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Bruce Nauman

American Performance and Video Artist

Born: December 6, 1941 - Fort Wayne, Indiana
"If I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art"
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"What I am really concerned about is what art is supposed to be - and can become."
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"I'm surprised when the work appears beautiful, and very pleased. And I think work can be very good and very successful without being able to call it beautiful, although I'm not clear about that. The work is good when it has a certain completeness, and when it's got a certain completeness, then it's beautiful."
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"Sunsets, flowers, landscapes: these kinds of things don't move me to do anything. I just want to leave them alone. My work comes out of being frustrated about the human condition. And about how people refuse to understand other people. And about how people can be cruel to each other. It's not that I think I can change that, but it's just such a frustrating part of human history."
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"And then what makes the work interesting is if you choose the right questions."
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"I think the point where language starts to break down as a useful tool for communication is the same edge where poetry or art occurs. Roland Barthes has written about the pleasure that is derived from reading when what is known rubs up against what is unknown, or when correct grammar rubs up against nongrammar... If you only deal with what is known, you'll have redundancy: on the other hand, if you only deal with the unknown, you cannot communicate at all. There is always some combination of the two, and it is how they touch each other than makes communication interesting."
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"Generalized anger and frustration is something that gets you in the studio, and gets you to work - though it's not necessarily evident in anything that's finished."
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"I don't like to think about being an influence. It's embarrassing."
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Summary of Bruce Nauman

Bruce Nauman was one of the most prominent, influential, and versatile American artists to emerge in the 1960s. Although his work is not easily defined by its materials, styles, or themes, sculpture is central to it, and it is characteristic of Post-Minimalism in the way it blends ideas from Conceptualism, Minimalism, performance art, and video art. The revival of interest in Marcel Duchamp in the 1960s also clearly influenced Nauman in various ways, from encouraging his love of wordplay to infusing his work with a satirical and sometimes absurdist tone. Despite the impact of Dada, however, he has continued to view his art less as a playful or creative enterprise than as a serious research endeavor, one he likes to carry out in seclusion from the art world, one that is shaped by his interests in ethics and politics.


  • Some of Nauman's earliest work was shaped by ideas that arose in the wake of Minimalism in the late 1960s. In particular, the way he treated the body - often his own, shown on video completing repetitive tasks - and the way he related the body to surrounding objects show the impact of Minimalism's new ideas about the relationship between the viewer and the sculptural object. His occasional interest in abstraction and sculptural concerns such as gravity also betray the style's influence. But Nauman, shunned the slick production values of Minimalism and has often showed a preference for a cruder manner of presentation.
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein's ideas about language have been an important influence on his work, shaping his interest in the way words succeed or fail in referring to objects in the world. The philosopher's outlook has also no doubt influenced the tone of some of Nauman's work, which sometimes has comic, absurdist touches, employing jokes and word play, and yet also touches on obsessive behavior and frustration.
  • Much of Nauman's work reflects the disappearance of the old modernist belief in the ability of the artist to express his ideas clearly and powerfully. Art, for him, is a haphazard system of codes and signs, just like any other form of communication. Aside from informing his use of words, it has also encouraged him to use readymade objects - objects that, unlike paintings or traditional sculptures, already carry meanings and associations from their use in the world - and to make casts of objects ranging from the space underneath chairs to human body parts.

Important Art by Bruce Nauman

Progression of Art

The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign)

Created in the studio Nauman established in an abandoned grocery store in San Francisco and modeled after the neon advertisement signs nearby, this seminal work acts as an advertisement of a different kind. Its colorful, circular text proclaims the words of the title: "The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths." It is characteristic of Nauman's early neon works, and typical of the tone of dry satire in much of his work. Speaking of high art in the materials of low culture and advertising, it sets up a clash that prompts us to question old assumptions about the purpose of art and artists. Might artists be ordinary salesmen, just like so many others?

Neon tubing with clear glass tubing suspension supports - The Philadelphia Museum of Art


South American Triangle

In this first of several "suspended chair" political sculptures, the chair that is commonly complicit in torture (i.e. an electric chair or interrogation chair) becomes the disoriented torture victim. As Nauman has said, "I thought of using a chair that would somehow become the figure: torturing a chair and hanging it up or strapping it down." Like similar hanging sculptures of Nauman's, it was intended to mount a critique of totalitarian regimes that then held power in South America and South Africa. It also refers to the space outside of the studio, as well as the fundamental structure of life: an atom with electrons encircling it, or the nucleus and membrane of cell, composed of raw and unforgiving materials.

