|Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens
Artpress, pp. 46-53
1 June 2009
"Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens. les jardins topologiques de Bruce Nauman"
The True Artist is an Amazing Luminous Fountain (Window or Wall Sign)
In 1966-1967 Nauman made his first wall signs, including a mylar shade that said The True Artist is an Amazing Luminous Fountain (Window or Wall Sign), 1966. As he told Brenda Richardson, I had an idea that I could make art that would kind of disappear--an art that was supposed to not quite look like art. In that case, you wouldnt really notice it until you paid attention. Then when you read it, you would have to think about it. (Baltimore Museum of Art, 1982) This neon, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign), 1967, part of the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is a catalyst for the Venice exhibition.
Bruce Naumans Topological Gardens
Some forty years of Bruce Naumans work, seen in three sites in Venice, constitutes Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens, the official United States representation at the fifty-third Venice Biennale. Organized by Philadelphia Museum of Art curators Carlos Basualdo and Michael Taylor, the show, while not billed as a retrospective, is a large-scale survey that ranges from early iconic and rarely loaned pieces through a newly commissioned large-scale sound installation. The exhibition will be seen in the United States Pavilion, a 1930s neoclassical building in the Giardini, and also at two universities, Universitá IUAV di Venezia at Tolentini, founded in the 1920s and devoted to architecture, urban and regional planning, arts and design, and the exhibition spaces at Universitá Ca Foscari, which takes its name from one of its buildings, Palazzo Foscari, an example of Byzantine-inspired Gothic architecture built in 1942 on the waterfront of the Grand Canal.
The exhibition in its wide-ranging scope will likely include many of the mediums in which Nauman works-sculpture, neon, video, photographs, drawing, text, film, prints, performance, and sound-and is organized thematically. Two of its themes are evidenced in the exhibition title Topological Gardens, which also underscores, for the curators, the shows parcours through Venice. Topology, known as the science of place and its sister science, algebraic topology (the last math course Nauman took as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, before switching to studio art) and the garden (in which Nauman has appeared, as a fountain in photographs and drawing) have recurred in Naumans oeuvre. Topology encompasses the continuity of surfaces, including holes within. The classic remark for a topologist is a donut and coffee cup are the same; as Nauman has said, so are the voids within the solids of a Henry Moore sculpture.
The phrase importantly also elicits the methodology of the curators, for while a third of the Nauman show is sited in the Giardini, two thirds of it exits the garden. In part this distribution of works reflects curators probing of the ideologies of national pavilions, as well as their isolation within the confines of the Giardini. Equally important, is that they hope to engage Naumans work and its viewers within the daily life of Venice, inviting visitors to PLEASE PAY ATTENTION PLEASE, as Nauman does in a 1973 collage and Letraset drawing (and more boldly in a 1973 lithograph, PAY ATTENTION MOTHERFUCKERS, tamping the violent tone by printing the words in reverse) to the daily events and incidents that are the immediate and larger contexts for seeing and experiencing the Naumans in the show. That Naumans work itself has long drawn inspiration from and incorporates references to the quotidian is another of the themes explored.
\tThe exhibition itself had its genesis with the Philadelphia museums acquisition of the Nauman neon The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign) (1967), a neon spiraling the phrase of its title, and summary of Naumans subjects, his crafting of a phrase as well as an object, and, most critically, the questions generated by its voicing and its embodiment. In conversations between director Ann dHarnoncourt and the curators about the works importance in its own right and in relation to the historic collections of the museum, the idea followed to pursue a Nauman proposal for Venice. In many ways, the show honors the late dHarnoncourt, her scholarship, and her passion for modern and contemporary art, and her enthusiastic support for artists and her curators.
