The New Yorker, pp. 68-75.
1 June 2009
Western Disturbances: Bruce Naumans singular influence
Bruce Nauman and Susan Rothenberg have lived for the past twenty years on seven hundred acres of open, windswept land near Galisteo, New Mexico, south of Sante Fe. Rothenberg, a painter whose imagery hovers between abstraction and figuration, is sixty-four, high-spirited, talkative, small, easy to like. Nauman, who is four years older, and well over six feet in his made-to-order cowboy boots, has the watchful reticence and the physical bearing of an old-time Western movie star. His primary medium is sculpture, but he has used such a wide range of materials and media-including film, video, drawings, prints, performance, sound, and neon light that his work has no signature style. Art lovers looking for beauty or visual pleasure are advised to look elsewhere; they find much of Naumans work boring or irritating, and sometimes highly offensive. PAY ATTENTION MOTHERFUCKERS, he suggests, in a 1973 lithograph that spells out this message in large mirror-image capitals. To see it is to comply.
Naumans and Rothenbergs studios are in separate buildings behind the functional one-story house they designed for themselves. A hand-lettered sign just inside the door to Rothenbergs reads HI HONEY YOURE HOME! In Naumans, which is about sixty feet long by thirty feet wide, mounds of leftover detritus from completed art works take up most of the floor space, along with heavy-duty tools, empty cartons, extension cords, and a small enclave harboring two battered armchairs and a table piled with assorted books: two Ross Thomas paperbacks, Gabriel García Marquezs Memories of My Melancholy Whores, Ezra Pounds Cantos, Xenophons The Art of Horsemanship.
The couple live alone in Galisteo. Nauman has no studio assistant. His studio manager and archivist, Juliet Myers, whose hot-pink-and-orange hair style is a Sante Fe landmark, Drives out every Wednesday. I have the job mainly because I can say No, thank you in about a thousand different ways, she jokes. Bruce appreciates that I can keep the world at bay. The Naumans go into Sante Fe now and then, but they steer clear of the thriving art colony there. Non-art activities occupy a lot of their time. They both like to cook. Rothenberg feeds the chickens (they have six), and takes their three mixed breed dogs on long hikes. She combs the dry hills behind the house for potsherds, arrowheads, and other artifacts of the ruined Galisteo pueblo, where a Tewa-speaking people flourished from the late twelve-hundreds to about 1690, on what is now the Naumans land. Her finds fill many drawers and shelves in the house, and she has assembled a dozed or more complete pots. Nauman gets up at seven each morning to feed his fourteen horses, which he breeds, raises, trains, and sells. They are quarter horses, working horses, he explains. Some turn out to be pleasure horses, but theyre bred to work cattle. His partner, Bill Riggins, runs a horse-and-cattle ranch that they own jointly in Santa Rosa, sixty miles to the southwest. It provides income, as well as steaks.
When I visited Naumans studio in March, two rows of square white ultrathin loudspeakers, clipped to floor-to-ceiling cables, ran the length of the room. This was his Days/ Giorni project, a new sound work that will début on June 7th at the Venice Biennale. He fiddled with an audio keyboard on a table, and played a bit of the Italian version. Four male and three female voices intoned the days of the week- domenica, lunedí, martedí- skipping or adding days in varying sequences. (An English-language version will be installed at another location in Venice.)
Walking slowly between two rows of speakers, arranged so that each voice comes from a pair on the opposite sides of the room, was like moving through discrete ribbons of sound. The effect was hypnotic. What might have been merely monotonous seemed rich and full of nuance-the human voice making unintentional music as it evokes the passage of time. More than thirty other works by Nauman, from all phases of his career, will be on view in Venice. Vices and Virtues (1938-88), seven of each, intertwined in flashing neon letters seven feet high, will encircle the cornice of the United States pavilion on the Biennale grounds. Inside, and in two venerable buildings on the other side of the Grand Canal, Naumans videos and animated neon sculptures will share space with flayed animal sculptures, hanging male and female heads, and other works, including, in a window, his mockingly cryptic 1967 sign: The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths. The survey, which was organized by Carlos Basualdo and Michael Taylor, of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a long delayed public affirmation of Naumans status as the most influential living artist.
