If we think of Picasso and Duchamp as the two opposing poles in 20th century art, the Berkeley campus at present displays significant work by their successors. Fernando Botero’s series of paintings and drawings, documenting the torture at Abu Ghraib, has been perceived as a contemporary Guernica.
Bruce Nauman’s concept, that art is what the artist does, goes back to Marcel Duchamp and his ready-mades, as does the use of words as an integral part of the work. Nauman’s well-known photograph, Self-Portrait as a Fountain (1966-67 / 1970) in which the artist is seen spewing water, might be compared to Duchamp’s famous up-ended urinal entitled Fountain of some 50 years earlier.
The exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum covers the artist’s seminal work as a young man: the years 1964-1969, the years when he was a student at UC Davis and then working in San Francisco. UC Davis at that time had on its art faculty a number of innovative maverick artists, including Robert Arneson, William T. Wiley, Manuel Neri and Roy de Forest, whose unconventional irreverent work has been designated as “Funk,” which does not apply to Nauman’s work, which tend to be more cerebral.
This is exemplified by A Rose Has No Teeth, a lead plaque, which was affixed to a tree where it would eventually disappear. The words are taken from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations , in which the philosopher used this phrase to show logical absurdity: the sentence is grammatically correct, but meaningless. Nauman was fond of misleading the public.
There is a 1966 piece, Wax Impressions of the Knees of Five Famous Artists. The material only looks like wax. It is actually fiberglass and polyester resin and the knee impressions are all his own.
This work, like his Fountain, also exemplifies his involvement with his own body. As Bruce Nauman exerted enormous influence on younger artists, has attention to his own body did lead to a regrettable pursuit of self-indulgent art, which prevailed in the 1980s and ’90s.
Nauman’s own physical pieces remain fascinating. There is, for example, a work entitled Hand to Mouth (1967). He uses the idiomatic expression to show a disembodied long arm, which connects his hand to his mouth, done in wax over cloth. Or a color photograph showing the artist from the back and tied up with a rope. It is called Bound to Fail (1966-67 / 1970).
There is also a series of the equally eponymous screenprints, Studies for Holograms (Squeezed Lips; Pulled Cheeks; Pinched Lips; Pulled Neck; and Pulled Lower Lip) (1970). I found this piece so intriguing that I acquired it for the Berkeley Art Museum the year it was done. The exhibition also shows early 16 mm films in which we see the artist walking, leaning, bending, and crouching. In Sound Effects for Manipulating the T Bar (1965) there is actually no sound, but in the film we see the artist struggling with two plumbing pipes joined in the form of a T. This was originally done with a cheap movie camera and foreshadows Nauman’s prodigious work in video in the years to come.
In a 1968 video, he performed Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk). Constance Lewallen in the excellent catalogue for the show points out “Literature (Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov, Malcolm Lowry, and Alain Robbe-Grillet, in particular) and Gestalt psychology played into his art-making.”
Similarly in the film Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square (1967-68) the artist slowly places one foot behind the other in a laborious motion. The walking impulse is impeded. The action is frustrated and the motion useless. Yet he must go on.
A ROSE HAS NO TEETH:
BRUCE NAUMAN IN THE 1960s
11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday through Sundays and 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursdays through April 15 at the Berkeley Art Museum, 2626 Bancroft Way. $5-$8. Admission free first Thursday of each month.
Image: Self-Portrait as a Fountain, on display through April 15 as part of the Bruce Nauman exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum.