|Bruce Nauman, One Hundred Live and Die, 1884|
Controversy is nothing new to Bruce Nauman. Regarded an enfant terrible of the avant-garde in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, his work has consistently confronted public standards of taste and art world notions of the proper parameters of aesthetics.
Nauman’s work is pushy and unpredictable. A decade ago he made a film called Bouncing Balls, and its subject was jiggling testicles. He set up a sound environment in which a taped voice heckled the listener, “Get out of this room. Get out of my mind.” One early neon work, done in pale purple tubing, was My Last Name Exaggerated Fourteen Times Vertically, and that’s exactly what it was. His first neon was a lovely spiral of words, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths.
Some of his current sculpture has a sharp political edge. A large piece of a few years ago, constructed of I beams and a steel chair, Diamond Africa with Tuned Chair D, E, A, D served as a bell tolling the death of political prisoners.
In the last few months, some La Jolla, California residents have been up in arms over a proposed Nauman piece to be installed on the exterior of a U.S.C.D. building. “It’s neon graffiti,” said one angry university neighbor at a public meeting. “I’ll shoot it out with a slingshot,” said another. The fuss is over Nauman’s plan to wrap the building with a neon sign which, in four-foot letters, spells out the Seven Virtues (prudence, temperance, fortitude, hope, faith, clarity, justice), overlapped by the Seven Vices (pride, avarice, gluttony, envy, sloth, anger, and lust). Words would randomly fade in and out, and, undoubtedly, at times present such mildly provocative juxtapositions as hope and lust.
One might well get the impression that Nauman is an outlaw artist. Much of the work is antagonistic, serving as a burr under society’s saddle. Yet, I suspect, the principle antagonist in Nauman’s art confrontations is himself. Through the work he is making public the questions, the conundrums that he himself struggles with. But the art is not narcissistic. The enigmas with which he is fascinated have a significance that ripples through the culture. What is art? What is the artist’s responsibility? What is anyone’s responsibility? What is responsibility? Where is meaning?
Nauman makes public his private questions, and he lives a very private life in the hills outside of Pecos, a tiny town about 20 miles east of Santa Fe. A big name in New York and Europe, represented by Leo Castelli, his work in many museums and blue-chip private collections, he is virtually unknown in New Mexico. Many who know his work are surprised to learn he lives here.
He is shy and friendly, articulate and enigmatic. When we called him to ask for the interview, he said, “You can come over and try.” We found virtually no signs in his house that would indicate it was occupied by an artist, not to mention one of his stature.
Another enigma: he makes pocket knives. Some of them will be included in a group show of knife-makers at Elaine Horwitch in Santa Fe, December 14 to January 3.
You’re going to have a show of your pocket knives. How long have you been making them?
About ten years. A friend of mine, George Stumpff, a jeweler, has been making knives in my shop for about three years, and we’re having the show together. Maybe some other people, too.
Have you ever shown them before?
I know several artists in the state who have your knives, and they’re very proud of them . . . but I wasn’t aware how serious you were about them.
I always figured that all the fine work I don’t do in the art goes into the knives. I find that if I start making knives for a while because I can’t do the art, I get very frustrated because there’s a lot that goes into the art that just doesn’t go into the knives. The art part. Usually I don’t figure it out for a while, but finally I know I have to go back into the studio. It’s curious, the difference between really fine craft and art. It’s real hard to define the feeling I have about the separation. I can’t make one into the other.
Could we see one? (Nauman reaches in his pocket and hands over his pocket knife – gleaming metal, bone handle, four blades, his name inscribed on the largest blade.) You’re kidding! It looks like a store knife.
Ya, that’s the first step. You have to make them look as good as the ones you buy in the store, then you can make them different or better.
How much of them do you actually fabricate yourself?
All of it. The only thing I don’t do is the heat treating of the metal. With this particular steel it’s too complicated for me.
A knife seems to be such a utilitarian object. Are you conscious of a balance between that and your art which is so heady, intellectual?
I’m not particularly interested in the old argument about the line between art and craft. I couldn’t decide for anybody else.
But for you there’s a difference.
Yes. In my own work, there are those two different kinds of things. I see a knife as a tool. It should be well-made, and I make it as well as I can. A good knife is more pleasurable to use. But it doesn’t fulfill whatever intellectual and emotional demands art makes.
What are some of those emotional and intellectual demands?