To many people, Naumans influence is hard to fathom. Ever since his first show, in 1966, at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles, his prickly, uningratiating work has disturbed viewers, infuriated more than a few critics, and fascinated artists. His early films, which were influenced by the single-image films of Andy Warhol, carried an emotional charge that seemed mysteriously unearned, and so did his blobby, awkward looking sculptures in latex and fiberglass. As he went on in years later to explore new materials and stranger means, the impact deepened. 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, Andrew Solomon wrote in the Times Magazine, in 1995. He could also have named Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread, and most of the other Young British Artists. By bringing social and political content back into art (without cynicism), and by probing relentlessly into the darker aspects of American life, Nauman helped to break the grip of Minimal art. He forces you to experience his art viscerally, not just look at it. Is there anybody like him? Maurizio Cattelan, a conceptual master of startling images (such as his sculptural installation of the Pope struck down by a meteorite), asked me recently. When I said no, he muttered, Damn.
After an hour in the studio, we walked over to the main house, through a raffish garden whose main feature is a Nauman fountain made out of three bronze foxes stacked in a pyramid. It was late afternoon. Nauman poured himself a small glass of bourbon, neat, and sat down at a zinc-topped dining table. He wore work clothes-jeans, boots, and a frayed gray shirt. His large head reminded me of a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington, with its prominent nose and high tapering forehead. Talking about his work or his life doesnt come easily to him, but the bourbon helps. Nauman speaks slowly, with frequent pauses to work out what hes going to say. We talked about the two years hed spent in art school at the University of Californias newly established graduate program at its Davis branch, near Sacramento. He had arrived in 1964, when the barriers between painting, sculpture, photography, film, dance, theatre, and music were eroding so fast that more and more artists felt free to use any and all of them, in any combination, for whatever purposed they had in mind. Coming from his undergraduate art studies at the University of Wisconsin, where the faculty had no patience with Abstract Expressionism or any later trends, was like stepping out of the Middle Ages, Nauman said.
In Wisconsin he concentrated on painting, working his way (against faculty disapproval) to abstract landscapes in the style of Willem de Kooning. He quit painting soon after he got to Davis, and never went back to it. I had to find some other way, he said. He tried performing-using his body as an impersonal object-but he wasnt comfortable with that, so he started filming his performances instead. Id buy out-of-date film stock, which was cheap. Ive always liked to use whats cheap and possible. I even tried writing poetry. Much later, some of that gets into the work. The abstract sculptures he was doing at Davis had a raw, unfinished look-like fragments of something else. Robert Morris, Richard Serra, Eva Hesse, and a few other New York artists were using non-art materials and processes similar to Naumans; he saw reproductions of their sculptures in art magazines, along with works he admired by Jasper Johns and Richard Tuttle. None of his classmates were moving in this direction, though, and some of them thought Nauman was aesthetically challenged. Others were in awe of him. His most important teachers, the painters William Wiley and Wayne Thiebaud and the ceramic artist Robert Arneson, encouraged his experiments. I was impressed with his openness, Wiley told me. We shared an interest in what art could do, where it could go.
Unlike most art students, Nauman was married. His wife, Judy Govan, was a girl he had known slightly in the sixth grade in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. They went to the same high school-Judy was pretty and popular, Bruce was shy and serious-and started dating at the University of Wisconsin. Immediately after graduation they got married, mainly because, as Nauman explained, their parents would have been very, very upset if we had gone to California together without doing so.
Naumans parents, Calvin and Genevieve, were solid, middle-class Midwesterners-Bruce was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana-with strong moral ethical codes of behavior, which they imparted to Bruce and his two younger brothers, Craig and Larry. Their dependable but somewhat remote father was an engineer and a salesman for General Electric. His company kept moving him to different cities when the boys were growing up, so they went to several different schools. Bruce did well in all of them. Something of a loner, he was mainly interested in math and music-he took piano lessons as a child, switched to classical guitar, then to string bass. At the University of Wisconsin, he planned to major in physics, but, realizing that he lacked the passion for math that best students seemed to have, he decided (and its something I never quite understood-what made me think I could do that?) that he was going to be an artist.
