"A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s"

Nauman works with language in neon signs.
© 2006 Bruce Nauman/Artist Rights Society, New York

In a 1966 photograph titled Failing to Levitate in the Studio, artist Bruce Nauman stretches between two folding chairs and falls on his ass. In a 1968 hour-long film titled Bouncing in the Corner, No. 1, the artist falls backwards into a corner and then bounces back — over and over and over again.

Bruce Nauman is a revered and mythic figure in the art world. He's shown generations of artists that ideas are more important than how you choose to execute them. "As soon as the idea or meaning is clear, you can stop," he has said. He's an art-world heavyweight who's never resided in New York; instead, he's lived on a remote New Mexico ranch since 1979. Big enough to have politely declined to participate in a Whitney Biennial, he still makes art but also spends a lot of time with horses. Sometimes he makes art with horses.

But as his work in the show "A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s" at The Menil Collection illustrates, he was once a lanky kid in jeans hanging around in his studio with a whole lot of time on his hands.

Artists rave about the show. But the nonartist friend I went to the opening with was unimpressed. She looked around the exhibition and asked me if Nauman was famous.

"Yeah," I said. "Very."

"Noooooo, really?!?!" she asked incredulously. Skepticism is a fairly common reaction to contemporary art, but it is especially understandable in this case.

If you like Nauman and know his work, you will be fascinated by the history and the iconic works presented by the show. But if you aren't a conceptual art fan, it's a tough sell. Organized by Constance Lewallen, senior curator of exhibitions at the University of California's Berkeley Art Museum, the exhibition consists of very early work by Nauman from the time when he lived in the Bay Area. Some of it is even from his graduate school years at University of California-Davis. There are drawings, sculptures, videos and installations. Not all of it is great, but it's all interesting in the context of how Nauman thinks — and where his particular brand of conceptual art comes from.

Nauman's drawings are schematic explorations of his ideas. Many of his sculptures relate to his body, elongating his knee from six inches to six feet, or creating Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at Ten Inch Intervals (1966). He works with language in neon signs such as Raw War (1970) and The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (1967). In a series of photographs, he comically and literally illustrates expressions such as "feet of clay" or "waxing hot." But the photographic and film works that document Nauman's studio performances are the most revealing.

For a 1967-68 series of performances, Nauman marked out a large square in tape on the concrete floor of his studio and basically came up with things he could do with it. One film records the artist Bouncing Two Balls between the Floor and Ceiling with Changing Rhythms. In another, he taps his foot from the middle of each side of the square to the center, performing a Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square. In another, he sticks his hips out and is shown Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square.

One of Nauman's neon sculptures hangs on the wall in the same gallery with the photo and videos. For My Name as though It Were Written on the Surface of the Moon (1968), the artist has spelled — and elongated — his name in neon tubing. "bbbbbbrrrrrruuuuuucccccceeeeee" glows across the back wall. It's the kind of thing a bored kid might scrawl across his notebook, but Nauman has turned a doodle into a radiant self-advertisement.

In other films, Nauman plays with linear objects. For Manipulating the T Bar, (1965), Nauman worked with two large pieces of pipe to create a giant "T" shape. He starts with the metal "T" on the floor then explores all the different ways he can move these perpendicular lines through space, in a variety of positions and angles. The perpendicular pipes become lines trisecting the space of his studio.

T Bar is a pretty straightforward and short (three minutes, 27 seconds) film. Manipulating a Fluorescent Tube is a film that also involves Nauman interacting with an object, but watching its entire 62 minutes is a feat of endurance. Nauman strikes poses with the lightbulb and holds them for so long that you don't really want to stand around long enough for him to change positions. I saw the pose in which Nauman sat spread-legged on the floor with the light angled out of his crotch like a giant luminous penis. I doubt anyone but the most obsessive devotee has watched the video all the way through.

The Menil's installation of the show is especially effective with the film works. All of the films are shown on video monitors or projected on the wall. There are no darkened "black box" screening rooms where you are supposed to sit through hour upon hour of work whose idea is more interesting than its execution. You can move through the exhibition, pause and watch enough of each film to get the gist of it.

Although there is no way I'm watching all 60 minutes of it, one of my favorite films is Walk with Contrapposto (1968). "Contrapposto" is the term for that off-kilter Greek-statue stance in which all the subject's weight is on one leg and the hip sticks out. Nauman's film is basically an art history-student joke — the artist invents an absurd, hip-jutting contrapposto "walk" that basically looks like he's trying to shake his skinny ass in slow motion.

The film Fishing for Asian Carp, done while Nauman was still a grad student, brings actual laughter into the exhibition — lest everyone get too serious and analytical. The 16-minute 1966 film, made with artist William Allen, shows Allen fishing for carp, "stalking" it and then finally catching one, trying repeatedly to pick up the wriggling fish. Filmmaker Robert Nelson did a mock fishing-show voice-over, cracking himself up at the end.

But things get anxious with the sound installation Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of this Room (1968), a low-ceilinged white room with audio of Nauman repeating the phrases of the title, sounding like somebody from a horror movie. It's ominous and funny at the same time, a manifestation of the neurotic and paranoid, an exaggeration of artist-in-the-studio angst.

"A Rose Has No Teeth" isn't the kind of show that grabs most people immediately. On my first quick pass through the show, I wasn't that enthusiastic about it. But it's worth spending time with this artist as a young man. Nauman has a weird and inventive mind, but not in an over-the-top, flamboyant way. He studied mathematics and physics as an undergraduate, and his work has a focused sense of play. His performances — whether he's bouncing a ball, walking goofily or interacting with a fluorescent light — are controlled, methodical investigations. Bruce Nauman starts with an idea and winds up with art.

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