Steel and iron - Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC


One Hundred Live and Die

Consisting of four columns containing 100 words relating life and death with different actions, emotions, and colors, this simultaneously poetic and vulgar barrage of lights and hues epitomizes the human experience. According to a complex algorithm, one phrase after another flashes on and off individually, followed by each column lit up, and culminating in the illumination of the entire piece, creating a visual symphony that characterizes Nauman's love of word play combined with social commentary, as well as his interest in color relationships.

Neon tubing mounted on four metal monoliths - Fukake Publishing Co., Ltd., Naoshima Contemporary Art Museum, Kagawa, Japan


Clown Torture

Video was absent from Nauman's work from 1973 until 1985, and this was one of the most significant pieces he made upon his return to the medium. Installed in an enclosed room, it consists of videotapes projected directly onto the two sidewalls and two pairs of stacked monitors on pedestals. Five sequences - Clown Taking a Shit; Pete and Repeat; No, No, No, No; Clown with Goldfish Bowl; and Clown with Water Bucket - play over each other repeatedly. This visual and auditory attack on the viewer is both disarming and nearly unbearable, and features some of Nauman's primary themes: surveillance, physical stress, interrogation, repetition, and word games. Nauman takes clowning to an entirely different level, highlighting the hidden horror in children's play.

Installation: two 20-in. color monitors, two 25-in color monitors, four speakers, two video projectors, four videotapes (color, sound) - Lannan Foundation, Los Angeles


Untitled (Two Wolves, Two Deer)

In 1988, after a hiatus of nearly twenty years, Nauman returned to casting found objects. He created a number of polyurethane foam animal models using taxidermy molds found in a New Mexico shop and used these as the basis for a series of works that resurrected an earlier theme - political violence and interrogation - and an earlier formal motif - the carousel of suspended sculptures. Untitled (Two Wolves, Two Deer) is one of the works that followed this initial series. Here he dismembers the models and rearranges their anatomy into monstrous form, creating a scene reminiscent of a slaughterhouse. In a related series, he used the models to create strange pyramids of animals, like sacrificial offerings.

Foam, wax, wire - Private Collection, New York


Rinde Head/Andrew Head (Plug to Nose) on Wax Base

Hollow wax head casts from two of Nauman's three models - Andrew, Rinde and Julie - meet here as a continuation of the artist's examination of the head and face in multiple media and the relationship between identity and facial expression, frozen in wax. The "plug" refers to the nose plug worn by live models to enable breathing while a cast is made. The strange posture of the models seems to reflect Nauman's interest in the difficulty of communication, alluding, perhaps, to old-fashioned expressions which rely on reference to the body, like "from hand to mouth."

Wax - Froehlich Collection, Stuttgart, Germany


Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage)

Some of Nauman's earliest work focused on him performing mundane, repetitive tasks in his studio. This recent piece marks a kind of return to the studio - though this time the artist is absent. He set up a series of infrared cameras to capture the activity at night as his cat walks about, mice scurry away, and moths buzz through the air. Then he edited the material down to six hours per projector. Nauman has always been skeptical of the notion of the artist as a creative genius, and this piece exposes the truth once again, depicting the studio not as a special place brought to life by the artist, but rather as a humdrum environment in which much occurs that passes by unnoticed by the artist. It is rather as if we were peering into the dark recesses of Nauman's creative mind and discovering that creativity is a torturously slow process in which there is as much waiting as working.

Multi-screen video projection - Lannan Foundation, New Mexico

Biography of Bruce Nauman


Bruce Nauman was born on December 6, 1941, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His father, an engineer and a salesman, moved the family several times to different midwestern locations, resulting in a somewhat turbulent and lonely childhood for Nauman. A shy and small youth, Nauman enjoyed reading, and studied piano, guitar, and upright bass. Although he was not encouraged by his parents to continue his musical pursuits, he played in a polka band during his high school years in Wauwatosa, a suburb of Milwaukee, and continued to play in bands in college, first a dance band and then in jazz groups, which he found more interesting. He received no training and very little exposure to visual art during his childhood and did not develop a true passion for creating art until college.

Early Training

Nauman began his secondary education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he first concentrated on math and physics, but after his sophomore year he informed his parents that he would become an artist and graduated in 1964 with a bachelor's degree in science with a minor in painting.

