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Bruce Nauman
Bruce Nauman, Copyright 2007.
Photo: Sidney B. Felsen.

Bruce Nauman, A Brief History

Bruce Nauman was born in 1941 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. During his undergraduate schooling at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Nauman initially studied mathematics and physics before changing his focus to studio art under the tutelage of Italo Scanga, among others. Nauman then pursued an M.F.A. the University of California, Davis, where faculty artists such as Wayne Thiebaud, William T. Wiley, and Robert Arneson supported his growing desire to investigate art making beyond his earlier abstract paintings. There he experimented with casting objects in fiberglass and polyester resin, leaving their surfaces unrefined to reflect the casting process. While at Davis, Nauman also staged his first two performances, utilizing a fluorescent tube as an extension of his body as he performed mundane actions, which he would later record on video.

After graduate school, Nauman occupied a storefront studio in San Francisco where he focused on the act and process of making art by photographing visual puns and daily actions. An old neon beer sign in this former grocery store served as inspiration for Nauman’s celebrated neon, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign) (1967). At once genuine and ironic, this statement initiated a tongue-in-cheek discourse concerning the role of the artist in society that persists through much of Nauman’s work. The Philadelphia Museum of Art recently acquired this iconic work for its permanent collection. Nauman later moved to Wiley’s studio in Mill Valley, California where he made various films of himself walking around the space while altering his bodily movement. He began to garner critical attention in 1966 with his first solo show at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles, as well as his inclusion in Lucy R. Lippard’s Eccentric Abstraction group exhibition in New York. Nauman’s solo debut in New York at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1968 was soon followed by a one-man exhibition at the Konrad Fischer Gallerie in Düsseldorf, Germany. In 1972–73, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art co-organized the first major survey of his work, Bruce Nauman: Works from 1965–1972, an exhibition that traveled to Italy, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, and other venues within the United States.

Influenced early on by philosophy and literature, Nauman’s work constantly tests rational systems of language, spatial and bodily boundaries, duration, and psychology through sculpture, video installations, and constructed environments. In the late 1960s, Nauman continued to work with neon and also began to construct corridors, sometimes filming his performances within them. Larger constructed environments in the early 1970s often included video surveillance cameras and monitors that overlooked and recorded viewers as they entered them. Nauman continued to make large sculptures and installations in the 1970s and early 1980s, mapping space with masking tape or evoking physical or psychological constraints through the creation of passages and tunnels. After a ten-year hiatus, Nauman returned to his work with video in the mid-1980s with many multi-channel video installations that further explored language and his metaphorical use of labyrinths and the personae of rats and clowns. In the late 1980s he also introduced the iconography of life-sized animals cast in wax that hang suspended in carousel-like formations. The 1990s brought sculptures of human heads and hands in wax and bronze, video installations, and sustained work with neon. In the early twenty-first century, Nauman’s video work, sound installations, and sculptures continue themes that have resurfaced throughout his oeuvre since the 1960s.

Museum exhibitions have continued to map Nauman’s practice, and notable solo shows include Bruce Nauman, 1972–1981 held at the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo in the Netherlands and at the Staatliche Kunsthalle, Baden-Baden in West Germany in 1981; a survey organized by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis that traveled in 1993–95 to Madrid, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York; and, in 2006–07, an exhibition of his early work, A Rose Has No Teeth, that traveled to the University of California Berkeley Art Museum, Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Turin, Italy, and the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. Among the prestigious group shows that have included Nauman are the Venice Biennale in 1978, 1980, 1999, and 2007, as well as several documenta exhibitions (1972, 1977, 1982, and 1992) ) in Kassel, Germany. Garnering multiple awards throughout his career for his exceptionally wide-ranging and conceptually challenging practice, Nauman has received the Wexner Prize in 1994, the Leone d’oro (The Golden Lion) along with Louise Bourgeois at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999, and the Praemium Imperiale for Visual Arts in 2004 in Japan. He holds honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees from the San Francisco Art Institute and the California Institute of the Arts. In 1979, Nauman moved to New Mexico where he continues to work and live along with his wife, the painter Susan Rothenberg.