Reports of the strange-looking sculptures and films he was making at Davis got around. Nicholas Wilder, a younger Los Angeles art dealer with an eye for new talent, saw one of Naumans fiberglass pieces and couldnt get it out of his head. Wilder visited Naumans studio at Davis soon afterward, and eventually offered him a one-man show in the spring of 1966-something that now happens to young artists regularly but was almost unheard of then. Nothing sold, but a couple of pieces appeared later in a group show called Eccentric Abstraction, at the Fischbach Gallery in New York. When he cleared out his Davis studio that spring, some fellow-students went through the Dumpster hed used and pulled out the relatively intact pieces, which they held on to until he became famous.
Bruce and Judy moved to San Francisco, where they rented a former grocery store in the Mission District. Their living quarters were in the back; the storefront became Naumans studio. He taught two days a week at the Art Institute of San Francisco, which provided health insurance. That helped, because their first child, Erik, had been born in August. His studio process, then and now, was to read and think until an idea took hold of him. He reread Wittgensteins Philosophical Investigations and John Cages writings on chance and contingency, and he devoured Samuel Becketts novels and plays. I was trying to understand what art is and what artists do, he told me, and a lot of that, for me, seemed to involve watching and waiting to see what would happen. When Im desperate enough just to do anything, even if it seems completely stupid, its such a relief. In those days, he hoped that sooner or later hed figure out how to make art without such a struggle, but it never happened. My dad once once said, You dont have to reinvent the wheel ever day, but I think you do, he told me. Maybe not every day, but pretty often.
The process, in any event, produced a torrent of work, some of it pretty silly. Nauman constructed and photographed a series of three-dimensional puns or wordplays: Drill Team consisted of five drill bits in graduated sizes, embedded in a block of wood; Eating My Words was Nauman poised over a plate containing pieces of bread shaped into letters of the alphabet. Others were more enigmatic, such as his wax cast of Judys hand, arm, shoulder, neck, jaw, and mouth, which he called From Hand to Mouth. He made a convex lead plaque with the inscription A Rose Has No Teeth (the phrase comes from Wittgenstein); it was to be affixed to the trunk of a tree, so that after a few years the tree would grow over it, and it would be gone. Judy, who knew better than to ask him about his work, assumed that a lot of it was Bruce being playful. There was a lighthearted side to his personality, she said recently. I thought he didnt take himself seriously, but I found out later that he did-very seriously.
Nauman devised two windows signs with messages that stretched irony to a higher level. One read The True Artist Is an Amazing Luminous Fountain; the other was The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths. Both were inspired by a neon sign for beer that had been left in the big plate-glass window of his studio when the New California Grocery moved out. The first, inscribed in large capitals on a sheet of transparent Mylar, echoed Naumans slightly earlier Self-Portrait as a Fountain, a photograph of himself, bare-chested, directing an arched spout of water through pursed lips. The photograph was a clear enough spoof of classical themes and garden ornaments. But amazing and luminous? He was kidding-wasnt he? A similar uncertainty surrounds Mystic Truths, which Nauman did soon after visiting a Man Ray show at the Pasadena Museum. It is a five-foot-high wall or window piece that he designed and had executed in pink and blue neon tubing, in the spiral form of the beer sign in his window. Nauman said he was interested then in making art that didnt look like art, something that looked, in fact, like a commercial display. As he told Brenda Richardson, the curator at the Baltimore Museum, In that case, you wouldnt really notice until you paid attention. Then, when you read it, you would have to think about it. The piece, he told me, was like a little test, to see if I believed it or not. And did he believe it? I asked. Probably not, he said, smiling. But then why not? He got up and poured another two fingers of bourbon.
Leo Castelli, the New York dealer who represented Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and several stars of the Pop generation, heard about Nauman from Richard Bellamy and other art-world insiders. In January, 1968, he gave him a solo show. There almost no reviews-Robert Pinus-Witten, in Artforum, described the work as adolescent and contemptible-and few sales at the time (though everything sold eventually), but none of that mattered. Joining Castellis star-studded roster put Nauman, at the age of twenty-six, into the front ranks of the contemporary art.