He married his first wife, Judy, in 1964. They had a son, Erik, in 1966 and a daughter, Zoe, in 1970. In 1966, he graduated with an MFA from the University of California, Davis. Among his instructors at Davis were William T. Wiley, Robert Arneson, and Manuel Neri. All three worked in sculpture and outside the norms of the time, which undoubtedly had a profound influence on Nauman's desire for non-conformity. The newly established program's relaxed and somewhat unstructured approach to instruction worked quite well for Nauman, who felt encouraged to critique more formal styles and methods.

Upon his graduation, he moved to a studio in San Francisco and taught a weekly early morning class at the Art Institute, seldom encountering his colleagues and peers. This solitary lifestyle contributed to the development of a method of working in seclusion that would persist for several years. In his very early career at Davis, Nauman made experimental paintings and "plastic things," mainly working in oil and producing abstract and landscape works. He also experimented with welding steel forms and affixing them onto canvas, painting three-dimensional landscape shapes. While at Davis, he decided to give up painting, claiming that the materials "got in the way." He produced his last canvas, Untitled (1964-65), in 1965. This break with painting spurred an exploration of media, and in subsequent years, Nauman became prolific in film, performance and sculpture. He first produced fiberglass sculptures in 1965, using casting to focus on the process of art-making itself, and entering the Process art movement by disregarding the art object itself in favor of its creation. By the fall of 1966, art making for Nauman had become not a method by which to make a finished product, but an activity that was art in itself.

Mature Period

During late 1960s and early 1970s, Nauman's work and career developed quickly. He had his first solo show in 1968 at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, and was also included in many prominent group shows of the time, such as Eccentric Abstraction (1966) in New York, Documenta 4 (1968) in Kassel, Germany, and Anti-illusion: Procedures/Materials (1969) at The Whitney in New York. Although rejected by many American critics for the anti-formal nature of his work, European curators, already primed for critique of formalism by artists like Joseph Beuys and the Italian Arte Povera group, embraced Nauman's work, particularly his alternative media. Nauman's work was shown in forums such as the Kunsthalle Bern and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. This surge of interest culminated in 1972 when gallerists Jane Livingston and Marcia Tucker organized a widely touring, extensive survey of Nauman's work for the Los Angeles County and Whitney museums. The deeply private Nauman reacted poorly to the overflow of attention, and in the mid-1970s, severely reduced his artistic output. He began to employ more text in his works, channeling his anger and frustration into phrases such as "Please/Pay Attention/Please" and "Placate My Art" that were featured in the compositions. While attempting to incorporate text into his sculptures of the period, he was challenged to find a cohesive way of incorporating his voice into his commanding structures, and although he created numerous neon light works and installations, his sculpture evolved in a more conceptual direction, withholding information and requiring a complex response from the viewer by creating "uncomfortable spaces and shapes." By the early 1980s, Nauman replaced text-driven installations and model pieces with important, aggressive neon light works and sculptures, evolving his use of language correspondingly. Although never considered a Neo-Expressionist, during the movement, American and European collectors alike coveted Nauman's work, and he enjoyed six solo shows between 1982 and 1984.

Late Period

From the 1980s onward, Nauman has employed a wide variety of media, incorporating language and political commentary for which he is well-known. Continuing to experiment with bizarre forms and unusual materials, his art has stayed original and captivating throughout his long career. Some of his most recent works, the 2009 sound installation pieces, Days and Giorni, were featured at the Venice Biennale of that same year, representing the United States and winning the Golden Lion award. In 1989, he married painter Susan Rothenberg, and the two constructed separate studios and a home near Galisteo, New Mexico, where they currently reside. The two have managed to remain almost completely uninfluenced by one another, owing to their very different styles and themes.

The Legacy of Bruce Nauman

Nauman remains one of the most influential contemporary American artists. His innovative and provocative ideas are expressed in a wide range of media and materials, which makes it difficult to categorize his work as inhabiting a single style. Even throughout his sixties, he has continued to work primarily in sculpture and video, exploring language and the physical body with unusual themes based on animal and human body parts. He has influenced countless young artists, including the Young British Artists movement, by embracing social and political commentary and helping to loosen the hold of Minimal art. Among his honors are an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1989, the Max Beckmann Prize in 1990, the Wolf Prize in Arts-Sculpture in 1993, the Wexner Prize in 1994, and the Golden Lion for Best Artist at the Venice Biennale in 2009.

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Content compiled and written by Anne Marie Butler

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Bruce Nauman Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Anne Marie Butler
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 01 Aug 2012. Updated and modified regularly
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