Undernourishment and Eccentricity
“From 1965 on one sees a hyperbolic attempt on Nauman’s part to create forms never before seen, made of substances and colored in ways equally unknown. I do not quarrel with the aspiration; it is the very fiber of art. But the quest, though stated and perhaps even “felt” in these exalted terms, is equally arbitrary notwithstanding the fact that beween 1965 and 1967, Nauman came close to realizing such an ambition. The forms which Nauman took to making at the time were spindly affairs, loaflike and split into arching rails. They were of two kinds, soft and hard; the soft group were made of colored rubber latex and the hard cast in fiberglass. The works give off an aura of undernourishment and eccentricity. In many respects these “impoverished” works, supported directly by the wall and floor, anticipate many of the experiments associated with the rise of post-Minimalism—particularly the early rubber and neon work of Richard Serra—a history which I have attempted to write in my essays on Richard Serra, Keith Sonnier, and Eva Hesse. I would be hard put not to acknowledge the seminal role played by Nauman’s untitled rubber, fiberglass, and neon works in redirecting the nature of artistic aspiration in the late ’60s.
In November 1966, Nauman figured prominently in an exhibition held in New York’s Fischbach Gallery called “Eccentric Abstraction,” which represented the real surfacing of this counter-Minimalist taste in the gallery context. Works by Keith Sonnier and Eva Hesse were included among others. The exhibition was organized and introduced by the critic Lucy Lippard, who undertook to clarify “an aspect of visceral identification that is hard to escape, an identification that psychologists have called ‘body ego’.” Lippard was referring to the capacity of the viewer to empathetically respond to unfamiliar forms in visceral terms. Yet the term “body ego” suggests another possibility—that a work may be the means, so to speak, whereby the artist employs his body or sections thereof, his lineaments, his personal possessions, or even his name, and in so doing transforms himself into a self-exploitable tool or the raw material of artistic presentation. He becomes, in a certain sense, his own objet trouvé—hence narcissistic. The term “body ego” certainly poses the possibility of this interpretation in Nauman’s work after 1967, although Lippard’s introduction was written on the basis of the earlier untitled fiberglass pieces, which she regarded as vehicles “unconcerned with conventional manipulation of forms in space and more involved with a perverse, sometimes bizarre expansion of the limits of art.” [Robert Pincus Witten on Bruce Nauman]
“Our bodies are necessary to the experience of any phenomenon. It is characteristic of Nauman’s work that he has always used his own body and its activities as both the subject and object of his pieces. He has made casts from it (Hand to Mouth, Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at 10 Inch Intervals, etc.) and manipulated it (in earlier performances using his body in relation to a T-bar or neon tube, as well as in the holograms). He has made video tapes of his own activities (Bouncing Balls in the Studio) and films of parts of his body being acted upon; Bouncing Balls and Black Balls are slow-motion films of Nauman’s testicles moving and being painted black. He has questioned, in various pieces, his behavior as an artist and his attitudes toward himself as such. He has contorted his body and face to the limits of physical action as well as representation. By making audiotapes of himself clapping, breathing, whispering and playing the violin, he has also explored a range of noises made and perceived by his own body.
This concern with physical self is not simple artistic egocentrism, but use of the body to transform intimate subjectivity into objective demonstration. Man is the perceiver and the perceived; he acts and is acted upon; he is the sensor and the sensed. His behavior constitutes a dialectical interchange with the world he occupies. Merleau-Ponty, in The Structure of Behavior, stresses that man is, in fact, his body, despite the essential ambiguity of its being at once lived from the inside and observed from the outside. Nauman has used himself in this way as a prototypical subject for the pieces. These works are meant, essentially, to be encountered privately by one person at a time. Where earlier the artist was the subject and object of recorded situations, now it is the spectator who becomes both the actor and observer of his own activity.” [Marcia Tucker on Bruce Nauman]
… the issue of language gained prominence during the sixties due to a number of historical and social reasons. One of them, mentioned only in passing, was the rise of media culture, resulting in a widespread interest in theories of communication, linguistic coding, cybernetics, and so on. In this new technocratic society, the very circulation and control of knowledge and information become central: language, in this regard, is not neutral but represents a potentially contestatory activity as well as a source of power. The speech-act, which approaches language as a social agent — as opposed to the semiotic sign, where language represents a formal system — provides a particularly productive model with which to account for the “game” that communication has become. The investigation of the speech-act by Nauman’s art may thus be viewed as a subtle form of sociocultural commentary based specifically within the conditions of historical experience.” [Janet Kraynak on Bruce Nauman]