Nauman and his wife and son were spending that winter on the East Coast. The painter Paul Waldman, whom Nauman had met in San Francisco, had offered to let them use a house in Southhampton that he owned jointly with Roy Lichtenstein, with strict instructions not to make any marks on the wall of the studio they had built in the back. Thats when I go a video camera, Nauman said. Leo bought one of the first handheld video cameras for the gallery, and let me use it, and then Richard Serra had it. He used the camera to record himself performing banal and repetitive activities in the studio, such as walking a square pattern in an exaggerated manner. Conceptual artists who made installation works on site, or gave instructions for others to make them, were opening an era of post-studio art, but for Nauman the studio was the place where he got ideas and carried them out. One of his first audio works, done in 1968, consists of a small empty room with concealed speakers, through which his voice can be heard repeating, in tones of range from a plea to a snarl, Get out of my mind, get out of this room. A crucial shift was taking place in Naumans work, from a focus on himself and his own body to a more direct engagement with the viewer. In a 1969 group exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York, soon after his return from his first trip to Europe, he showed Performance Corridor, a narrow wood-and-wallboard construction that played perceptual tricks on people who ventured into it. He had made the corridor for a video piece in the Southampton studio, which showed him squeezing into it, and then realized that others could have the experience for themselves-but on his terms, not theirs. I wanted them to do it my way, he explained. Nauman admired the revolutionary dance theatre of John Cage and Merce Cunningham, who used chance operations in composing sounds and movement, but he wasnt ready to do that in his own work. When asked by Johns to design a set for Cunninghams Thread, though, he came up with an eminently Cagean solution: a row of industrial-size electric fans at stage front, blowing out toward the audience.
The New York sojourn had been highly rewarding, but Nauman had no inclination to stay there, or to become enmeshed in the intensely competitive New York art world. I really needed to get away from that, he said. The city had whetted his ambition, however, and he didnt want to go back to San Francisco. The San Francisco artists tended to be anti-intellectual and uptight, he said. A lot of energy went into hating New York and Los Angeles.
The Naumans went to Los Angeles, where they settled in Pasadena, in a large, rambling, shingle-style house that belonged to Walter Hopps, a curator who had a habit of getting fired from one museum to another. Hopps didnt live in the house, and he liked to let artists stay there. (The Naumans paid seventy-five dollars a month.) An artist named Richard Jackson and his girlfriend, Christine Langras, were living in another part of it when the Naumans arrived, and the four of them became friends. Although Nauman kept his distance from the L.A. art scene, he took on some protective coloration during the nine years he lived there. He wore cowboy shirts and Stetsons from the Nudies Rodeo Tailor. Ileana Sonnabend, his Paris dealer and Castellis ex-wife, owed him a substantial sum for European sales, so he got her to buy him a classic Ferrari. His work was selling up to ten thousand dollars, and he supplemented his income with teaching jobs. I paid attention to how the art market worked, he said. I wasnt blindly bumping along. If you were a New York artist, you got more attention. Being in L.A., I needed to be a little tougher, a little meaner. During this period, Judy Nauman began to question her role in the marriage. With feminism gaining ground, she was less content to settle for being a housewife and mother and to accept her emotional distance that her husband seemed to require. My feelings are in my work, he told her. The birth of their second child, Zoë, in 1970, brought additional strains. Bruce was a supportive husband and an attentive father, she said, but he was an artist first.
Nauman continued to produce a lot of new work-more corridor pieces, videos, flashing neon signs that conflated punning word plays: Raw War, Eat/Death, Run from Fear, Fear from Rear. His new work found fewer buyers in the U.S. than in Europe, where Naumans anti-formal objects had precedents in the work of Joseph Beuys and the Italian Arte Povera movement; at home, their rude intensity made people uncomfortable. Artists, though, took note of everything he did, and so did several museum curators.
In 1972, at the age of thirty-one, he had a major retrospective. It opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, travelled to the Whitney, and went on to tour at four European museums. The show was almost certainly premature. Hilton Kramer dismissed it in the Times as pretty cold stuff, and pretty boring in its slavish adherence to Duchampian territory. In fact, Nauman had never thought that much about Duchamp. While he agrees that Duchamps influence was impossible to ignore, he says it got to him secondhand, filtered through the Duchamp-inlfuenced work of Man Ray, John Cage, and Jasper Johns.
