At the start of his celebrated career, the pioneering conceptualist Bruce Nauman turned his attention to the perfect working-class object: a beer sign. Rather than reading “Schlitz”, “Budweiser” or “Dos Equis XX”, his window-sized display spelled out a head-scratching phrase in blue neon wrapped around a red spiral, the symbol of infinity.
It read portentously: “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths”. Instead of frosty brew, what the artist art-vertised was the paradoxically ambiguous nature of his job: to find deeper meaning in clichéd signs (among them, art and language) and reveal it.
Flashback to 1967: Nauman has just completed his MFA at the University of California, Davis. Shortly thereafter he sets up his first studio in a former grocery store in San Francisco. A neon beer sign installed in a nearby window inspires him to fashion his own light-filled statement.
Hung facing the street, Nauman’s Window or Wall Sign (1967)—which is equal parts irony and self-help romanticism—initially befuddles passers-by. In time, it is understood to be a cornerstone of a massively influential career concerned with, among other things, excavating gaps that open up gold-bearing veins between signs and their messages.
“I had the idea that I could make art that would kind of disappear—an art that was supposed to not quite look like art,” Nauman told curator Brenda Richardson in 1982. Asked whether the work is sincere in its message, he responded: “It was a kind of test—like when you say something out loud to see if you believe it.”
Nauman went on to say that the statement was “a totally silly idea” in which he nonetheless truly believes. “It’s true and it’s not true at the same time. It depends on how you interpret it and how seriously you take yourself.”
This seminal work, which is part artist statement and part riddle, is one of more than 170 by the 76-year-old Nauman now on view in a major retrospective at the Schaulager, Basel’s football-field-sized Herzog & de Meuron-designed museum, art storage facility and research institute
Titled “Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts”, it is the first comprehensive retrospective of the artist in more than 20 years and spans five decades of his work in multiple media—video, drawing, print, photography, sculpture, sound, installation and neon. (On show in Basel until 26 August, the exhibition then travels to MoMA and MoMA PS1, where it opens from 21 October until March 17, 2019.)
Organized by Kathy Halbreich, curator and advisor to the director at MoMA and executive director of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (who co-curated the artist’s last survey at the Walker Art Center in 1994 with Neal Benezra), the exhibition centers on the idea of disappearance “as an act, concept, perceptual probe, magical deceit, working method, and metaphor” in Nauman’s art. Few creators inhabit the Houdini-like act of disappearing, and reappearing again, like Nauman.
Of all major living contemporary artists, Nauman is the one most likely to be described as both essential and mysterious in the same sentence. But if his importance is unquestioned, his artistic presence has faded from view during the last few decades.
The reasons are simple: “His recent artistic production has been relatively infrequent and of a more introspective nature; there have been no major shows; and there has not been enough significant work on the market for a new generation of collectors,” said Allan Schwartzman in a recent newsletter [In Other Words, 7 June 2018].
A lot of that is about to change. The long-awaited Bruce Nauman retrospective is packed with decades of artistic revelations, or appearing acts—along with mystic truths delivered by a true artist.