Nauman as creator, inventing himself

Times Staff Writer

Except for one small group of previously unknown drawings, most of the works in the smashing exhibition “A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s” are familiar. How could they not be? Nauman is among the critical American artists of the last four decades, one whose work has fundamentally shaped our idea of what art is today.

Still, the handsome show at the Berkeley Art Museum through April 15 is more than just a compendium of early hits, made from 1964 to 1969. Focused like a laser beam on the two years Nauman spent in the new graduate art program at UC Davis and the nearly three he worked on his own, teaching part time at the San Francisco Art Institute, it considers how a major artist is formed. And those hitherto unexhibited drawings add another brick to that firm foundation.

One surprise is how densely packed and provocative Nauman’s artistic inquiry was, even in his early 20s. (He was 22 when he enrolled at Davis.) Virtually everything we now think of as Naumanesque, which accounts for a lot of Postminimal art, was in at least nascent form before he left Northern California for Pasadena. And this youthful work shows him asking a not-so-simple question, and following where the answers lead.


The implied question is: At this particular time and in this specific place, what does it mean to be an artist?

The show includes examples of his well-known fiberglass sculptures, which look almost like molds from which eccentric objects might be cast. Most prior indoor sculpture stood isolated in the room. Many of these relate physically to the gallery space -- sticking out from a wall, leaning against it or appearing to have been tossed into the corner, like discarded rubbish.

Serious subterfuge

Other sculptures have been cast from the artist’s body. “From Hand to Mouth” is a famous wax wall-work that begins just below the artist’s nose and continues down his shoulder and arm to reach his fingers. The cliche in the title is physically embodied, and the fragmentary result, suggestive of a flayed animal skin, seems bereft.

Nearby, “Wax Impression of the Knees of Five Famous Artists” is a 7-foot plinth of yellowed resin, deftly imitating beeswax. The knee indentations invoke genuflection, which pretty much describes the reverence with which painting, not sculpture, was lavished at the time.

Tellingly, Nauman’s sculptural curtsy hangs on the wall rather than standing on the floor. Initially he planned to be a painter, and this sterling work encompasses the ambiguous mix of homage and sabotage that often characterizes powerful art.

There are films of odd performances, as when Nauman, alone in his studio, manipulated a fluorescent light tube as if it were a useless bodily appendage. The puzzling bulb is the film’s only source of illumination.

In a color photograph, he wears a red-checked shirt while sitting at a table covered in a red-checked cloth. He’s poised to spread red jam on white bread, torn in pieces to look like the letters w-o-r-d-s. Nauman is about to eat his words, but at least there’s jam.

Serious art photography circa 1966-67 was black-and-white and finely printed, so Nauman’s casual, glossy color snapshots, enlarged and handsomely framed, set themselves apart. In another photograph, shirtless, he spits a graceful arc of water from his mouth, enacting a “Self-Portrait as a Fountain.”

Sculpture’s social function is plainly on his mind. The eccentric block of smooth concrete, “A Cast of the Space Under My Chair,” came from Willem de Kooning’s advice that a painter shouldn’t paint a chair, but the space between a chair’s rungs. Nauman-the-lapsed-painter applied the dictum to sculpture.

Elsewhere a free-standing corridor, made from ordinary drywall and plain 2-by-4 lumber, juts into the gallery some 20 feet. The space of a room has collapsed into a narrow, claustrophobic passageway in which one does not relish spending much time. As the laconic embodiment of an artist’s anxieties when working in the studio, it’s sheer genius.

That’s what’s so captivating about Nauman’s art, which pokes and prods the vexing problem of what it means to be an artist from every conceivable angle -- and a few that are hardly conceivable at all.

A wall-bound spiral of pink neon underlines a blue neon legend, written in elegant script -- “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths” -- while another commercial-type sign stretches neon tubing to exaggerate the up-and-down direction of Nauman’s signature. A modern artist is his signature, after all, but that’s inevitably a distortion. And revealing mystic truths is at once a genuine aspiration and an embarrassing sign of grandiose pretension. Nauman’s neon sculpture is part gorgeously hypnotic amulet, part college dorm room beer advertisement.

How did he get to this lively and provocative place? In the show’s catalog, Berkeley curator Constance M. Lewallen describes the young artist’s dilemma as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, before he moved to Northern California in 1964. Nauman was studying painting in the Midwest, where he was born and raised. The painters on the Madison faculty were mostly former WPA artists, still working in a Social Realist style, long after that New Deal social program had come to an end.

But a ceramics instructor named Wayne Taylor was different. He was from Sacramento, and he had abandoned painting for pottery. His unconventional work and attitudes toward art were apparently quite distinct from most of Wisconsin’s conservative faculty. And he had something the other teaching artists didn’t have -- something that made a distinct impression on Nauman.

Lewallen writes that the ceramist worked in a Madison storefront studio -- “a ‘real’ studio as opposed to the office, bedroom or garage studios of the rest of the art faculty.”

Certainly it’s possible to make too much of a small biographical detail in the evolution of an artist’s work. There is no magic key to unlock the deep secrets of artistic genius, especially one as fertile and far-reaching as Nauman’s.

Yet this particular juxtaposition is striking. The ceramist and the Social Realists create a stark contrast. One went off to a working studio to make pots -- a type of art tainted as hobbyist craft, with virtually no status in an art world that saved its laurels for painting. The painters, meanwhile, toiled in the unused back bedroom of the house or apartment, as if a hobbyist making model airplanes or collecting stamps.

How significant could painting be if its primary role for the Social Realists was difficult to distinguish from any amateur’s leisure activity?

So, who am I?

Nauman was barely 20 when he decided to switch majors from mathematics to art. Like any misfit college kid, especially in unsophisticated American society, he had to confront the vexing question: What the heck is an artist? The only immediate examples he had were his teachers, and they offered a decidedly mixed-up model.

For the faculty’s Social Realists, the answer meant making art that describes daily life, often focusing on socially, politically or economically voiceless members of society. For Taylor, himself a “misfit” from the art faculty norm, it meant working in the studio.

Nauman’s earliest art is a distinctive blend of these two attitudes. It gives form to commonplace experience, and it characterizes that experience as working in the studio.

In a strange twist, though, until recently American artists have themselves been socially disenfranchised -- virtually invisible in a culture that lampooned Jackson Pollock as “Jack the Dripper,” regarded abstract painting as some subversive code in a Communist conspiracy and conceived of artists as effete girlie-men. (Women, except for Old West pioneer-woman Georgia O'Keeffe, didn’t make art.)

Nauman smartly turned the focus on himself, living hand-to-mouth as an impoverished art student, and made art out of that.

In perpetual flux

The newly discovered sheaf of simple pencil drawings, made in graduate school, reinforces this notion in very simple ways. When he doodles a sculpture, Nauman doesn’t just show the object. Rudimentary lines also delineate the floor, walls and ceiling, locating the object as it appears in the studio’s space.

What it means to be an artist is a question whose answer is in perpetual flux. These modest drawings, like the show’s major works, reveal that mystic truth.