The 1972 retrospective lasted into 1974 and stopped Nauman in his tracks-a fairly common experience for artists, who often find it hard to move forward after such an effort of looking back. He couldnt work for several months. It had never happened to me before, he said, so I was trying to figure out if I had to find a different career. I was having such terrible stomach pains that I went to the emergency room. The doctor said, Well, try Tums. Nauman, whose reticence masks acute sensitivity, was more vulnerable than people realized. The first important pieces he made after the dry period were Double Steel Cage Piece, a steel-mesh enclosure-viewers could enter the outer cage but not the inner one-and Consumate Mask of Rock, a sculptural installation of sixteen limestone cubes in two sizes, plus a typewritten text, taped to the wall, that was based on the childs game Rock, Paper, Scissors. Really a long poem, the text includes these lines: This is my mask of fidelity to truth and life./This is to cover the mask of pain and desire./This is to mask the cover of need for human companionship, and then, farther along, PEOPLE DIE OF EXPOSURE.
The Naumans marriage came apart in the mid-seventies. I needed something that he just couldnt provide, Judy said recently. I left the marriage emotionally, and then he left. It took him a long time, but when he decided, the door was shut. She eventually remarried and had another child. By then, Bruce was living with Harriet Lindenberg, Zoës kindergarten teacher at a Quaker school south of Pasadena. I asked him to dinner, Lindenberg remembers. It would never have happened if I hadnt. He was painfully shy.
Lindenberg was a vivid, independent, sometimes irresistible force. Born in San Antonio, she had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Latin America, and was passionate about social and political issues. Nauman, who told me he had been barely aware of the Vietnam War, because I was too focused on wanting to be an artist, was impressed. Lindenberg had no idea what Nauman did at the times she asked him to dinner, and no interest in getting married. They lived together for more than ten years. It was Harriet who persuaded him to leave California and move to New Mexico, in 1979. Her brother lived in Santa Fe, and she knew about Pecos, a village about thirty miles to the east, from an old friend in the Peace Corps. Bruce was very resistant at first, she recalls. He said he was an urban artist, that hed shrivel up and die in the country, but then he adjusted quicker than I did. They bought a funky little cabin that Bruce added on to himself, Lindenberg said, and got someone to build a studio for Nauman just up the road. She took a teaching job in Santa Fe. Zoë came to live with them soon after, when she was ten. Her mothers second marriage had failed, and she was having a difficult time raising three children alone. Two years later, Erik moved there, too. Harriet became a highly motivated step-mother. I was a little afraid of her at first, Erik remembers. She was quite emotional, opposite of Dad. But it was good to have someone who tried to get us to talk about things, which my dad certainly didnt.
Naumans reputation had been in decline ever since the retrospective. Producing relatively fewer works and being so far removed from the New York art world had a lot to do with it, and his distaste for self-promotion didnt help. For several years, he subsisted mainly on his two-hundred-dollar-a-month stipend from Castelli (paid against future sales). At one point, he felt so discouraged that he thought seriously about turning his avocation-forging handmade knives-into a real business. (I never sold enough to pay for the material.) Nauman, whose art does without fine craftsmanship, has a very high regard for it in his personal effects-knives, hats, boots, saddles, cars.
In the early eighties, he began a series of large sculptures with political overtones. South America Triangle (1981), his first overtly political work, had a cast iron chair hanging upside down inside a suspended steel triangle. This grim image referred to methods of political torture he had read about in the work of V.S. Naipaul, and also in a book by the Argentine journalist, Jacobo Timerman, which Harriet had told him about. Increasingly, his frustration and anger over what was happening in South Africa and Latin America, and over the way people treated one another in general, became an inspiration for new work.
