Bruce Nauman: Transgressing Conventional Boundaries in Aesthetica Magazine

In 2011 Kunsthalle Mannheim celebrated Bruce Nauman’s 70th birthday with a retrospective examining the artist’s fascinating body of work. Now, the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris presents Nauman’s first major solo show in France in over 15 years. To coincide with this new exhibition, we delve into the Aesthetica archive and reflect on an article from Issue 41.

Bruce Nauman (b. 1941) has, since the beginning of his career, stretched the limits of what can be considered “art”. Materials have always been inconsequential, with his own body and the architectural edifices of his studio being the two main sources of creative impetus and inspiration in his work. Nauman, who originally studied mathematics at the University of Wisconsin and received a Masters in Fine Art from the University of California in 1966, turned away from painting and conventional media in the mid-1960s. From that point on he began to work with and investigate art as an activity: specifically, he was interested in the way in which his own body could be an active element within his artistic oeuvre. His work was both seminal and groundbreaking during this period, especially with regard to the evolution of sculpture, and as an artist he has thus been the focus of numerous exhibitions. The Kunsthalle Mannheim, which holds an extensive sculpture collection, is one such institution that wants to expand the way in which their collection is connected to and interacts with conceptual art of the late 20th century, specifically that of Nauman. The Mannheim will host Bruce Nauman – Der wahre Künstler | The True Artist, a retrospective of Nauman’s work from 28 May – 21 August, to coincide with his 70th birthday this year, exhibiting works from the Friedrich Christian Flick Collection.

Nauman’s career has always been determined by his queries into the boundaries of art and materials; his body within the studio was the focal point of much of his early work. In simple photographs such as that of an almost empty coffee cup with spilt coffee splaying out from the side, Coffee Thrown Away Because it Was Too Cold (1966-1970), Nauman depicts the basic life of an artist trying to understand what it is an artist does, what defines them beyond the basic structure of being in a studio expected to create. He stated in an interview in 1980: “After I got out of school … I drank a lot of coffee, so those photographs [are] of coffee thrown away … [and] of hot coffee spilled.” The images show the trace of the artist yet do not go so far as to explain the circumstances of the situation: the how and why of the spilled coffee cup – was it out of frustration, anger, or was it a pure accident that he captured on film?

A lack of funds at the beginning of his career meant that Nauman was forced to use the physical structure of the studio and his bodily presence as the primary media in his work, with film as a tool to record and preserve the works. Ulrike Lorenz, of the Kunsthalle Mannheim, states that Nauman “wanted to preserve his lonely acted out performances [but that] later on, he begins to use video in a more explicit way – as a technical device.” Tension became an integral element to these works, such as Green Light Corridor (1970–1971) in which Nauman dictates the audience’s movements by forcing them to squeeze through two walls. There is a beginning and end, always a way out, but the tension induced, the feeling of claustrophobia, is intense and often distressing. The audience must trust Nauman and he thereby manipulates the viewer both physically and emotionally into participating. Lorenz says: “He simultaneously uses recording and replay (screening) in order to put the viewer in between the paradox and antagonism of playing the role of the observer and, at the same time, being observed [the viewer] undergoes an adventure of disorientation.” The immediacy, affordability, and spontaneity of video art (as opposed to film) allowed Nauman, along with contemporaries Nam June Paik, Dan Graham, and John Baldessari, to break down the boundary between the artist and the audience and the art object and the observable act of creation. Whereas film emphasised the temporal quality of the medium, video emphasised the dynamic, chaotic possibilities afforded by the medium. The manipulation of context and time served to disorientate the viewer and question their own role as a participant in his work.

Nauman did not just explicitly target the audience, but his own body in his filmed works. With Playing a Note on the Violin While I Walk Around the Studio (1968), his physical presence dominates the studio and the screen; the audience is unable to turn away from the sight of the repetitive, programmed event though they know it is slightly voyeuristic.

There is a Sisyphean element to this and much of Nauman’s early work in that the act of movement produces no true, definable result: he produced roughly 25 video works during the 1960s that consisted of filmed sequences of mundane movements enacted within the studio. These movements, whether bending or squatting, are dance-like in their simple choreography and repetition, though ultimately leading to nothing. This emphasis on both movement and failure is articulated visually in the works of contemporary artists such as Francis Alÿs, an artist who creates movements based on a specific narrative or framework. Ultimately each movement/performance ends in failure, as with in When Faith Moves Mountains (Cuando la fe Mueve Montanas) (11 April 2002) in which Alÿs collaborated with Rafael Ortega, Cuauhtémoc Medina, and over 500 volunteers, to move a sixteen hundred foot long sand dune four inches through physical exertion. Though the act was viewed as a success, the performance was bound to fail as the sand dune is not static – eventually, whether through natural processes or human intervention, the sand dune will revert to its original position.

The term “process” is integral when examining Nauman’s work. The art historian and critic Kristine Stiles defines process as both a method and style in that it “functioned as a point of intersection and transit between traditional painting and sculpture and the profusion of experimental practices that occurred in the late 1960s, which collapsed form and content into a continuous state.” Art no longer existed as an autonomous entity and structure, but was dependent on the context within which it was produced as well as by art historical predecessors and aesthetics. It became increasingly difficult to categorise artists, especially an artist like Nauman, who works with several different media, styles and forms. Lorenz argues that to categorise Nauman as “a performance or body artist, or sculpture or installation artist, would mean to have to exclude his poetic visual and verbal art, his interventions with the audience, and his theatrical video works.”

