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A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s, though occupying only four rooms at the Menil Collection in Houston, is an intense, richly complex and subtly disturbing exhibition. The curator in Houston, Franklin Sirmans, has helped create a fluid, dynamic exhibition space that highlights the extraordinary diversity of Nauman’s production from 1964–69 and establishes key themes and paths of development, while leaving many connections open-ended and available for viewers to pursue for themselves. Drawings, sculptures, photographs, video/film, and sound installations are all placed within the same spaces, and highly visceral, body pieces mix with the intellectual play of word-game works. As a result, the exhibition is wonderfully changeable, allowing for very different experiences in successive viewings.
One actually hears the exhibition before seeing it. Initially identifiable only on the level of noise, the show is present the moment the door of the normally hushed Menil is opened. As one enters the corridor leading to the galleries, the noise becomes louder and also more varied. Muffled voices, breathing, and a mechanical whine separate themselves from other still-unidentifiable sounds. Walking down this hallway in the Menil, an institution so much shaped by Surrealism, begins to take on the quality of a disturbing dream. The purple glow created by the neon The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (1967) lighting the entrance to the show adds to the sense of an inexorable approach to something immanent and strange, but still out of sight.
While the first room is in many ways the most accessible, comprised predominantly of early, rather lovely, fiberglass sculptures, sounds from three videos also playing here mix with noise from the other galleries, making clear that the exhibition will not be involved in a standard chronological tour through an artistic development. Rather, the show revels in allowing the pieces to inform, transform, and even interrupt each other—visually, aurally, and thematically. This functions within rooms, as the T-shaped Untitled (1965–66) seems a static manifestation of elements of the videos Manipulating the T-Bar (1965) and Wall-Floor Positions (1968), but also from room to room as themes and motifs recur in unpredictable and often unsettling fashion. In the second room, in which bodily presence and absence assume prominence, viewers see the largely vertical abstraction of the previous fiberglass sculptures transformed by pieces like Six Inches of My Knee Extended to Six Feet (1967) and Neon Template for the Left Half of My Body Taken at Ten-Inch Intervals (1966), in which some form of bodily violence is implied. A connection between abstraction and violence is then further suggested by the cast-iron Henry Moore Bound to Fail (1967). As the videos change over at differing intervals, however, these connections are not static, but rather ephemeral and seemingly infinite in number.
This is not a contemplative exhibition. The Menil has provided no benches in the galleries, but one feels very little urge to sit. It is a restless display and seems to provoke the viewer to constant movement as well. Perhaps most unsettling is the sense of mounting aural confusion that reaches a peak in a series of videos. The whine audible outside the galleries turns out to be the screeching violin of Playing a Note on the Violin while I Walk around the Studio (1967–68). Located in the second room, it is contrastingly punctuated by the steady metronome of Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square (1967–68), the random beats of the third room’s Bouncing Two Balls between the Floor and the Ceiling with Changing Rhythms (1967–68), and the excruciatingly slow scrape of Manipulating a Fluorescent Tube (1969) in the first room.
A particular pleasure that emerges out of this chaos is the way in which by the last gallery, the one most focused on words and wordplay, the visitor is able to identify each of the many sounds. The resulting fusion of order and cacophony is very much like the unsystematic mixing of systems created by the combined presence of these sound/video pieces, a paradoxical order of non-order, sense wrought from non-sense. Thus, as visitors reemerge from the exhibition to see the undeniably ironic True Artist Reveals . . ., they are nonetheless aware that Nauman has enacted a certain transformative experience for the viewer—not in spite of, but by means of, the very banality of so much of the material.
The chaos and barely suppressed violence of the exhibition recedes considerably in the exhibition catalogue. Two illustrations, one of the eponymous A Rose Has No Teeth (1966) and the other of the artist himself standing alone before his storefront studio in the mid-1960s, announce a return to the study of artist and art object (however loosely defined) that may seem either comforting or disappointing, depending on the reader’s point of view. The book is extensively illustrated, with the plates, both color and black and white, clustered in groups interleaved with the essays. This arrangement allows the reader to trace a visual development in the years covered here while also making them, in most cases, easily accessible when referenced in the text.
The catalogue has four texts. The introductory essay by organizer Constance Lewallen is by far the longest and tries to come to terms with the diversity and scope of Nauman’s production in the 1960s as a whole by tracing its sources and locating its influence and modification in the artist’s later projects. The three shorter essays, by Anne Wagner, Robert Storr, and Robert Riley, consider Nauman’s work in specific media, discussing, respectively, sculpture, drawing, and film/video.
As an introduction, Lewallen’s “A Rose Has No Teeth” for the most part performs its role admirably. Working with an abundance of archival sources and interviews, Lewallen builds up a complete and richly textured picture of the artist and his developing work in the 1960s, which, combined with the exhaustive chronology by Elizabeth Allison Farrell, will make this an important resource for future scholars. Lewallen also skillfully uses the combination of archival sources, interviews with other artists, and statements by Nauman himself to weave together a sophisticated set of thematic issues that remain nonetheless appealingly unresolved. This elision of closure seems appropriate for Nauman, and also leaves considerable room for further discussion, some of which is carried into the subsequent essays, giving the catalogue a certain cohesiveness.
For instance, one theme that recurs throughout the material Lewallen cites is the material/conceptual status of art in Nauman’s work. Lewallen highlights Nauman’s importance in redefining artistic production away from material objects in favor of more conceptual approaches, and notes his influence in the 1960s on artists like John Baldessari (45). But Lewallen is also very much aware of the persistent importance of physicality in Nauman’s work, a theme explored with great subtlety in Wagner’s essay.
One question that begs further resolution in the catalogue is the status of the phrase “in the 1960s” as it relates to the individual artistic subject “Bruce Nauman.” While Wagner and Riley both place Nauman within the decade’s larger artistic and philosophical currents, Lewallen is concerned with establishing the primacy of the 1960s for themes in Nauman’s work. In this account, everything before the 1960s leads up to and informs the art of this time. Later work, similarly, almost invariably seems to be the result and continuation of the breakthroughs achieved here. The beginning of the essay notes a number of apparently unimportant biographical details, but these recur later as sources for work in the 1960s. Nauman’s time as a Boy Scout, for example, informs his knot-making in works like 1967’s Knot an Ear (49). Also, Lewallen constantly traces ideas from the 1960s forward into Nauman’s subsequent career. On the one hand, then, Lewallen uses the period as a means of achieving a standard art-historical elaboration of a developing oeuvre; on the other hand, it sometimes seems as though Nauman’s work emerges from the 1960s already fully formed, with its corpus of ideas needing only elaboration.
Lewallen can be too much concerned with establishing Nauman’s own primacy with relation to broader artistic currents. She is at pains to point out that Nauman was “several years ahead” of other artists in the use of the body as art (15), that he was reading Wittgenstein in the early 1960s, ahead of his peers (42), and that he was among the first to show video in commercial galleries (89), to name only a few. This is not to quibble with the important work of establishing chronology; rather, it is to say that an excessive concern for primacy risks canonizing Nauman as a kind of newly configured postmodern genius while precluding what might have been a more searching account of Nauman’s relation to the broader currents of the 1960s. Such a project might usefully consider Frederic Jameson’s account (in “Periodizing the 60s,” Social Text 9/10 [Spring–Summer, 1984]: 178–209) of the dialectical social, economic, and cultural conditions of the sense of liberation and freedom of possibility that certainly informed Nauman’s milieu, which in turn would facilitate a more comprehensive idea of what, in 2007, we might mean by “Bruce Nauman in the 1960s.”
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Rice University