The anger came out more directly in the neon-tube sculptures he did in those years. American Violence (1981-82), shaped like a swastika, has short rude phrases, like STICK IT IN YOUR EAR, that flash on and off in vivid colors. One Hundred Live and Die is a ten-foot-tall tower of alternating multicolored three word commands, such as LOVE AND LIVE, HATE AND DIE, FUCK AND DIE. These vivid, startlingly gorgeous constructions progressed to animated neon displays, some quite large, whose moving images featured group sex, masturbation, aggressive insults, and death by hanging. He also produced several new videos, his first since 1973. Made with the help of a video editor in New York named Dennis Diamond, these were longer and more complex than his earlier ones, and their content was considerably more disturbing: a domestic spat that escalated into a double homicide (Violent Incident) and, in his Clown Torture series, the agonies and humiliations of circus clowns. For some Nauman admirers, myself among them, to watch a fully costumed clown saying No, no, no in every conceivable inflection and intonation, and ending up writhing on the floor, screaming the word in terror, is more punishment than we probably need. When they were shown at the 1989 Whitney Biennial, a shocked visitor stood outside the room for quite a while, warning people not to go in.
The scatological nastiness in some of Naumans work in the eighties put a lot of viewers off, but the new work, which coincided with a booming art market, revived his reputation. Museums here and abroad showed the videos and neons, reviewers praised them, and American as well as European collectors bought them. None of this disturbed the even tenor of Naumans personal life, where emotions of any sort rarely surfaced. Harriet Lindenberg saw him get really angry once, soon after they moved to Pecos; a telephone argument with a man who was building his studio made him so furious that he drove his right fist through a wall, breaking a finger. Nothing like that ever happened again. His feelings went into his work, but soon after the wall-punching incident he got interested in horses, and his life changed in deep and subtle ways.
Before dinner at the Naumans house one evening, we watched a videotape of Ray Hunt working with horses. Hunt was a professional trainer who travelled around the West, giving clinics. By the mid-nineteen eighties, Nauman had acquired two saddle horses of his own. Id heard about Ray Hunt, he said. I took my horses up to Farmington, Colorado, where he was doing a clinic. Watching Ray was kind of like a Zen experience. Western horsemanship can be pretty rough, but his idea is that if the horse isnt afraid theres no problem. To get along with your horse, you have to give up trying to be in control. You have to get to be where the horse is. People have known this for millennia; Xenophon talks about it in The Art of Horsemanship. Watching the tape of Hunt, on foot, working with a horse that had never been ridden, using just a loose rope to persuade him, very gently, to turn in one direction or another, was mesmerizing- lesson in converting fear into trust. Ray didnt give you an inch, Nauman said. You had to pay attention every minute. His teaching really had to do with how to lead your life.
Nauman now spends nearly as much time working with his horses as he does in his studio, and in his mind the two activities are related. When he was making the Clown Torture videos, in 1987, he would hand a simple scenario to the performer and let him (or her) improvise. This was a long way from the tight control hed maintained over his corridor pieces. I dont know if theres a connection, but I started to give up control when I was learning about horses, he said. I think the work got richer.
He went to several more clinics with Hunt over the years, and the two men, in their nonverbal way, became friends. A week after Id been to Galisteo, Nauman emailed me, saying, Ray Hunt died yesterday. In another email, an hour later, remembering his first visit to Hunts clinic, he wrote, Going home to Pecos I was a few miles out of Farmington and had to stop-was teared up and had to get out and touch my horses-tell them Im sorry, I didnt know.
Susan Rothenberg, who was born in Buffalo, moved to New York City in 1969, two years after she graduated from the Fine Arts School at Cornell. Gregarious and a bit wild, she hung out at Maxs Kansas City, met dozens of artists, musicians, and dancers, explored other media, took dance classes, married a sculptor George Trakas, and had a child with him in 1972. Two years later, doodling on a small canvas, she drew the outline of a horse divided down the middle by a vertical line. The image, which came out of nowhere, led to the paintings that made her famous: spectral horses embedded in abstract, densely worked backgrounds, mysterious images that carried a strong emotional charge. They were key works in what would come to be known, in a 1978 group show at the Whitney, as New Image Painting.
Like most of her artist friends, Rothenberg had followed Naumans work for years. Theyd met a few times, at art events, and they met again at a New York dinner for Nauman in October, 1988. Rothenberg was no longer married and had just ended a relationship with a Hungarian banker. Harriet Lindenberg had recently broken up with Nauman. The hostess, Angela Westwater, whose New York gallery, had started to represent both Nauman and Rothenberg, seated them together. A day or so later, Nauman called Rothenberg and invited her to lunch. He went to a party at her apartment the next week, and stayed afterward-stayed for several days. He had to go back to Pecos, but returned to New York in a hurry, and three months after that they were married.