\tNauman has often said that he sought an art of the head and the hand, and the stylistic diversity of the bodies of work within his larger oeuvre make it difficult to gain an overview of his conceptual practice, the materiality of the works, and his many ways of making his art. He ranges from using himself as material, if not explicit subject, to creating large-scale abstract sculpture that is itself a model for imagined larger, often vast architectural spaces. He works in bravura, painterly drawing, whether of site plans or words, and in notations on found pieces of paper for staging sound works, just as he had earlier typed instructions on ordinary bond paper for performance, and has used plain, inexpensive scotch tape as an evident medium in collaging his text pieces. He has cast human heads and hands and worked them in multiple permutations, also re-imagining these subjects as prints. In addressing the complexities of Naumans multiple ways of working, the curators have not only followed ongoing themes and imagery but have looked at the various lines of thought as they come in and out of the work over time. Carlos Basualdo formulates these ideas or concepts and their various embodiments as threads. The first three are, one might imagine, descriptive of genres of (if not specific) works to be included in the show. (1)
They are described as passages from:
head to hand
space to sound
fountains to neons
A fourth thread is less descriptive than abstractly related to the works and also to the interchange between sites: from private to public, or from outside to inside.
In following these links, the curators goal is to reveal the complexity of Naumans charged play between the formal and emotional, the body and the object, an idea and its many recurring yet different modes of execution, the conditions of pleasure, pain, hope, and anger that are revealed or concealed, and the ongoing, daily project of how to work, what an artist does, and what this means to the artist and the many different publics that experience the work.
Reversing the process
There have been numerous Nauman exhibitions in recent years in Europe and the United States. Some have been organized by medium (such as the neons in Elusive Signs: Bruce Nauman Works with Light, organized by the Milwaukee Art Museums Joseph D. Ketner II, 2006, which traveled through 2008), by period (A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s, curated by Constance Lewallen for the Berkeley Art Museum, traveled 2007-2008), as a single installation (Raw Materials, 2004), by collection (the extensive group of Naumans within the Friedrich Christian Flick Collection, seen at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, 2005), or by theme (Beckett/ Nauman at the Kunsthalle Vien, organized by Christine Hoffmann and Michael Glasmeier, 2000, and reviewed in Artforum by this years Biennale commissioner,(2) and YES BRUCE NAUMAN, a 2006 group show devoted to the many and various responses by other artists to Naumans works, which were shown with a selection of his at Zwirner & Wirth, New York.(3) Not since the 1993 Walker Art Center retrospective have so many key Nauman pieces been loaned to travel to a single comprehensive exhibition as they have been for Topological Gardens.
By contrast to the norm for museum traveling shows, which may stop at, say, a maximum of four venues in different cities (for conservation reasons, balancing the needs to preserve art works and to make them accessible to the public), the Nauman exhibition at the Biennale reverses the process. It allows the works to travel but once and stay put in one city, with international and local visitors- both general public and art professionals- having access over a period of six months. As paradoxical as it may seem, this traveling show puts the emphasis on the traveler to Venice and through Venice to pay attention please to the art works and the surroundings, indeed topologically to the connectivity of the three sites, not unimportantly the routes (the holes) between them.Perhaps along the way, whether in the Giardini or beyond, the Venetian flâneur will encounter a fountain or two, or think about what Nauman had in mind for another 1966 work, The True Artist is an Amazing Luminous Fountain (Window or Wall Shade).
(1)The curators, desiring to keep a surpise for the opening, have not released a checklist of the show in advance to accompany their press release.
(2)As Daniel Birnbaum wrote in Artforum (Summer 2000): This is not a major Nauman show in the ordinary sense, even if a number of important piecesA Cast of the Space under My Chair, 1965-68, lots of videos, and two corridors, one shown for the very first time--are effectively installed. It's not a major Beckett show either, for there's no such thing. This is something else entirely: a gray inventory of impossible connections or an archive of discontinuities. It's a genealogical space rather than a show. Full of detailed information--manuscripts, drawings, notebooks, and sketches--the exhibition piqued curiosity and made the viewer attentive. I liked it a lot.
(3) Yes Bruce Nauman, at Zwirner & Wirth, New York, July 7, 2006-September 9, 2006. The show included works by B. Nauman and John Bock, Stefan Brüggemann, Peter Coffin, Martin Creed, Jessica Diamond, Tom Friedman, Mike Kelley, Glenn Ligon, Jan Mancusca, Paul McCarthy, Jonathan Monk, Charles Ray, Jason Rhoades, Marc Swanson, Diana Thater, Mungo Thomson, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Francesco Vezzoli, and Aaron Young.
