t give up on whatever it is that people want to shy away from. He’s not exactly brutal because he’s not that direct, but he does keep poking you where you’re weakest. At the beginning, he’s gentle, but if that doesn’t work, he can be rougher. Then he’ll be gentle again for a minute. It’s all instinct. “Understanding takes the power away from terrible things,” says Nauman. An early print reads, “PLEASE/PAY/ATTENTION/ PLEASE.” Nauman is always paying attention and he demands that his audience pay attention all the time as well. You can’t get away with anything here.

My last morning in Galisteo, the weather is postcard-perfect. Nauman saddles up a couple of horses and we head across the ranch. I am on Janie, Rothenberg’s favorite, whom Nauman broke a few years ago. The horses have hackamores hung loosely around their heads so there are no real reins to pull on, and my leg pressure is slight, but Janie somehow knows exactly what I want and she does it. By one set of standards it is abject; by another it is a divine sympathy or empathy. That verb, after all, is “break.” Nauman’s work is unpleasant and mortifying and upsetting, but when you give in to it and let him be the one in charge, then you’ll be able to do things in the world that you couldn’t do before. You’ll be more useful, worth more, maybe better off, once he’s broken you.