Artists & Designers

Bruce Nauman (b. 1941)

Bruce Nauman has consistently produced art that eliminates borders between art and life. In his process and conceptually-based art, he employs traditional materials such as plaster and wax, and nontraditional materials such as fiberglass and latex, neon, holography, and video. His humorous and confrontational work has continued to raise questions of social, moral, and cultural import; it deals with issues of life and death, faith and fear - the human condition and spirit at the end of the 20th century.

Nauman has become recognized as one of the great poets, visual or verbal, of alienation, a condition present in much of the art of the last century. From his pioneering use of video in the mid-1960s that presented the literal activities of the archetypal "artist in the studio"; to rooms that bend a viewer's sense of space with fluorescent light, plywood, video and televisions; to neon word works that question the meanings and truth of language; to suspended circles of wax animals and iron chairs suggesting sinister rituals, to his late 1980s and early 1990s video installations that include some of his most visceral depictions of doubt, anxiety, and fear, Nauman's work has consistently challenged his viewers with scenarios that undermine our sense of cognition, perception, and, often, comfort. In essence, from his early videotapes of himself in his studio (Wall-Floor Positions, 1968) to his Carousel (1988), in which taxidermy casts of animals hang by their necks from a rotating device resembling a slaughtering rack, Nauman has consistently challenged the definition of a work of art and the role of the artist.

Nauman's art can be seen as part of a broad body of 20th century art that reflects an emptying out of meaning in contemporary life that, poignantly, paradoxically, has retained its ability to inflict pain, loss, and bewilderment. To add further insult to injury, there seems no way to understand why this situation must be as it is. Yet, like the characters of Samuel Beckett who enact an often funny but wholly meaningless business of living, Nauman's art addresses such questions of existence from a maniacally obsessive place, often becoming so absurd in effect so as to produce nervous laughter as much as a grimace.

Born in Indiana in 1941, Bruce Nauman studied at the graduate level under Robert Arneson and William T. Wiley at the University of California, Davis. There Nauman was encouraged to integrate humor and irony into his work, allowing for a freer way to make art than the Minimalist artists before him, such as Donald Judd and Carl Andre. Nauman also studied mathematics as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; mathematical theories and rules helped him to consider thinking and investigative behavior above overt craft in making his own art. This notion also developed from a fascination with Man Ray and Dadaism, the early 20th century movement characterized by its aggressive insistence on the irrational and nonsensical; a strong interest in obsessive human behavior that is reminiscent of the literature of Beckett, as mentioned above, and in a belief that hard work, even the most repetitive and random actions, in and of itself is a completely valid art since, after all, it takes place in the artist's studio. To paraphrase Neal Benezra in Nauman's retrospective catalogue, art for Nauman has a function beyond being beautiful: art equals activity.

Adapted from

Charles Wylie, DMA unpublished material, 2004.

Web Resources

  • Art 21: Art in the Twenty-first Century
    Watch a video segment about Bruce Nauman.
  • The Art Story
    Learn more about Bruce Nauman's art practice and works.