Nauman’s contemporaries, such as Vito Acconci (b. 1940), were interested in art-making rather than art, and in completely avoiding the traditions of painting and sculpture, they were left with performance and installation art. Acconci viewed the camera or film frame as a symbolic studio; he termed it an “isolation chamber” in which his body became the focal point. This emphasis on bodily awareness is paramount to both Nauman and Acconci’s work, whether it is an immediate awareness as with Acconci’s work, or in retrospect as with Nauman’s.

Mapping the Studio (2001), a seven-channel video projection of his studio at Las Madres Ranch, signals a resurging awareness by Nauman on the prescribed notions of the “studio” that has been such a formative influence on his work throughout his career. Lorenz states that with a work such as Mapping the Studio: “Nauman symbolically returns to his point of origin. He is not visible on the screen, but at the same time still present – in the form of an elusive creator of his enigmatic work.” This work calls into mind his spilled coffee cups, where the trace of his presence takes on more significance than the act of his own hand in the event.

Nauman’s text-based works ultimately derive from his own self-examination of what it is to be an artist: “I needed to work out of a broader social context, and I needed to get more of what I thought and what I knew about it in the work … I was reading, I think a lot of word / visual puns and … Nabokov.” Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations became incredibly influential; specifically Wittgenstein’s examination of language and its context-based significance. Language can be vague and often meaningless and relies on non-linguistic circumstances (e.g. human nature) to lend it meaning. Thus language games, or situations involving words, became a primary focus for Wittgenstein and a source of interest for many artists.

René Magritte, who places the text “Ceci n’est pas un pipe”, below an image of a pipe is one such example of the often incongruous nature of text versus image. Lorenz calls Nauman a “master of dialectics” and that “his interest in language begins where the functional borders of communication are already transgressed.” Nauman is interested in language as an activity, and in his 1992 collaborative works with Rinde Eckert, he takes language games as the focal point for performative video installations. Anthro / Socio (Rinde Facing Camera) (1991) and Anthro / Socio (Rinde Spinning) (1992) consist of screens displaying the face of Eckert, who he filmed in close-up whilst reciting specific phrases based in Wittgenstenian language games.

Wittgenstein believed that language was self-contained, that humans inhabited it, and it is these language games that allow humans to step outside momentarily the confines of its structural linguistic framework. In many ways Nauman views art in the same way – it is a historical structure that dictates what an artist should create and what it is an artist is defined as – the language games thereby allowed Nauman to step outside the language of art and transgress art historical boundaries. Lorenz argues: “The core irony of Nauman’s complex practice is, however, that by putting up the issue of myths for reconsideration, he strengthens the artistic myth even more.”

It is a double-edged sword for, as much as Nauman avoids traditional aesthetics and methods, and questions the role of the artist; his work embodies the magic of art. His avoidance of traditional forms has led to his categorisation as being a non-traditional sculptor. Lorenz cites Auguste Rodin and Henry Moore as major 20th century influences in the movement away from traditional, perfect works and as specific inspirations for Nauman. Rodin and Moore both moved away from the idea that sculpture could only be considered art if it was a complete, literal rendition of the subject; perception and spatial awareness were of more interest.

His studio has always been more of a second home, than just an artist’s studio. He remembers each vividly, the most famous being a former grocery store in San Francisco that had an old neon beer sign in the window that inspired his first neon works; another being a short-lived residence within the Southampton studio of Roy Lichtenstein and Paul Waldman which initiated his “corridor” pieces. Las Madres Ranch, his current home and studio that he shares with his wife, the painter Susan Rothenberg, serves as an inspiration, refuge, and outdoor exhibition space for them both. The 600-acre site in New Mexico’s Galisteo basin provides Nauman with the physical space that his smaller, urban studios could never provide: he has spent so much of his career mapping the studio, mapping his body, that perhaps an immense space was needed for him to progress as an artist?

Nauman is not only a commercially successful artist, but also well-revered conceptually and critically. His work encapsulates philosophical, spatial, and temporal queries that continue to plague artists and audiences. Lorenz suggests: “After the frenzy in painting and the drought of the concept in art, we again see the search for the actual meaning and the interest in the fundamental questions of the human being.” Nauman endeavours to investigate and probe these questions through his work and this is, as she goes on to state, the secret of his success: “Nauman goes far beyond the conventional systems and discovers new horizons.”

Niamh Coghlan

Bruce Nauman – Der wahre Künstler | The True Artist ran from 28 May until 21 August 2011 at Kunsthalle Mannheim. For more information, visit

Bruce Nauman until 21 June, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 261 Boulevard Raspail, 75014 Paris. Additional details are available at

Transgressing Conventional Boundaries featured in Aesthetica Issue 41. Pick up a copy of the magazine at

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1. Bruce Nauman, Double Poke in the Eye II (1985). Friedrich Christian Flick Collection in Hamburg Bahnhof. Photo by Stefan Altenburger, Zurich. Copyright VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2011.