For artist Bruce Nauman, known primarily for neon, video and installation work, a transient upbringing amidst his father’s engineering work for General Electric, and undergraduate studies in mathematics and physics, served to inspire art by way of fabrication and concept, and not the other way around— the idea that art should be expressive seems to be a blissful side effect in his raw, honest and beautifully distilled communications, which are powerful enough to shift a viewer’s complete orientation at mere first glance.
By the time he went to grad school for art he had already given up painting in favor of other media. After graduating and confronted with "What to do?" in his studio, Nauman’s solution came to him— “If I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art. At this point art became more of an activity and less of a product.” Thus began his experimentation with verbalizing the nature of the human condition, with defiant and emotional performances captured in film and photography, breathtaking sculpture, heartbreaking large-scale installations, and sometimes even with actual words, as reshaping the thought patterns following language appears amongst his favorite and oft-visited subjects. Though much of his work seems to inhabit a dark and even nihilistic sector of commentary, it is not a far stretch to find an irrepressible humor and a certain lightness in the execution, as if rather than insisting life is doomed to fail, he is merely pointing out the uncanny and inexplicable nature of the reality in which we find ourselves thrust, thereby carving somehow an altogether upbeat perspective.
Bruce Nauman – Falls, Pratfalls + Sleights of Hand, offset lithograph 1994
In 1968, two years after graduating, Nauman signed with the infamous New York art dealer Leo Castelli, whose gallery over five decades hosted a climate rich with some of the most important and pioneering work of the contemporary art world. This piece Falls, Pratfalls + Sleights of Hand is a first edition exhibition poster designed and created by Nauman in 1994 “celebrating 25 years with Leo Castelli.” Nauman’s signature unpredictability shines through with expert abandon.
Bruce Nauman – Big Welcome, offset lithograph 1985
In a 1985 work showcasing some of his brilliance with neon, which he is still creating with today, Big Welcome has subtle and wonderful references that are compiled here with impressive simplicity. The more you look, the more you see, and it is perhaps a different story every time— this is part of Nauman’s magic, apparent in his awe-inspiring way with interlocking forms.
Bruce Nauman – Smoke Rings, offset lithograph 1980
As all of these pieces are first edition exhibition posters, it is really a chance to participate in the spirit of the artwork upon its first completion. This 1980 work Smoke Rings is maybe celebrating the very meditation of artmaking itself, as perhaps blowing rings of concrete “smoke” surrounds the artistic process and the physical evidence thereof.
"...with defiant and emotional performances captured in film and photography, breathtaking sculpture, heartbreaking large-scale installations, and sometimes even with actual words..."
Bruce Nauman – Fifteen Pairs of Hands, offset lithograph 1996
Fifteen Pairs of Hands is surprisingly emotional, and proof that hands carry more than their weight in expressive communication, so to speak. Also, it is an interesting choice for Nauman as his portion of an exhibition titled End of the World, a revealing cross-section perhaps of the way he thinks, feels and chooses to define the world around him.
Bruce Nauman – Caffeine Dreams, offset lithograph 1987
In Caffeine Dreams we get a sense not only of what it is like to dream in Bruce Nauman’s head, but also what it is like to interact with him in material form. The importance placed on the cup of coffee, the social experience of sharing coffee cups, or sharing rituals even as mundane as coffee, the effect of caffeine and the perception of the surroundings— all things that seem to unfold as a matter of course in his visionary pronouncements.
Bruce Nauman – Installation at Leo Castelli's, offset lithograph 1978
And for works like this Installation at Leo Castelli's, profound and full of gravity, they are probably better left undescribed. The beautiful black and white photograph and the haunting space in which it resides do the work justice, allowing its layers of potential meaning to emanate outwards on their own schedule.
A quick image search for Bruce Nauman will present a treasury of meaningful and poignant work, enough to get lost in the many nuances and universalities, in which he is in many ways forming alliances with the very core of the being-ness of the human. An exhibition of his work is currently on view at the New York MoMA through February 2019, where you may be able to catch a glimpse of Disappearing Acts, if you can.