Bruce Nauman


Bruce Nauman, essay by Tom Sandqvist, Writer and Art Historian

Exhibition catalogue no 14
No of pages:
32, color, illustrated
soft cover

Language: Swedish and English
Year: 1996
Publisher: Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall

Available for purchase in our museum entrance for 300 SEK (approx. 30 EUR)


Bruce Nauman by Tom Sandqvist

Bruce Nauman is a child of his time. Born in 1941 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, he belongs to a generation that has lived through, been formed by, and explored a number of epistemological and artistic paradigm shifts, all of them leading to the collapse of the great ideological systems, all of them questioning the whole of Western rationality as a kind of Cartesian basis for the big ontological Tale. The borderlines between art and non-art, between true and false, between man and woman have been crossed constantly.

Bruce Nauman is a child of his wounded time, and it is not for nothing that the American critic Peter Schjeldahl characterises Naumans’s work as an “abruptly decisive act of a person consumed by doubt”. It is obvious that Nauman’s art in its formative stages was influenced by the existentialist and linguistic ideas of the fifties as promulgated by, for example, the professors of the University of Wisconsin and the University of California. It was here that, in the early sixties, Bruce Nauman was a student not only of art but of mathematics and physics while at the same time pursuing a less formal study of music (Webern, Schönberg) and philosophy. It is equally obvious that he was influenced by the immense artistic diversity characteristic of America in the sixties before turning to politically and socially committed work at the beginning of the eighties, as in South America Triangle (1981), a kind of monument to the victims of torture in Argentina inspired by Jacobo Timmerman’s autobiographical book published in the same year; the chair hanging upside down in the middle of it as well as the suspended triangle are reminiscent of Timmerman’s account of how he was tortured by Argentinian military police who tied him to a chair and subjected him to electroshocks.

At the beginning of the eighties Bruce Nauman’s old interest in linguistic experiments and paradoxes was rekindled. At the same time he returned to the shining neon tube as an artistic medium in works such as American Violence (1981-82) and Hundred Live and Die (1984); the latter of these, in particular, with its repeated phrases arranged in four columns points to Nauman’s present-day discourse about issues which directly and explicitly involve life and death, violence and love, the absurdity and comic meaninglessness of human existence, sadomasochist sexuality, hopelessness and desperation. The lovers of the 1986 video film Violent Incident turn into people who constantly pull away each other’s chairs. A mood of despair also informs the big, classic video installation Clown Torture from 1987 in which we see a clown going to the lavatory, incessantly tumbling over, constantly, aggressively, and desperately shouting “No, no, no!” What has happened?

Bruce Nauman is a child of his divided, yet infinitely rich and many-faceted time. It is not for nothing that Peter Schjeldahl calls Nauman the most talented sculptor and innovator of his generation, its most intelligent artist, an artist in complete command of every technical and aesthetic register. Nauman is successful whatever he decides to do. That is why, according to Schjeldahl, it is of dramatic importance that he has never developed a lasting style nor an independent theory nor even a medium. Every gesture is ad hoc. Has an artist ever been as chronically and expressively dissatisfied as Nauman? While at the same time crossing as many borderlines? (…)