In Berkeley, Nauman's Signs of the Times

Bruce Nauman used neon to make a personal statement about art and what it means to be an artist. His works are on display at the Berkeley Art Museum.
Bruce Nauman used neon to make a personal statement about art and what it means to be an artist. His works are on display at the Berkeley Art Museum. (Sperone Westwater, New York / © 2006 Bruce Nauman/artists Rights Society)
Sunday, December 17, 2006

WHAT: "A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s" at the Berkeley Art Museum in Berkeley, Calif.

WHEN: Jan. 17 to April 15.


WHY GO: In the 1960s, neon tubing was a material reserved for commercial craftsmen bending it into bowling alley signs and gas station logos. Nauman was among the first artists to thrust neon into the world of contemporary art. This exhibit looks at the influence that Northern California in the 1960s -- a politically charged and culturally changing time -- had on his work. The exhibit includes works in neon, plus photography, video, body casts, holography and sound.

Nauman's art provokes you to think about what artists in general are trying to say through and with their work. What does a video of a clown repeatedly screaming "No!" tell you? What can you gain from a plaque that was meant to be nailed onto a tree and grown over with bark? Nauman experts say that he has had an interest in what it means to be an artist. Critics have called his work "absurd," "captivating" and "puzzling."

The exhibit includes never-before-seen works and others that haven't been on U.S. soil for decades.

DON'T MISS: Making its exhibit debut is Nauman's first work in neon, a piece that a former student purchased in the '60s and sold last month. (It's on loan from the new owner.) The 1965 untitled work is a gently swerving piece of orange neon encased in nearly translucent fiberglass. It snakes its way across the floor, casting a carroty glow.

"I was fascinated by this early work that looks like nothing anyone had seen at the time," Constance M. Lewallen, the museum's senior curator for exhibitions, said in an e-mail. "This work, done while he was still in graduate school, exemplifies Nauman's interest in testing new ideas and materials in unexpected ways."

A different student unearthed another 1965 untitled sculpture that the artist himself had forgotten about. This fiberglass piece is a tipsy pyramid with its top cut off.

The exhibition's title refers to the aforementioned 1966 tree plaque, which hasn't been in the United States since 1968. It's usually housed in a Swiss collection.

EXTRAS: Six Nauman experts, including Lewallen and one of the artist's inspirations, performance artist and dancer Meredith Monk, will discuss Nauman's influences at a free March 10 lecture at the museum. Before a visit, download the exhibit's free audio guide from the museum's Web site onto your iPod or computer. Available starting Jan. 17.

An innovator in his own right, improvisational musician Bobby McFerrin performs with his "vocal legion" Voicestra on Jan. 24 on the University of California's Berkeley campus; tickets start at $32. Info: 510-642-9988.

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