NEW YORK — All the muses are summoned in the massive Bruce Nauman retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. There is poetry both epic and lyric, and dance, too, as well as ribald and high comedy. But the muse most persistent is definitely Clio, the muse of history, whose spirit is woven through the better part of Nauman’s vast body of work.
“Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts” is billed as the first comprehensive overview of Nauman’s work in a quarter-century, with 165 works. It fills the full sixth floor of the museum’s main gallery space in Manhattan (which is always crowded), as well as the entirety of MoMA PS 1, the grittier and edgier affiliated gallery space in Queens (where visitors can have whole rooms to themselves). It follows his work from early films and drawings made in the mid-1960s to work featured in the Venice Beinnale of 2009, where he represented the United States on the international stage, and recent pieces, including a touching reprise of ideas he explored in the early days of his career now remade in 3-D video.
Any artist who works as long as Nauman has been working will leave audiences thinking about history, and Nauman’s career, which began in the volatile years of the Vietnam War era, is now well into its sixth decade. But history isn’t present in his work in any obvious, political sense. There are occasional references to the larger themes of American life, its banality, its hypocritical public discourse, its predilection for war and violence, its toll on the natural world. But, more essentially, the history that courses through Nauman’s career is the history of art and the history of his own body, which come together in certain works explicitly, and throughout the show in a more general sense: that Nauman’s project on Earth hasn’t been just to make art, but to live as an artist, digesting the insights and ideas of his forbears, and making those elements manifest in new ways.
The exhibition’s curator, Kathy Halbreich, has chosen the idea of absence or disappearance as an overarching theme for the show. That works well enough in many cases, especially in early Nauman projects, in which he casts the space under a chair in concrete, or creates neon “templates” of his body, which mapped in glowing light the voids left by cross-sections of his left flank “taken at ten-inch intervals.” It is a recurring theme throughout his work, in the haunting video feed of the 1972-1974 “Audio-Video Underground Chamber,” which shows in real time the coffin-like inside of a buried concrete chamber, or the multi-screen video 2001 installation “Mapping the Studio II,” which documents the emptiness of his cluttered workspace over almost six-hours.
But disappearance is a broad concept, and although it can be made to apply to other works, it isn’t always worth the effort. Nauman has been profligate with ideas, and any individual work is more interesting on its own terms than it is when subsumed under a general curatorial theme. There is definitely a sense of absence in some of the corridor works he has made, including the 1970 installation of narrowly spaced wallboards that invites you to walk through a tall, tight passageway, invading an empty, claustrophobic space, and sensing the pressure of containment on your solitary body. But disappearance or absence seem inadequate to the haunting effect of these physically challenging works, which somehow mimic the mental process of making sense of Nauman’s work, the way in which it always seems to lead to a mental dead end, in a good way, making one aware of how thinking is also frustrating, full of mischance and rarely any sense of conclusion.
Nauman makes this almost explicit in a 1968 work, “Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room,” which consists of an empty room and an audio file repeating the title in various ways. The persistence of the voice speaking these haunting words suggests an analogue for the obsessive habits of a mind deep in thought, pursuing a way out of the dead ends of an idea, pushing forward again and again in hopes of revelation, often repeating the idea in the same words, as if somehow repetition will make the idea more tangible. There are times throughout this exhibition when one admires Nauman’s mental tenacity, the way he has preserved the messy, red-hot vigor of an adolescent mind grappling with a big thought long past the age when more sane people set aside such things, with the conclusion that there are some things that can never be unraveled.
This would all be tediously narcissistic if it were not for the persistence of history in the best of Nauman’s oeuvre. Early in his career, he made drawings and an iron sculpture that referenced the work of the much older and greatly esteemed artist Henry Moore. In “Henry Moore Bound to Fail” and “Seated Storage Capsule (For Henry Moore)” Nauman struggles to contain or constrain the power of the modernist sculptor, whose work was deemed old-fashioned by many artists of Nauman’s generation. But there is an important distinction between art that is critical of the past and art that is contemptuous of it, and Nauman almost always practices the former. These references to earlier artists also serve to contain and constrain Nauman’s own work, giving it humility, and depth, and making even his most outlandish ideas more coherent.
In the classic 1966 photograph “Self-Portrait as a Fountain,” a bare-chested Nauman spews a thin stream of water from his mouth, referencing not just the history of fountains, or Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 “Fountain” sculpture, which consisted of a urinal turned on its back, but also the young artist’s larger intention to instantiate visual ideas with his own body. One emerges from this generous and expansive exhibition with a laundry list of references, to other artists and other artistic traditions, such as the way the grainy, colored screens of his empty studio video recall Andy Warhol’s silk-screen paintings, and the persistence of his interest in “contrapposto,” the asymmetry of the body beloved by classical sculptors who sought to breathe life into the static human form.
The most recent work on view, the 2017 “Contrapposto Split,” is a playful and melancholy return to that theme, first explored in the 1968 “Walk With Contrapposto,” in which the young artist sashayed through one of his narrow corridors with an exaggerated movement of his hips, mimicking the stance of classic male figures such as Michelangelo’s David. The 2017 reprise uses 3-D video, and a split screen, to suggest the way in which time has fractured the artist’s sense of his own body, the way in which, with age, none of our pieces ever quite fit together with the same snug perfection of youth. Now that we are certain that Nauman’s body has always been a metaphor for his mind, we understand that the pieces of his mind have never quite fit together perfectly, either, always straining for coherence and often moving slightly out of sync.
If you go, leave this work for last. The sadness is more palpable, which is the sadness of life in general, the pervasive, ineluctable sadness that is built into the history of every human body, known with gathering force as we move through the years and spend down our time.
Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts is on view at the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS 1 in New York through Feb. 25. For information, visit moma.org.