(Long, thoughtful pause, about 30 seconds) I don’t know. I think that’s part of what keeps art interesting to me, going inside the studio and trying to figure it out, just what it is that keeps me going into the studio and trying to figure it out, just what it is that keeps me going back to the studio. In some broad way, I’ve always thought of my work and art in general as trying to solve that question of how does a person function in the world, however narrowly or broadly you want to define that. And then how, specifically, do I function, and what is an artist’s role? It’s examining that all the time. What does it all mean? What do I want being an artist to mean? How do I think I can fit in the culture?
Does being an artist involve a pursuit of meaning?
Yes. It has to come out in the individual works, of course, and those particular questions aren’t necessarily available in the finished work. There has to be a more specific motivation to get one job done, one thing made. But that broader question is what gets me back in the studio over and over.
Looking at the question so broadly, do you think there’s less meaning in 1984 than there was, say, 50 or 75 years ago?
Less meaning in . . . ?
Life in general.
I don’t think so. Why would there be? (laughter)
Well, it used to be that a lot of meaning was contained in old world structures. The church, the family, the neighborhood, the nation – they’ve all weakened , and more and more people have been thrown back on the individual as the source of meaning. That seems relatively new in the history of man.
I think that’s probably what’s called the political situation. It’s so conservative. People are worn out from it, they don’t really want to have to figure it out for themselves. And I think the other thing that’s perhaps a mistake to assume that things were more clear in the past, better, more defined, easier, secure, more straightforward. And I don’t think that’s necessarily true.
Maybe the nature of the problem has changed.
Yes. When I look at most of the art that I see, it’s very conservative. The kinds of problems that people are taking on are very much within the structure of what art has already been defined as for a long time, hundreds of years. I think there is that nostalgia for, or wanting to say that art in the past fulfilled a very clear function in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and that function is not here or it’s not clear to me or anybody I talk to. It looks like it was easy for Michelangelo, but it probably wasn’t clear to him what art ought to be. Maybe it was to him because he was such a powerful person, but I don’t think good art gets made without a lot of questions, backing up, and starting over.
It seems in much of your work you’re more concerned with the questions than the form.
Well . . . I don’t think so. You don’t get something without it being made out of something. There are always formal problems in presenting a question. It has to be presented in a way that it can be understood. Formal problems and questions of structure have always interested me quite a bit, too – manipulating materials and manipulating ideas, as a poet or however anybody presents ideas.
Is there a public or social intention behind your work?
Yeah. I mean the work certainly . . . I don’t think I’m clear about who the audience is exactly. I think when I work, I work for myself. If someone came into the studio and saw what I was working on, I’d think of one other person seeing the work. But the questions themselves because they have importance to me, I have to assume that they will be of interest to people in general, at least some size of audience would have interest in them. Some of the work is obtuse enough that it limits the audience quite a bit. It’s never been important to me to have a huge audience, so I don’t worry about it too much.
I followed your work in L.A. in the ‘60s and you and Larry Bell were the last people I expected to find in Northern New Mexico. Do you still identify with the art centers of the two coasts?
When I lived in Los Angeles I showed there, but most of the work either went to Europe or the East Coast. Where I made it didn’t seem to matter too much. It’s still that way. When we were there, Larry was a very social person, and one reason he left was to get away from all that. I never was. All my life as an artist had been in big urban areas, and you begin to assume that art is an urban activity. Or I did. Friends said I’d never do any work here . . . but part of that is their being angry that you’re leaving. Others would say, “You’re an artist, you’ll be an artist wherever you go, “and that was nice.” The work doesn’t seem to have changed in any way that has to do with being here specifically. It might have made a difference if I’d been younger. I seem to be doing as much work as I ever did.
Why did you leave?
(15 second pause) I don’t think I was getting much from the city anymore . . . Living in Pasadena, the air was bad, and it really does get to you after a while. You can ignore it for a long time (laugh), and if you don’t move, you can ignore it for a lot longer. The real problem was where to go. I didn’t want to go to another city where I’d get into the same kind of situation. We ended up here, partly because Harriet (Nauman’s wife) has friends and family in the area.
Has it been important to you that you pursue your career in your own way, on your own terms?
Probably. Being perverse . . . (laugh)
How does a piece evolve? Where does it start?
