“Being an artist has to do with a way of life” – Four steps towards Bruce Nauman

“Being an artist has to do with a way of life”
Four steps towards Bruce Nauman1

by Christel Sauer

Bruce Nauman, Art Make-Up, No. 1: White, 1967, 16mm film, colour, Raussmüller Collection.
© Bruce Nauman / 2018, ProLitteris, Zürich.

When Bruce Nauman stayed in Rome in the summer of 1987 on a fellowship from the American Academy, he felt that he was in the wrong place.2 His interest in the cultural history present in Rome as nowhere else – a fundamental source of inspiration for artists such as Cy Twombly and Jannis Kounellis, for example – was limited. It is not this kind of art that occupies Nauman – not the art central to educational ideals. In his understanding, art requires no education, no prior knowledge of history or literature, and above all no schooling in aesthetics. Tellingly, it was a beer sign that, in 1967, inspired him to create his first neon work: an eye-catcher as the vehicle of a message. He liked the fact that the piece had a clear aim, namely to make an impact on the viewer, and that its appearance had to serve this goal. The illuminated sign was succinct but effective, delivering its information in a direct and immediate way.

“I think what I’ve tried to do, and not necessarily succeeded at, is to make art that wasn’t either an extension of or in opposition to other art”3. Among Nauman’s achievements is the fact that his remarkably complex works usually look simple and unembellished. His art is not automatically recognizable as such. Subversive as it is, it can look like anything. Nauman prefers to use media that we identify with a non-artistic function. But however arbitrary the thing may seem, in its impact it hits the nerve. For the message is always extremely pointed and its effect precisely calculated. With astonishingly simple means, Nauman causes physical and mental irritations that push the boundaries of conventional art reception – and yet which can evidently only be provoked in such concentrated fashion within the sphere of art. Art offers Nauman a vast freedom that fully allows him to formulate, in every conceivable way and from the most different angles, the question of what it is to be human. For in art – unlike in the natural sciences, for example – it is possible to set and repeatedly reset your own rules. “Artists are able to start over again; … an artist is allowed to investigate things on his own without pointing out what’s wrong with all the other ideas that have been put forward.”4

Nauman had initially studied mathematics before realising that he was an artist. As a less closed system, art seemed to him more suitable for his form of reasoning. Many of his works have the character of experiments, which he conducts with himself or with others (the viewer increasingly included). With the interest of a researcher, he analyses processes and phenomena that he has experienced as concerning himself, fixes them by translating them into another medium, and thereby enables them to be followed at a new level. The point at which he stops working on the outward form of a piece is usually the point at which its effect is guaranteed. His choice of materials is exclusively determined by their suitability for conveying the information or experience in question. Indeed, since 1965 Nauman has worked with fiberglass, rubber, wax, his own body, neon lighting, wood, plaster, steel etc. He has created sculptures, installations, performances, photographs, films, videos, holograms, audio tapes and countless numbers of drawings. But however different his works appear, they are always concerned with “the figure as an object, or … the figure as a person and the things that happen to a person in various situations – to most people rather than just to me or to one particular person.”5


In 1966, after finishing his studies at the University of California in Davis, Bruce Nauman was offered a teaching post at the San Francisco Art Institute. He rented an empty grocery store as a studio and felt relatively isolated, since he knew almost no one. “That left me alone in the studio; this in turn raised the fundamental question of what an artist does when left alone in the studio. My conclusion was that 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 a product.”6

The scope of the artistic concept contained in Nauman’s typically succinct statement only becomes apparent at second glance. The premise “I am an artist” in conjunction with the conclusion “therefore everything I do is art” aims at the overthrow of all categories defining art. On this basis, every understanding of art is to be traced back primarily to the artist himself, and his works (his activities) are simply markings of a fundamentally artistic stance. With this in mind, all discussion about the boundaries of art – what is art and what is not art – is unproductive and reduces itself, from the perspective of the recipient, to a single question: does the artist’s work concern me, or not?

In the case of Bruce Nauman, we can draw the astonishing conclusion that almost everything that this artist does – however banal it may appear – indeed concerns the viewer. The activities that Nauman performs and the experiences they yield are so elementary that they are valid for everyone. When Nauman, alone in his studio, throws a rubber ball at the floor in such a way that it rebounds right up to the ceiling, and when he repeats the action again and again over a period of time, this constant emphasizing of a process that is in itself meaningless lends it a significance that transfers itself to the viewer as fascination. Nauman’s great ability lies in the degree of concentration with which he carries out his activities. Through precision and continuity, he is able to give his actions a power of conviction that – instead of as boredom – communicates itself as tension: “… if you really believe in what you’re doing and do it as well as you can, then there will be a certain amount of tension – if you are honestly getting tired, or if you are honestly trying to balance on one foot for a long time, there has to be a certain sympathetic response in someone who is watching you. It is a kind of body response, they feel that foot and that tension. But many things that you could do would be really boring, so it depends a lot on what you choose, how you set up the problem in the first place”7.

