Bruce Nauman

(Various sex acts playfully portrayed in neon, but still…)

The last of yesterday’s four “Body works” postings (about San Francisco artist Keith Boadwee) ends with a discussion of Bruce Nauman’s neon sculpture Eat War (1986), echoed in Boadwee’s photo composition Eat Shit. And so to the incredibly multifaceted (and very often unsettling) artist Nauman, who is, among other things, a playful language artist and a chronicler of human connection, especially through sex.

One of each, both in neon:


“None Sing Neon Sign”, 1970


“Seven Figures”, 1984

Nauman in his famous work “Self-Portrait as a Fountain”, 1966, and in a more recent photo:



From the Wikipedia entry, which I quote at length because it’s a good survey of a long and complex career:

Bruce Nauman (born December 6, 1941 [the day before the original Pearl Harbor Day]) is an American artist. His practice spans a broad range of media including sculpture, photography, neon, video, drawing, printmaking, and performance. Nauman lives near Galisteo, New Mexico.

Nauman was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but his father’s work as an engineer for General Electric meant that the family moved often. He studied mathematics and physics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (1960–64), and art with William T. Wiley and Robert Arneson at the University of California, Davis (1965–6). In 1964 he gave up painting to dedicate himself to sculpture, performance and cinema collaborations with William Allan and Robert Nelson. He worked as an assistant to Wayne Thiebaud.

Ah, the Davis connection. See my 2/2/16 posting on Arneson and my 12/5/16 posting on Thiebaud.

Upon graduation (MFA, 1966), he taught at the San Francisco Art Institute from 1966 to 1968, and at the University of California at Irvine in 1970. In 1968 he met the singer and performance artist Meredith Monk and signed with the dealer Leo Castelli. Nauman moved from Northern California to Pasadena in 1969. In 1979, Nauman further moved to Pecos, New Mexico. In 1989, he established a home and studio in Galisteo, New Mexico, where he continues to work and live along with his wife, the painter Susan Rothenberg.

Confronted with “What to do?” in his studio soon after graduating, Nauman had the simple but profound realization that [I boldface this for emphasis] “If I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art. At this point art became more of an activity and less of a product.” Nauman set up a studio in a former grocery shop in the Mission district of San Francisco and then in a sublet from his university tutor in Mill Valley. These two locations provided the setting for a series of performed actions which he captured in real time, on a fixed camera, over the 10-minute duration of a 16mm film reel. Between 1966 and 1970 he made several videos, in which he used his body to explore the potentials of art and the role of the artist, and to investigate psychological states and behavioural codes. Much of his work is characterized by an interest in language, often manifesting itself in a playful, mischievous manner. For example, the neon Run From Fear – Fun From Rear, or the photograph Bound To Fail, which literalizes the title phrase and shows the artist’s arms tied behind his back. There are however, very serious concerns at the heart of Nauman’s practice. He seems to be fascinated by the nature of communication and language’s inherent problems [he is something of a student of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein], as well as the role of the artist as supposed communicator and manipulator of visual symbols.

Two more neon sculptures, both phallus-themed, from 1985″



The neon sculptures are, as far as I know, all kinetic; most switch back and forth between two states (fairly obviously in #6), some with more. To see some of them in action, you can look at the video here: video installations of Bruce Nauman from the exhibition “Extended Drawing” in the Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht, 2001-12.

What I’ve given here is a very tiny sample of Nauman’s work, designed to link closely to previous postings on this blog. Check out the wider range; a lot is available on the web. You will see that Nauman, even at his most playful, is a craftsman at whatever he does.

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