Nauman offered to move to New York, but I didnt want to give up New Mexico and the horses, and New York wasnt really calling to me, Rothenberg said. A lot of her artist friends had moved away, and, besides, she was deeply in love. (It was a shock, at forty-four, to feel that kind of emotional intensity, and know it was mutual) They commuted for the next year and a half, until Rothenbergs daughter, Maggie, finished high school, and then Rothenberg packed up and moved to their unfinished house near Galisteo. The marriage was something the art world rarely sees: two major talents working at a very high level, without competition or interference.
Her painting changed in the high desert country. Colors, she said. Animals. Brighter palette. Different points of view, looking down at things and up at things. She painted a strange portrait of Bruce, called Blue U-Turn, a deep-blue, male-ish ellipse. As a wedding present, she had given him the first horse painting she ever did, in 1974; it hangs in their living room. Nauman gave her a horse, a Spanish barb called Cece, and the horse image, gone from her work for several years, returned in a new form. She tried to enjoy riding, for his sake, but, she said, I was never really comfortable up there, and eventually she stopped. Im a walker, not a rider.
Naumans work also changed. He had found he could buy, on the Internet, readymade polyurethane forms that taxidermists use to stretch animal skins over. These ghostly, featureless animal shapes became the basis of a series of new sculptures: animal pyramids; dismembered and reassembled hybrids; carousels with dangling animal forms whose feet or hindquarters scraped the floor as they revolved. He made bronze casts of human hands, paired in expressive positions and gestures, and casts of human hands, paired in expressive positions and gestures, and casts of the heads of people he knew-the heads were often suspended on wires, some of them upside down, or in embarrassingly close proximity to each other. Because he didnt remove the marks and imperfections of the casting process, the heads have a rough look that makes them seem vaguely threatening. A similar unease pervades the videos he made with Rinde Eckert, a singer and performance artist, who also posed for many of the heads, and it reaches a near-unbearable pitch in Shit in Your Hat-Head on a Chair, a video installation in which a female mime attempts, with increasingly distress, to act out inane, rapid-fire commands shes being given by an offscreen voice.
The full range of Naumans power to disturb was laid out in a 1994 retrospective, his second, organized by the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, in Washington, D.C. The exhibition, which also appeared at the Reina Sofía, in Madrid, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, predictably polarized critical opinion. I think he is the best-the essential-American artist of the last quarter-century, Peter Schjeldahl, an early supporter, wrote in Art in America. Times Robert Hughes called the work so dumb that you cant guess whether its dumbness is genuine or feigned, although he glumly conceded that Nauman, beyond much dispute, is the most influential American artist of his generation. More radically than anyone else, Nauman had led the way out of Minimals art austerity and into the new world of scorched-earth freedom, with its endless pitfalls and opportunities, and he had done so in near total isolation from art-world politics and promotions. He had even conquered the art market. The French collector François Pinault paid $9.9 million in 2001 for Henry Moore Bound to Fail, his 1967 wax-over plaster sculpture of his own back with his arms abound. Nauman had outdistanced criticism.
He retreated to his studio after the retrospective, to read and think. The dry spell this time was a long one-Rothenberg says it lasted two or three years. He took care of his horses, and rode one or more of them every day, unless the weather was too bad. Now and then, Rothenberg tried to get him to talk about his block. The answer was always Dont know, she said. I used to get so mad at his inability to communicate, but that stopped around three years ago. I went to a shrink for a while, and then we both went, and then the shrink lost interest in me. The shrink still calls Bruce about every three months, and leaves a message asking if theres anything hed like to talk about, but Bruce doesnt call back. Ive finally realized I dont need to know the stuff Bruce is unable to tell me. I think we love each other very much. There have only been three women in his life, and hes never been alone more than a few months. Im very satisfied with him, and very happy living about ninety-two percent by myself. I dont think Ill ever know Bruce, but hes mine, and hes a beauty.