Characteristically, the astounding matter-of-factness with which Nauman performs his tasks means that the question of how and why he chose them – that is to say, according to what principle – never arises. Given the variety of forms into which he transposes his activities, the consistent nature of his subject matter almost disappears from view. Nauman interrogates the conditions of human functioning with a rigour and insistence matched by almost no other artist, and is thereby not afraid to start with the most obvious questions: what do I do, how do I behave in space, in time, with objects, with feelings, with other people? How do others react, alone, with others, etc.? The answers that he gives go unerringly beyond simple observation and lead to the bounds of normal consciousness, if not beyond them. To know, in the abstract, that isolation in an empty room causes unease, is different to directly experiencing that sense of unease. Nauman always manages to advance subtly into the periphery of physical and psychological reactions that we suspect but do not want to find confirmed. The task he set himself – often “just to see what would happen”8 – thus ultimately becomes an inexorable lesson for the viewers, who have long since become participants.


“Being an artist has to do with a way of life, because you can choose what to do every day.”9 With this statement Bruce Nauman confirms art’s most outstanding quality: art as principle of freedom and artists as embodiment of this principle. But there is another, tortuous side to this liberty that Nauman has also experienced at times: the compulsion to perform and to discipline his activities. It is true that the artist can decide what he does, but he must also decide that he does it. The mandatory (if often unpopular) tasks that are the strand running through the average existence are not present in the case of the artist. He operates within a freedom to which he himself must lend a structure, in order not to fail as a result of inactivity or lack of motivation. Action thus becomes an existential necessity and a fundamental principle of self-assertion, whereby the fulfilment of the tasks he has set himself (and which are demanded, for the most part, by no one else) becomes a ruthless yardstick of his artistic quality. No wonder that the image of the failed artist – one who is incapable of structuring his “way of life” in a convincing manner or, in other words, of translating freedom into resolute action – is closely bound up with the image of the artist.

Seen in this light, the compulsive role of the artist and his judgement (condemnation) by the public is representative of the role of the individual in society. Bruce Nauman starts from this point. He illuminates the compulsion to which the individual is subject by conveying it through his work. Nauman’s art does not usually trigger, in the process of its perception, feelings that are liberating or stimulating. A distinct feature of his works is how they limit and nail down, how they confront us with the hopelessness of circumstances and our exposure to the given situation. They function as demonstrations of a hierarchical principle, whereby the recipient is inferior to the artist. Nauman is clearly the master who sets the rules of the game and retains control. He drives his curious viewers into narrow corridors, at whose end they are startled to encounter themselves. He monitors them with audio tapes and video cameras and removes the ground from under their feet in a Floating Room10. In the context of his corridor pieces, Bruce Nauman says: “I have tried to make the situation sufficiently limiting so that spectators can’t display themselves easily … It has […] to do with my not allowing people to make their own performance out of my art. … [A spectator] can do only what I want him to do.”11

Bruce Nauman is no sadist. He might sooner be called a moralist – without the negative connotations of the term. His works start from his personal, profound concern. The depth of this concern can be gauged from the intensity with which it is transposed. The artist does not conceal the reason for his concern: “My work comes out of being frustrated about the human condition. And about how people refuse to understand other people. And about how people can be cruel to each other.”12

There is no question that art after Nauman looks different to art before Nauman. His influence on younger artists has been phenomenal. In broadening the spectrum of materials and media used to make art, Nauman has opened up possibilities that are still far from exhausted. But while the freedom in Nauman’s use of materials is great, the freedom in their effect is limited: “Something more complicated goes on in my work. It apparently gives freedom [to the viewer] but really doesn’t allow freedom.”13


Widescreen picture: prairie, dust, and a solitary man on horseback approaching from the horizon. A Stetson and boots identify the rider as a cowboy. The cowboy rides into a township. The peace is shattered and the action begins. Everything becomes different than before: love, hate, death or life. Not that the loner has single-handedly turned everything upside down. He has simply ignited what was already present below the surface and caused it to erupt. He is the catalyst who exposes the conflicts. In the end everyone is affected and scarred. Only the cowboy rides away – seemingly unperturbed, mysterious, alone.

The cliché of the Western relates to Bruce Nauman not because he wears a Stetson, owns splendid boots and lives like a cowboy in rural New Mexico, but because it describes his impact as an artist. Seemingly objective and distanced, he has the exceptional ability to unleash emotions. The experience of his works never fails to disturb the viewer, and sometimes produces strong reactions. The public finds itself helplessly exposed to an unwanted situation from which the artist offers no way out.