Well, some pieces come directly from other pieces. Those tend to be the easier ones. But I also mistrust that way of working, so even when that happens, I do everything I can to take it apart and make it as hard as possible. Even though, when it’s finished, it looks pretty much like it came from the other piece. One thing that’s always interesting, there’ll be pieces that I’ll do, and there will be some part if it that I wasn’t particularly paying attention, or that seemed a very small part, that turns out later to be the most important part of it. And maybe that will become the central part of a new piece. I’m always interested in that, how work has things you don’t know you’re putting in. You find them later.
Can you give a specific example of that?
(20 second pause) Nope. (laugh) Gosh, it happens a lot, and I can’t even think of one. Amazing. Maybe I’ll think of one as we go along.
Neon has worked for you for a long time, almost 20 years.
Yeah. (Eight second pause) It was a way . . . The first time I used it was that spiral neon piece, “The true artist helps himself by revealing mystic truths.” It was making a statement, saying it out loud to see if people believed it. At the time, not very long out of art school, it was partly tongue in cheek, and partly believing it . . .
You were testing it.
Yes. More specifically, the idea of using neon. The studio I had was an old grocery store and still had some of the neon beer signs hanging in the window. I often had the door open, all this plaster and junk everywhere, and people would come in and look for milk, they’d take a while to figure out it wasn’t a grocery store anymore. So, the idea was to present it, just as a window or wall sign, like advertising this idea, this thought, instead of advertising anything else. Almost all of my neon pieces have been signs. I think of them that way.
Flashy. My show in New York has a huge one with a hundred three-word phrases about live and die, all listed in four columns, 10 by 12 feet. They all flash on and off at different times.
It sounds like a concrete poem.
I’ve never known quite how to think about that. At one point I did a number of pieces that were environmental structures, some stone blocks that had writings to go with them. I have a kind of interest in language that would make me a poet, whatever that is. Most of my time my work isn’t organized in that way. But there is a part of my interest that does involve the use of words and their structure, and that’s the closest I can feel comfortable to concrete poetry, that period of time. I don’t even know if people still do it.
Do you make a conscious effort to keep virtuosity out of your work? I remember the Smoke Rings you showed a few years ago (at the Hill’s Gallery in Santa Fe), with their ragged edges, rough plaster . . .
(15 second pause) I think there’s a certain amount of virtuosity to letting the piece function formally and not have that stuff be in the way, and , on the other hand, to have that stuff there to give it scale and weight and density. If there’s too much of it then you can’t find the thing, and if there’s not enough of it the thing becomes a different kind of object. My idea has always been to have an object made just well enough. I don’t know, people do complain about it, so maybe there’s too much of it. (laugh)
Or not enough.
Yeah, something. But I don’t like the idea that the cleanness of the object gets in the way of seeing it. When my pieces are fabricated by someone else, they look like they were made in a neon shop or whatever, which is what they were.
And there’s no attempt to disguise that.
No. More of that facility may show in my drawing. They tend not to be very polished and clean drawings, because I have to do quite a bit of work to make them make the point I want to make, and then I like to stop. There seem to be two ways of finishing anything. One is it’s finished when the statement’s clear, and the other it’s finished when you’ve worked so long on it it’s ruined. (laugh) I don’t seem to have any midway on that. There’s almost the same kind of satisfaction. When I work on a drawing for a long time, and I get to the point where I realize all I can do is throw it away, but getting to that point (reflectively) – very curious – has the same kind of satisfaction as getting one that you still have. Thinking through something until there’s nothing left.
Do you have any problems with the gap between the analytical idealization of an idea and the concrete realization of that idea?
Yeah, often there’s the question of what something ought to be made of and how it should get put together, because that has to be done, even in a drawing. Should it be pencil, charcoal, pastel, paint? Sometimes I do it wrong, and I have to start over. But I don’t think there’s really a problem of having an idea about something . . . The strength of good works of art is that parts can be changed and the strength is still there. You could take Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which has always seemed to me one of the most powerful pieces of modern art that I’ve ever seen, and change lots of things and I wouldn’t notice they’d been changed. Somewhere between the way he made the painting and the ideas and the courage and whatever it took to do what he did with the structure, holds up beyond all kinds of . . .
And it doesn’t have to do with perfection.
Not in the sense of craft. It has to do with the art part of it. You work until you get the things that concern you absolutely right.
