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

January 17, 2007 - April 15, 2007

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Bruce Nauman: The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign), 1967; neon tubing with clear glass tubing suspension frame; 59 x 55 x 2 in.; artist's proof; collection of the artist; courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York. © 2006 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Others have written about Bruce Nauman’s Northern California years, but this exhibition and its accompanying catalog are the first to explore in depth Nauman’s relationship to the place where he created his earliest and often most innovative works. Between 1964, when he arrived in Northern California, and 1969, when he left the area definitively, Nauman established much of his artistic vocabulary. He explored new, untested materials in his early fiberglass and rubber sculptures, as well as the methodology that became known as Post-minimal. He was also among the first to use his body as an expressive instrument in live performance and in his classic studio performances made for film and video, and was among the pioneers of the latter form. His search for new means and sources of expression led him to experiment with neon in sign-like reliefs, to make interactive installations, and to explore the relationship between words and images. He also made his first strictly sound piece during this time.

As a graduate student at UC Davis (1964–66), Nauman studied with Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Arneson, and William Wiley. Wiley was especially sensitive and receptive to Nauman’s unconventional approach to artmaking. He encouraged Nauman to experiment and, following his own example, not to worry about the final appearance of a work. To this day, Nauman takes a piece as far as he needs to in order to do the job—surface refinement is superfluous.

Nauman had arrived in California in 1964 already possessed of many of the ingredients that were to nourish his art—a grounding in mathematics, science, philosophy, and music, for example—as well as a solid moral sense and, most importantly, a keen and curious mind. Once in California, Nauman not only observed what was happening in visual art on the West Coast and beyond through publications and contact with visiting artists at UC Davis, but drew information from the Bay Area's vibrant new dance and music scenes. Literature (Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov, Malcolm Lowry, and Alain Robbe-Grillet, in particular) and Gestalt psychology also played into his artmaking.

Many of the themes and subjects that appear in Nauman’s work to this day can be found in some of his very earliest works, including in a group of sketches that he left behind in his graduate studio that have only recently come to light. These include the artist’s studio as a site; the relationship of sculpture to its physical environment; fountains, stairs, and chairs as metaphor; wordplay (encouraged by Wiley and Arneson); the inversion of exterior and interior; the tension between exposure and concealment; and the art potential of ordinary activities. Most important, though, are the fundamental themes he addresses throughout his oeuvre—the role of the artist, the function of art, and the primacy of the idea over whatever form it takes—that define his work and profoundly influence artists all over the world.

Because it seemed to exemplify many aspects of his philosophy, I named this show A Rose Has No Teeth after the eponymous work, an embossed lead plaque, which Nauman made in 1966 when he was only twenty-four years old. The piece is at once a commentary on traditional outdoor sculpture, which Nauman found uninspiring, and a reference to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s language theory as put forth in Philosophical Investigations, from which the phrase derives. The artist intended the plaque to be affixed to a tree where, over time, it would disappear as the bark grew over it. As Nauman sees it, more typical outdoor sculpture, large and ambitious as it might be, can never compete with the scale and grandeur of nature itself. Not surprisingly, given his intelligence and range, Nauman was able, in this unprepossessing work, to raise fundamental questions about both art and language.

Nauman, although geographically removed from the centers of Conceptual art activity, was in the forefront of the revolutionary changes taking place in art and almost single-handedly redefined what it meant to be an artist. Even as a graduate student, Nauman demonstrated a precociousness and originality that made adventurous curators and dealers take notice. He had his first major solo show at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles in 1966 just before receiving his master’s degree, and by 1969 was exhibiting with the leading galleries for vanguard art—Leo Castelli in New York and Konrad Fischer in Düsseldorf. He was included in virtually all the early landmark Post-minimal and Conceptual art exhibitions; in 1972 a survey of his work was co-organized by Jane Livingston at the Los Angeles County Museum and Marcia Tucker at the Whitney Museum of American Art, an unusual tribute to such a young artist.

Co-published by BAM/PFA and UC Press, the catalog that accompanies the exhibition contains important essays by UC Berkeley art historian Anne Wagner, art historian and curator Robert Storr, and media curator and critic Robert Riley, along with my essay tracing the development of Nauman’s work of the late 1960s.

A related PFA series, Then, Not Nauman: Conceptualists of the Early Seventies, provides additional context for Nauman’s groundbreaking video work. The museum also launches a new iPod audioguide initiative on the occasion of A Rose Has No Teeth, with an audio tour featuring commentary on the exhibition from artists, a philosopher, a choreographer, a critic, and UC Berkeley students. To download the audio file to your own computer or MP3 player (to bring with you to the museum or to enjoy anywhere), visit http://bampfa.berkeley.edu/podcasts.

Constance Lewallen
Senior Curator for Exhibitions


A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s is supported by the Henry Luce Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, Joan Roebuck, Sperone Westwater, the Getty Foundation, the Terra Foundation for American Art, Nancy and Steven Oliver, the Consortium for the Arts at UC Berkeley, Rena Bransten, Tecoah and Thomas Bruce, and Ann Hatch and Paul Discoe.




Exclusive media sponsor: The San Francisco Bay Guardian