As Bruce Nauman’s touring retrospective opens at MoMA, Jonathan T.D. Neil interrogates why the American artist remains so relevant today.
Why Nauman? For anyone familiar with Bruce Nauman and his wellestablished place in the history of contemporary art, the answer, ‘Because it’s Bruce Nauman’, will suffice. But what will follow, inevitably, are explanations that, since at least the 1990s, have begun to harden into doxa: ‘No other artist has so consistently defied the pull of a recognisable style’. ‘No other artist’s practice has tarried more with incoherence.’ ‘No other artist has moved so effortlessly between sculpture, film, video, performance, photography, installation, etc.’ ‘No other artist has so antagonised his audience.’ ‘No other artist has such important devotees.’ ‘No other artist has managed in art what Beckett managed in literature and theatre.’ ‘No other artist is so tricky.’ ‘No other artist is a cowboy.’ ‘No other artist is smarter.’ ‘No other artist…’
None of these answer exactly ‘why Nauman?’ The artist, now in his seventies, is the subject of a third retrospective, his first in 20 years, and his second at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (though this one opened at the Schaulager in Basel in March). Both this exhibition and Nauman’s previous retrospective were organised by onetime MoMA deputy director and now Rauschenberg Foundation executive director Kathy Halbreich, one of Nauman’s devotees. For Halbreich, the persistence of ‘disappearance’ as ‘act, concept, perceptual probe, magical deceit, working method, and metaphor’ in Nauman’s art is what distinguishes, or at least organises, this year’s retrospective. While preparing her show, this ‘oxymoronic’ appearance of disappearance, Halbreich writes in her introductory essay to the catalogue, ‘surprised – really sideswiped me’, insofar as it offered a new means to understand Nauman’s notoriously difficult practice.