The phenomenon of the artist who fascinates, repels and attracts large numbers of people, who confronts them almost painfully with themselves, and who is nevertheless (therefore?) admired and revered, is nowhere more pronounced than in the case of Bruce Nauman. The more aggressive his works have become, whether in taking aggression as their theme or in actually embodying it, the more his following has grown. The end of the 1980s brought – in Europe, at least – a veritable Nauman “boom”, even though Nauman’s works at this time showed the gruesome dismemberment of animal bodies and portrayed hopelessness and pure brutality, the situation of victims and methods of torture. It almost seems as if the artist were trying everything to quench the enthusiasm of his followers – and thereby only fanned its flames.

The key lies in the intensity. Nauman’s works are possessed of an almost unsurpassable degree of intensity that leaves no possibility of escape. We have only to engage with them to be instantly trapped in their web. We no longer have a choice. Indifference is not an option. And this situation, however unwelcome it may be, exerts its own fascination.

At Documenta 9 in 1992 a number of intense and appealing works were on show. But nothing compared with the disquieting intensity of Nauman’s video installation Anthro/Socio, with its chilling soundtrack “Help me, hurt me…; feed me, eat me…”14 The work’s physically unendurable nature alone made everything else pale beside it. What gets straight under the skin is not just the penetrating sound and visual bombardment of the projections running simultaneously at different rhythms, the expression of the voice and face, the close-up view and the text as such – it is also the immense precision and mutually heightened intensity with which all these aspects work together. The viewer is “knocked out” by Nauman’s intelligent and astonishingly creative use of his means – in this case of communication media, which broadcast the elementary cry for true understanding. In insistent repetition, interruption and acceleration, Nauman uses this seamless fusion of content and form, structured by the moment of time, to further heighten the already extreme intensity of this audio-visual piece.

The high degree of intensity that is a quality of so many Nauman works is at the same time the fundamental problem of every Nauman exhibition. Intensity cannot be duplicated – but it can mutually block itself when it appears simultaneously. Even more than with other artists, when presenting several Nauman pieces at once, any overlapping of their often forceful visual and acoustic stimuli should if possible be avoided. Nauman’s works already deliver, individually, sufficient impact to strike recipients to the innermost core. The concentrated encounter with multiple corridors, neons, videos and sound pieces can leave us amazed at the artist’s creative potential and the precision of the effects he generates – or it can push us beyond the limits of our tolerance and acceptance. To produce this latter reaction would be a betrayal of the profound seriousness of Bruce Nauman and the existential truths that are found at the origin of every single one of his works.


1 This essay was written for the Dutch art magazine Metropolis M, vol. 4, August 1994. It is here published in English for the first time. The Bruce Nauman quotation is taken from Marcia Tucker, Bruce Nauman, in: Jane Livingston and Marcia Tucker, eds., Bruce Nauman. Work from 1965 to 1972, catalogue of the touring exhibition organised by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1972, p. 31f.

2 I am grateful to Konrad Fischer, Nauman’s Düsseldorf gallerist and friend, for providing this information.

3 Bruce Nauman in Marcia Tucker, Bruce Nauman, in: Livingston/Tucker 1972, p. 31f.

4 Ibid., p. 45.

5 Bruce Nauman in Willoughby Sharp, Nauman Interview, Arts Magazine 44, March 1970; quoted in: Livingston/Tucker 1972, p. 31.

6 Ian Wallace and Russell Keziere, Bruce Nauman Interviewed, Vanguard 8, no. 1, February 1979; quoted in: Livingston/Tucker 1972, p. 35.

7 Bruce Nauman interviewed by Willoughby Sharp, in: Avalanche, no. 2, Winter 1971; quoted in: Livingston/Tucker 1972, p. 35.

8 Cf. Livingston/Tucker 1972, p. 10.

9 Marcia Tucker, Bruce Nauman, in: Livingston/Tucker 1972, p. 31.

10 Floating Room, 1972, wallboard, wood, fluorescent lights, 120 x 192 x 192 in. (304.8 x 487.7 x 487.7 cm); in: Joan Simon, ed., Bruce Nauman, exhibition catalogue and catalogue raisonné, Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, 1994; cat. rais. 213 (Light Outside, Dark Inside) and 214 (Lit from Inside), pp. 255 and 256 respectively.

11 Sharp 1970; quoted in: Livingston/Tucker 1972, p. 13.

12 Joan Simon, Breaking the Silence: An Interview with Bruce Nauman, in: Art in America 76, no. 9, September 1988, p. 148.

13 Jane Livingston, Bruce Nauman, in: Livingston/Tucker 1972, p. 24.

14 Nauman’s video installation Anthro/Socio – Rinde Spinning, 1992, shows, on several screens, the head of the opera singer Rinde Eckert revolving on its axis as Rinde repeatedly calls out the words “Feed me / Eat me / Anthropology” // “Help me / Hurt me / Sociology” in an aggressive, ringing voice in overlaid soundtracks.


Translated from German by Karen Williams

© 1994/2017 Christel Sauer / Raussmüller