(We discussed the political and other extra-aesthetic difficulties Nauman was having with a work commissioned for installation at the University of California, San Diego – wrapping a theater company on the campus with neon lettering that spells out the seven deadly sins and the seven heavenly virtues. The sins are, apparently, attracting unfavorable attention.)
One problem is that the sins aren’t sins anymore. A reporter called here and asked about the piece, and he said, “Now, lust – a lot of people go to analysts for years trying to develop some of that. Why would you think that’s a sin?” (laugh)
There are problems, too, with the UNM project (entitled Abstract Stadium, it was selected by a National Endowment Art in Public Places panel). Do you take problems like these personally?
Well, you can’t. You can, and I do up to a point. We’re still struggling with the UNM project. They’re supposed to have a meeting to decide if we’re going to go on with a new project in a new location, not deal with the original one at all. They didn’t like the project. Part of it was I was only dealing with a couple of people who had initiated the project, gotten the funds, and then you have to go before this campus committee . . .
When I first got involved in this stuff I had to figure out how to draw up a contract, so I asked (Claes) Oldenburg how he did it. He’s been doing it for a long time, so he told me. But he had also said another thing you have to remember is when somebody asks you to do this, no matter what they say out loud, in the back of their mind there’s a ground plan and it’s got an X on it where the sculpture goes, and they’re thinking about a medium-sized Henry Moore. They may not even know that, but it’s back there. And when you don’t bring that in, it’s very confusing. By keeping that in mind you can save yourself. A little humor helps.
I was fascinated by your Trust Me Only/Big Studio 84 (a neon piece at the Madison Gallery, Albuquerque. See October ARTlines). In trying to decipher it, I wondered if its price wasn’t part of the work.
I don’t know. Was it?
Twenty-two characters in the piece, a $22,000 price tag . . .
I didn’t even know that! Are there? Boy. (laugh)
How did you get the price?
I called Castelli . . .
And they counted them! Like pricing a painting by the square inch. (laugh)
That’s basically it. “How big is it? Does it flash on and off?” There was another piece I’d done a year or so before, roughly the same dimensions, and the retail price on that was $25,000. I said I didn’t think this piece was quite as good as that one, so I just picked that figure (more laughter). You never know . . . Maybe it was back there somewhere, who knows.
What was that piece about, as far as you were concerned?
Actually, that was about as close as the knife and art business ever got. I decided I would try and do an edition of knives, there would be two blades, and I would have them etched at Gemini (in Los Angeles). They were interested, they would publicize and sell them. One blade was going to say “Big Studio 1984” and the other blade would say “Trust Me Only.” When you look at commercial knives – they don’t do it much anymore –they used to say things like “I am sharp” or “I cut for you,” all this weird stuff etched on the blade. “Trust Me Only” is in the line of those kinds of things – “Don’t tread on me,” a little bit threatening, are you supposed to trust the knife or the guy who owns it or what? Basically it was the kind of knife I would use in the studio, one blade a real good general cutting blade, the other one good for cutting paper. First I was just going to say “Studio Knife,” and then I thought this was 1984 and I’ll make it “Big Studio 84,” which was political enough, Orwellian. I made a drawing for the etching, Gemini did a photo copy and reduced it, sent me a copy, and it looked so good I thought I would make a sign out of it. (laughter)
Could we see your studio? Is it big?
It’s big, but there’s nothing in it. I sent everything off to Castelli’s.
Did you study philosophy in college?
No, mathematics and physics for a couple of years, and then I switched to art. I grew up in the Midwest, Indiana and Wisconsin, mostly small towns.
Do you think of the word pieces as knots, idea knots?
I was trying to make a piece once that had to do with knots, but I hadn’t thought of the words in that way. It seems applicable. I can’t describe how though.
As wonderful as language is, so often it’s so inadequate.
Except that’s where the mystery . . . I think that’s why I relate it to poetry, because there’s always the gap between what’s said and what it means, and the meaning is not in words or in the object, it’s somewhere between you and the structure. What you imagine and what you intend and what you make, and then what’s there . . . What’s really there is often so different from what I thought I was putting in. As long as there’s that surprise there of something you hadn’t realized in the work that’s interesting . . . that’s the part I like.
Do you think of that as being at all mystical?
No, I don’t think mystical is the word I’d use. It’s the part of you that operates without your control. It’s a way of getting at that part of yourself, me getting at that part of myself, learning to trust it.
Nicole Plett, Stephen Parks, Winter 1984/85