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Bruce Nauman - Biography and Legacy

American Performance and Video Artist

Born: December 6, 1941 - Fort Wayne, Indiana

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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