Some of these texts here are drawn from entries in the catalogue raisonné of Nauman work, published in the hard cover edition of Bruce Nauman (Walker Art Center and Hirsshorn Museum, 1994), Joan Simon, General Editor, with Janet Jenkins and Toby Kamps, and information in Bruce Nauman: Fingers and Holes (Gemini G.E.L., 1994).
Joan Simon is curator-at-large at the Whitney Museum (New York) and co-curator with Brigitte Leal of the exhibition Calder: les années parisiennes at the Pompidou Center. She is working on an Alice Guy Blanché exhibition at the Whitney Museum for November 2009.
"Light Trap for Henry Moore," 1967
black and white photograph
162,3 x 102 cm.
Collection François Pinault
More than five feet tall, and made by twirling a flashlight in a darkened room, the photo was initially made as a study for a neon work, which was never realized. To avoid expensive laboratory processing for such an unusually large size print, Nauman and his friend, photographer Jack Fulton, built oversize developing trays, at times spreading chemicals on the paper with sponges after throwing the paper on the floor. As Jack Fulton recalled in an interview with the author, in assisting Nauman to make this photograph (and the related Light Trap for Henry Moore, No. 2, 1967), he added technical advice to what he called Naumans naiveté, curiosity and kind of confidence in the medium. This is one of many works Nauman made invoking the sculptor Henry Moore.
"Fifteen Pairs of Hands," 1996
white bronze with painted steel base, edition artist proof
132 x 30,5 x 30,5 cm each. Dimensions variable
Collection of the artist
four-color lithograph/ screenprint, edition of 50 for Gemini G.E.L., Los Angeles
76 x 101,5 cm
One of the recurring themes in Naumans work is the hand of the artist, seen in drawings, film, video, sculpture, and photographs. In a 1994 series of prints, Nauman depicted his own hands, using life-drawing as a technique, observing his hands in different configurations as different edges abut and fingertips touch to form a hole (or holes as the case may be). One exercise, used for a print called 3 fingers 1 hole, has the index finger of one hand poking into a hole created by the thumb and forefinger of another. As the artist said The series was not about the holes at first and then I saw that that was going on. So I started thinking about that-about topology. Things that dont look alike that morphose one into the other. Topology is about surface: the coffee cup and the donut are the same. These multiple images of hands were used by Nauman for a series of prints published in 1994 and a related series of cast bronze sculptures.
Evidence of topologys formal use in Naumans work as well as his return to subjects over many years is a 1994 print that conflates the 3 fingers 1 hole, the finger penetrating a hole, and another print, begun a decade earlier, of two clowns, whose bodies are seen from the waist up, shaking disproportionately large hands, and revealing at its top edge this prints relation to the 1985 full-figure neon Mean Clown Welcome, 1985, with the words in mirror-writing that say: Hands pumping up & down / penis pumps up & down. The result is a collage where the topmost image (the 3 fingers 1 hole print) masks that below (its section of oversized shaking hands). But structurally the new print has the same topology as the old-the new hands strangely but precisely take the place of the old and effortlessly connect along the same trajectory of lines defining the others arms.
"Green Horses," 1988
Two color video monitors, two video players, one video projector, two video sources and one chair
Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
In this video installation are images of Nauman taking his horse through paces as he maneuvers it in increasingly wide circles. Two monitors set side by side on a table against a wall display the imagery-normally oriented on one, inverted on the other-while a video projector beams a large-scale version (also inverted) onto an adjacent wall. A comfortable chair situated between the two sets of images is meant to be used as the point from which to view the tapes--a setup that recapitulates the artists own studio viewing conditions. Naumans performance in this videotape, which draws, on a number of precise skills recalls in some ways his methodical testing of postures and simple movements in his earliest performances and videotapes. Although they are in a sense autobiographical (Nauman shows himself in part of his daily routine within a familiar landscape), the videotapes employ devices such as medium long shots that generalize the rider and landscape, inverted imagery, and altered color (green and magenta casts)-that abstract the content. They were shot in New Mexico by video artists Steina and Woody Vasulka, whose voices can be heard on the sound track.
