Thursday, August 24th, 2006

Bruce Nauman at Zwirner & Wirth

Zwirner & Wirth
Until September 9
32 E 69 Street, between Madison and Park Avenues, 212 517 8677

Yes Bruce Nauman

Bruce Nauman No, No, New Museum (Clown torture series) 1987 video still Courtesy Zwirner & Wirth
Bruce Nauman, No, No, New Museum (Clown torture series) 1987 video still Courtesy Zwirner & Wirth

Of all the avantgarde artists to emerge in the 1960s, Bruce Nauman is the most deserving of the epithet “counter-cultural.”  Be it high or popular culture you are talking about, Mr. Nauman’s emotionally difficult, intellectually forbidding, visually ungenerous art has a masterful ability to alienate.  Sometimes dull, sometimes pretentious, his art is remorseless.

He has not merely been consistently disdainful of traditional, expressive mediums and of conventional expectations. He has also been relentlessly dismissive of anything that smacks of aeshetic experience, whether capturing beauty or intimating the sublime.  As bewildering to this critic as is Mr. Nauman’s status with museum professionals (he is widely considered a genius), even more strange is that so anti-art an artist is also, one has to concede, an artist’s artist.

This point is proved in a sprawling, menacingly dull show of Mr. Nauman in the company of nineteen acolytes and imitators. “Yes Bruce Nauman” is titled after a 1989 painting by Jessica Diamond consisting of these three words, written placard style in black acrylic on a ground of metallic silver paint.  There is added irony in so affirmative an expression for an artist of unremitting nihilism.

The first work to greet the visitor is a car sticker-type slogan in letters cut in holographic vinyl applied to the gallery window.  Mungo Thomson’s “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths” takes this high falutin quote from one of Mr. Nauman’s first neon works, from 1967, which presented this phrase in blue letters along a red spiral in emulation of a beer logo, and which was displayed in the window of his former grocery store studio in San Francisco.  The stated aim of the original work was to communicate an esoteric notion to a broad public while not initially looking like art.

Glenn Ligon, Warm Broad Glow 2005 neon and paint, 4 x 48 inches Courtesy of Zwirner & Wirth
Glenn Ligon, Warm Broad Glow 2005 neon and paint, 4 x 48 inches Courtesy of Zwirner & Wirth

If Mr. Thomson shies away from neon because Mr. Nauman has made this non-art medium ubiquitous in the artworld, choosing instead a tacky, downmarket communication product in emulation of the spirit of the 1967 work, then plenty of others in the show pay homage to Mr. Nauman in his trademark neon.  Glenn Ligon, whose most familiar and accomplished work uses text in black and white to explore racial and linguistic issues, acknowledges Mr. Nauman in “Warm Broad Glow,” one of a series of neon pieces that quotes a pregnant, enigmatic phrase from Gertrude Stein: “negro sunshine.”

Peter Coffin’s “Untitled (Line after B. Nauman’s The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths)” (2004) posits a sprawling mangle of neon in an illegible line that—until you discover the title, and with it the conceptualist credentials of the work—looks like a dutiful, uneventful abstract sculpture.  Rirkrit Tiravanija’s “Untitled (Paul writing my name, No. 3)” is also a scrawl, this time wall-bound, based, we are told, on the artist’s young nephew’s mimicry of language.  Stefan Bruggeman’s “No No No No” (2005) presents it eponymous line in neon capitals, the first three words in white, the fourth in red.  This is a quote from the soundtrack of Mr. Nauman’s performance video, “No, No, New Museum (Clown torture series)” (1987) a continuous loop of the artist dressed as a medieval knave, with red leggings and cap, and green bodice, jumping up and down furiously, stamping both feet at once, and screaming—you guessed it—“No, no, no, no,” with the emphasis, as in Mr. Bruggeman’s color coding, on the last negative.  All these “no”s put Ms. Diamond’s “yes” in context.

The neo-neon imitators keep company with two Nauman neon pieces, “Eat/Death” (1972) and “Suite/Substitute” (1968).  In these, the shorter word alternates with the longer, from which it takes its letters, flashing in different colors. Mr. Nauman’s preoccupations—the mystic truth he reveals—will, by now, be clear: life is a bore, art is no different from life, look at me.

Besides neon, Mr. Nauman’s favored processes include filmed performance, entailing banal repetitions of activities centered on the artist’s body, and deliberately uneventful, unexpressive castings in wax of body parts, often his own.  Mr. Nauman was of the same generation as the minimalists, and while his own art is often reductive, he eschews any of the spiritual or aesthetic connotations of minimal art, often actively mocking such pretentions.  This iconoclasm in taken up, in turn, by Charles Ray in “Plank Piece I-II” in which the artist has himself pinioned against a wall by a plank, a performance documented in dingy black and white photos to give it a period look.

“Bouncing Balls” (1969) a 9 minute, 16 mm film (since transferred to DVD) of Mr. Nauman fiddling with his private parts is the inspiration for Francesco Vezzoli’s video of the same title which, true to neo-conceptual form, adds new meaning to a vintage conceptual gesture through slicker production values: the artist commissioned a porn-star, with well toned muscles and shaved legs, to swing his genitals back and forth with balletic grace.

Mr. Nauman’s penchant for buffoonery clearly marked him as a precedent for the Californian artists and sometime collaborators Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, whose works explore abjection and abasement.  Mr. McCarthy is represented by a selection of short black and white films from the early 1970s, including “Face Painting—Floor, White Line” (1972) in which he paints a line with his own face, crawling through the paint; “Ma Bell” (1971) in which he vehemently feather-and-tars each page of the phone book, creating a mucky, visceral accumulation in the process; and various schatalogical and genital titles that revel viscerally in futile, absurdist actions.  Mr. Kelley has a relatively tame though no less forlorn installation of stuffed animals on a blanket.

Futility, negation and self-regard, the Nauman standbys, are the order of the day in the remaining exhibits: Jan Mancuska has a stencil of negative words like “no,” “nowhere,” “nobody,” “never,” register on his self-portrait face via light shining through a stencil; Aaron Young circles black and white reproductions of a Goya firing squad painting in marker pen, identifying one prisoner awaiting execution as Bruce Nauman; the late Jason Rhoades’ “Black Hole, Poontain” (2005) constructs a figure out of detritus and neon; Martin Creed’s “Work No. 312: A lamp going on and off” is and does what its title proclaims.

The evidence suggests that Mr. Nauman has spawned a veritable academy of denigratory pranksters whose antics consist in repeating his own enervating gestures.  It is ironic how close they are to the master not just in spirit, but formally—despite the anti-formal premise of Mr. Nauman’s enterprise.  The counter-culture has actually produced a system of emulation that recalls Byzantium or ancient Egypt in its formal strictness.  Do positive repetetions of negative gestures amount to something affirmative?  No Bruce Nauman.

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, August 24, 2006