Yes Bruce Nauman
06-08-06 Suggested by: Don Load
“YES BRUCE NAUMAN” the enthusiastic title of the exceptional if very male group show at Zwirner & Wirth, prompts a question: Has there ever been much in the way of “no” to Bruce Nauman?
“Yes Bruce Nauman” continues through Sept. 9 at Zwirner & Wirth, 32 East 69th Street, Manhattan; (212) 517-8677. The gallery will be closed Aug. 21 to Aug. 25. “Heather Rowe: Green Desert” continues through next Friday at D’Amelio Terras, 525 West 22nd Street, Chelsea; (212) 352-9460. Both galleries are open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
A pioneer in Post-Minimalist video and performance art, and a sculptor of seemingly limitless versatility, Mr. Nauman has been famous and critically admired since he arrived on the scene. That was in 1967, with his solo debut at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles. His New York debut, at the Leo Castelli Gallery, occurred the next year, and his work has exerted an important influence on contemporary art ever since.
The show’s title comes from a 1989 tribute by Jessica Diamond: a large black-on-silver painting on paper that hangs prominently in the first room at Zwirner & Wirth. (It was translated into a much larger temporary wall painting in 1990.) The work’s title is also its image, three successively crowded lines of big wobbly capital letters — YES — BRUCE — NAUMAN — that anticipate the current flood of hand-lettered paintings and drawings.
“Yes Bruce Nauman,” the show, has been organized by Kristine Bell, director of Zwirner & Wirth, and Alexandra Whitney, its exhibition coordinator. It mingles the efforts of 19 artists, made mostly since 2000, with five works by Mr. Nauman dating from 1967 to 1990.
It begins with a juxtaposition of early body-oriented videos by Mr. Nauman and Paul McCarthy, who, quickly following Mr. Nauman’s lead, was in his studio in Los Angeles videotaping home-alone performance pieces by 1970. The contrast is pure Apollo-versus-Dionysus. In “Flesh to White to Black to Flesh” from 1967, the lean, handsome Mr. Nauman is all classical mandarin restraint, as he sits in a chair, methodically smearing his torso with white, then black body color.
On the opposite monitor, the pudgy Mr. McCarthy lies face down on the floor wallowing in a thick trail of white paint, his interest in a generally gross Expressionism-in-the-round apparent. Mr. Nauman tends to leave Expressionism to others. For his 1987 video “No, No New Museum (Clown Torture Series),” which is in this show, he hired an actor to humiliate himself: wearing bright clown regalia and makeup, the man does nothing but jump up and down yelling “No, no, no, no!” at the top of his lungs. An assaulting bit of work, it suggests that the raging infant is never far from the surface.
Nearby, the Los Angeles artist Charles Ray takes Mr. Nauman’s notion of using the body as sculptural material to slapstick extremes in “Plank Piece I-II” of 1973. Two black-and-white photographs show Mr. Ray dangling above his studio floor, pinned to the wall by a heavy board, head up in one, feet up in the other.
The more recent works focus either on the body and performance or on language and, often, neon. A surprising string of works seem to have grown out of Mr. Nauman’s neon word pieces, the first and possibly most famous of which is a neon spiral of writing from 1967 that states: “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths.” This visionary maxim is unwound by Mungo Thompson onto narrow silver and red vinyl tape; stuck to the gallery’s front window, it resembles a festive bumper sticker. In one of the show’s best pieces, Peter Coffin unwinds the neon itself into a radiant, weirdly ecstatic tangle that one suspects equals the length of white neon Mr. Nauman used in the original. It might be a mystic truth struggling to reveal itself.
Glenn Ligon’s contribution syncs up with the black-to-white transformation of the early Nauman video mentioned above. Consisting of the phrase “Negro Sunshine” in neon painted black, it turns this loaded metaphor into a kind of shadow surrounded by the light effect denoted by its title: “Warm Broad Glow.”
Rirkrit Tiravanija’s white neon piece is based on his young nephew’s illegible attempt to write his uncle’s name. Jonathan Monk restates the words of Mr. Nauman’s 1973 collage “Please Pay Attention Please” in light too, playing on the phrase’s near-symmetry by way of a laser in a box that flashes the words on a wall one at a time. The attenuated letters suggest a desperate infantile squeak that contrasts well with the robust tantrum of Mr. Nauman’s video clown.
As for the body, Jason Rhoades evokes it with profane anatomical slang written in neon and an assemblage of dangling objects, beginning with a T-shirt, a work that provides only a hint of the decisive way in which Mr. Rhoades’s work bridges the Nauman-McCarthy duality. Next to it John Bock, a young German artist, crosses the same bridge with “Gribbohm II Sir_Howdy_Mumsir” of 2002, a video of a piece performed in a trunk with puppets. The puppets are displayed here in the trunk, along with stuffed legs showing how Mr. Bock protruded from it. Jan Mancuska combines language, his body, a cap and light to reveal several words that begin with “no.”
The show’s other works are by artists both well known and less so: Mike Kelley, Diana Thater, Tom Friedman and Martin Creed; Aaron Young, Stefan Bruggeman and Marc Swanson. As this list implies, this show is short on women. Deserving candidates might have included Kay Rosen, whose involvement with language has been sustained for years, as well as Rachel Khedoori, Liz Larner and Sarah Lucas.
Also worthy is Heather Rowe, a newcomer who is making her solo debut at D’Amelio Terras in Chelsea. Its centerpiece, “Green Desert,” is a fresh, quite promising take on Mr. Nauman’s perversely controlling corridor installations. Using mirrors, drywall, thin beams and hints of floor, Ms. Rowe has created a corridor that is porous yet full of hidden nooks and crannies, each revealing some bit of textile, wallpaper, molding or paint (black included). It is a family history in outline that retains some of the disorientation endemic to Mr. Nauman’s corridors.
Said in a resigned, dragged-out way, “Yes Bruce Nauman” can seem like a feminist complaint, as in: “Yeah, yeah, Bruce Nauman. Haven’t we seen enough of this guy yet?” At the same time the works assembled at Zwirner & Wirth suggest at least two other additions to the show’s title. One is a “Yes” to Paul McCarthy and art’s more chaotic, expressionistic tendencies. The other is a “No” to Robert Smithson, the Post-Minimalist earth artist who died in an airplane crash in 1973. Despite its flaws, this show offers a welcome counterbalance to Smithson’s present patron sainthood, which has helped spawn a plethora of black-on-black, overly intellectual, attitudinizing art. Mr. Smithson’s artistic output was small and uneven; his lasting legacy may be his writings, which could explain his appeal to the extra-brainy.
Each moment in art is partly defined by the ancestors its artists choose, and ours might be richer if more young artists looked to a broader range of precedents from the 1970’s and 80’s. And so, one last title. In 1968 art’s turn toward concept, performance and process was signaled by a famous exhibition that Harald Szeemann organized at the Zurich Kunsthaus, “Live in Your Head: When Attitude Becomes Form.” Too much recent art suggests that living in your head is only a beginning and attitude is rarely a sufficient substitute for form. However cerebral, linguistic or enigmatic Mr. Nauman’s work can be, he is profoundly involved with form as a vehicle for complex, nonverbal experiences, which makes him more pertinent than ever.
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