"Stadium Piece," 1997-99
4 (h) x 7,6 x 15,3 m
Western Washington University
The public sculpture, of poured concrete tinted white, was completed in 1999, and relates to a 1984 sculpture, Model for Stadium, that was originally proposed for the University of New Mexico, but that was rejected because it was thought the bleacher-like steps would be too inviting for climbing. (Instead the University of New Mexico commissioned Naumans The Center of the Universe, 1944/1988). Public use of the sculpture was intended by the artist. In Washington, Stadium faces an expanse of lawn on the Western Washington University campus, and is outdoor furniture at architectural scale meant to be used. As one report noted, Its label reads: The artists intent is that the structure by used not only as a seating and meeting area but also that it be used by spectators for activities occurring around it. Another report (Regina Hackett post, seattlepi.com, March 19, 1997) stated: During the dedication for Bruce Naumans Stadium Piece (1997-99) at Western Washington University the colleges football team climbed the back steps of the sculpture before descending the front, lining up like choir boys whod traded robes for pads. They basked in the mystified silence of the art audience for a moment before a collective, Go, Bruce!
"Seven Virtues/ Seven Vices," 1983-84
Prudence/ Pride, 60,3 x 190,5 cm
Fortitude 60,3 x 205cm
Faith/Lust 60,3 x 120 cm
Hope/ Envy 60,3 x 120 cm
Charity/ Sloth 60,3 x 240cm
Temperance/ Gluttony 60,3 x 240 cm
Collection of Museum of Modern Art
On each of the seven slabs the word of virtue (in roman capital letters) is engraved over a vice (in italic capital letters.) The pairings, sometimes create a new word (one reads something like FLAUTISH from Faith and Lust), others are unintelligible. The work has its genesis in a neon commission for the Stuart Collection at the University of California, San Diego, which was commissioned in 1983 and completed in October 1988. In 1983 Nauman also made a related neon Seven Virtues and Seven Vices, a seven-part, double-layered neon that is wall-hung and installed at ceiling height.
"From Hand to Mouth," 1967
Wax over cloth
71 x 26 x 10 cm
Collection of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
A wax cloth cast that follows the colloquial expression from hand to mouth quite literally. According to Nauman it was just supposed to be a visual pun or a picture of a visual pun, or a picture of a visual pun. It is not a cast of Nauman himself, but of someone else (his then wife Judy).
16mm film, color sound, 4 min. 36sec.
University of California Museum and Pacific Film Archive
A play on thighing and sighing, Nauman in this film shows a close-up of his thigh, with his hand variously pinching, pushing, and manipulating skin and flesh, as the sound track presents his breathing.
"One Hundred Fish Fountain," 2005
97 cast bronze fish
20 x 750 x 840 cm
Collection Sender, New York
As early as 1966 the fountain was part of Naumans vocabulary. Nauman himself is seen in an abstracted view, bare-chested with water spurting from his mouth in the color photograph Self-Portrait as a Fountain (1966) and clothed in the outdoor view within a lush garden for a black-and-white photograph, The Artists as a Fountain (1966-1967). In the 1990s, he used taxidermy forms to cast bronze animals, some of which he also used for actual fountains. The 97 fish for One Hundred Fish Fountain are also cast in bronze, using actual freshwater fish (rather than taxidermy forms), and then puncturing the bronze casts with holes. The fish are suspended from the ceiling, below is a large basin of water. Clear plastic tubing, though which water is pumped, generates sprays from the randomly punched holes in the fish. A sound piece as much as a sculpture installation, One Hundred Fish Fountain runs on a scheduled timer, so that the rush of water emitted from the many fish is heard as a sudden burst filling the environment; silence when it stops. Barely heard in the interim are the drips of water as the fish empty. Violins Violence Silence was the wording of an allusive neon (1981-82) that flashed its words in varying combinations. Here, too, is violence (to the bodies of fish); and silence. Instead of violins, it is the volume of water as it is orchestrated in movement and sounding for this piece.
Visitors to the 2009 Venice Biennale may remember Naumans Venice Fountain (2007), a pair of them, installed in the 2007 Biennale exhibition Think With the Senses, Feel With the Mind: Art in the Present Tense, organized by Biennale commissioner Robert Storr. For these, Nauman drew on elements from the studio: a pair of slop sinks, below each a plastic bucket and above each a wall-mounted cast of a face, clear-plastic tubing connecting them all, so that water spurts from the mouth. Echoing Naumans self-as-fountain photos and one of his signature early works, The Artist is an Amazing Luminous Fountain.
- Joan Simon