One day in 2000, sitting in his studio, Nauman began to wonder what happened there at night, when he wasnt present. He had a video camera with infrared capacity, which he set up in once corner and turned on before he went to bed that night. When he looked at the footage the next morning, he saw that quite a lot had happened. Moths flitted by, leaving momentary white streaks. Mice scurried in and out, their tiny eyes flashing red as they caught the light. Coyotes howled, far off. The studio cat at appeared, sat down, wandered off again; once or twice the cat and mouse were in the picture at the same time, but they ignored each other-there had been an infestation of mice in the studio that year, Nauman explained, and the cat had caught so many that hed lost interest. For many nights over the next couple of months, Nauman deployed his camera in seven different studio locations, and put the footage together to make a film lasting nearly six hours. Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage), as he called it-the reference was to Cages use of chance methods-was shown at the Dia Center for the Arts, in New York, for six months in 2002. Plenty of people found it excruciatingly boring, but plenty more stayed for hours, gliding around in the wheeled office chairs that Nauman had asked the gallery to provide. If you tried to watch it, you missed out, Nauman said. You just had to wander through and let it work. He also made, at Rothenbergs suggestion, and all-action edit, showing only the footage with moths, mice, or cat, and lasting about half and hour.
Two years later, in 2004, invited to do a temporary installation in Turbine Hall, the colossal entrance plaza of the Tate Modern in London, Nauman created a sound environment. He used twenty-two soundtracks from his videos and sound pieces over the past forty years, an aural retrospective that enthralled and shook up large numbers of visitors, and provided both the model and the audio technology for his Days/ Giorni installations in Venice.
On one of the afternoons I spent with Nauman, he told me about Lennie Tristano, a blind jazz pianist he used to listen to in Los Angeles in the nineteen-seventies. Tristano had played with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and other jazz legends. Nauman handed me a pair of earphones and cued a Tristano recording on his laptop. The mans style was fast and driving. He doesnt lead you into it, he just starts and goes, Nauman said admiringly. At one point, I wanted my work to have that kind of immediate impact, just being there, all at once. When I asked if he still wanted that, he thought a bit, and said, No. Maybe sometimes. Its as though, earlier, there was an intention, and as the works gotten more spread out theres more waiting to see what will happen. Naumans recent work did seem less harsh and more meditative than it used to be, I suggested; did this mean that the level of anger and frustration had subsided? He considered the question. I dont think I operate out of that anymore, he said, and I dont think I did when I was younger. That was more during the eighties, and it was about the larger world-although there was also some frustration with the art world. I asked him whether, after forty years of thinking about what art was and could be, hed come any closer to an answer. I have enough trouble working that I dont think about that as much, he said quietly.
The Naumans come to New York fairly frequently. They keep a small penthouse apartment in the East Eighties, and a year ago they bought an 1830 house on the Lower East Side, which they are currently renovating. It will have studio space for both of them, and they will be able to spend more time with Rothenbergs daughter, Maggie, an artist who lives in New York, and with Naumans son, Erik, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and teaches at the Hewitt School in Manhattan. (Zoë Nauman, a photographer, is in Oakland, California, where she helps her husband run a combined bar and motorcycle-repair shop.) Because of the horses and the dogs, Bruce and Susan probably wont spend much time in New York for the next few years. Susan, breezing in from her afternoon outing with the three dogs, said their plan was to wait until the dogs die, and Bruce makes up his mind about the horses. In five years well know what we are doing.
Two small drawings of a strange-looking head were pinned to the wall of Naumans studio. Ive been thinking for a couple of years about self-portrait drawings, he explained, when I asked about them. The idea came to him after seeing a number of Rembrandt self-portraits in a show at the Metropolitan Museum, but, of course, being Nauman, he couldnt just start drawing his face in the mirror. Instead, he rescued, from a pile of stuff on the studio floor, a mold hed used years earlier for a wax male head (not his own) and hung it up as a model. It was the reverse image of a face-if you poured plaster into it, the correct image would emerge. I havent really drawn at all for two years, he explained. Its a drawing exercise, to get myself back into shape. This is a tough thing to try and draw, because its a reverse image. So Ive set myself a difficult problem.
- Calvin Tompkins