As the international market revs up for Art Basel, the yearly event that sends ripples, and the occasional shock wave, through the art market, Bruce Nauman and Georg Baselitz – 156 years between them – defy time to bring to Schaulager and the Beyeler Foundation absurdly youthful and significant shows from opposite ends of the contemporary art spectrum (see article on Baselitz).

Bruce Nauman, Untitled 1967, Wax over plaster with rope, 43 × 66 × 11.5 cm, Daros Collection, Switzerland, © Bruce Nauman / 2018, ProLitteris, Zurich

Published on 9 April 2018

Bruce Nauman, the ultimate outsider

Schaulager’s major retrospective of Bruce Nauman, a seminal artist of our times, is a curious affair: it is art beyond art. Instead of an exhibition, we enter into the creative meanderings of a man who, for the last 50 years, has offered art as an experience.

Disappearing Acts

The aptly named ‘Disappearing Acts’ (until 26 August 2018) seizes Nauman’s constant state of flux, here one minute, there the next. This very fluidity is difficult to fit into the cathedral-like fluorescent austerity of the Schaulager and although the curators take us on a Nauman journey, we are left with the question: “What is he doing here and what is he getting at?”.

The answer is that there is never anything definitive in what Nauman does. He has the tireless mind of a scientist who constantly explores the answers to questions that have not yet been asked. It comes as no surprise that he first studied mathematics and physics, before turning his explorations into an artistic process.

Bruce Nauman, Contrapposto Studies, i through vii, 2015/2016, Seven-channel video installation, video Michele Laird, Basel

Performance videos

And what better place to start exploring than with one’s own body? Still in his twenties, Nauman entered the door of performance art, but not through public happenings, like those of Yoko Ono, Carolee Schneemann, Marina Abramovic (yes, many women) or Chris Burden. Instead, he worked in the seclusion of his studio, filming the performances to secure them forever. His innovation was to use video as a tool for art; he was always a pioneer.

Bouncing in the Corner, 1968, Walk with Contrapposto, 1968, Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk), 1968 (all present at Schaulager) are videos that feature him in various interrogations of body movement, and that launched him. He became known to the European public the following year when the legendary Swiss curator, Harald Szeemann, invited Nauman to take part in “When Attitudes Become Form” at Kunsthalle Bern, a show that is recognized as transformative to European art.

The Swiss Hoffman foundation among his first patrons

By 1973, several Bruce Nauman drawings had entered the Emanuel Hoffman Foundation, created by Maja Hoffmann, the Swiss pharmaceutical heiress and grandmother of Maja Oeri, the founder of Schaulager.

“Bruce Nauman has a unique place in our collection: he has been considered relevant for 45 years by the three successive chairwomen of our collection.”

Oeri first had the idea for this retrospective in 1995 and has held on to it despite the obstacles: many of Nauman’s works are fragile and lenders were reluctant to part with them. There are 70 lenders for the 170 pieces in the exhibition.

“Very few artists constantly reinvent. Bruce is loyal to questions and ideas and is always looking for new and unexpected ways to express them. This is an opportunity for a new generation to experience his wonderful, brutal and touching works in their original form.”

The foundation’s credo

As usual, Maja Oerli makes startling choices, remaining in the vein of the Hoffman foundation’s credo:

“The Foundation’s funds are to be used to purchase works by artists whose means of expression are forward-looking and not yet generally understood by their own time.”

It’s not that Bruce Nauman is not understood by his time, it’s just that somewhere along the line, it doesn’t appear to matter to him if he is or not. He comes to Schaulager after a string of other unmissable shows: Paul Chan, Steve McQueen, Francis Alÿs and Matthey Barney, other undefinable artists, but perhaps hungrier for fame than Nauman in the pursuit of their art.

“The true artist is an amazing luminous fountain.”

Used by Nauman in a number of text-based works, the statement playful satirizes an artist’s obligation to continually produce great works.

Bruce Nauman, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign), 1967 © Bruce Nauman / 2018, ProLitteris, Zurich, photo: Tom Bisig, Basel

An outsider artist

As we wander through the Schaulager, we get the impression that the American artist, who lives in New Mexico, is only doing things for himself. There is little attempt at seduction, no formal need to remind us of aesthetic perceptions, or of the rules that govern the making of art. While his contemporaries Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns scorned the post–World War II art movement of Abstract expressionism, of which, in fine, they were part, Nauman did his own thing.

Optical illusions, sound experiments, neon catch phrases, contrapposto studies (the shifting weight of a body), screen tunnels, balance suspensions, prism effects, the list of explorations goes on forever.

Bruce Nauman, new installation for Schaulager with Leaping Foxes, 2018 in foreground

He operates like an outsider artist, impermeable to the influences of his time. His interest in the physical and mechanical properties that rule our movements are, likewise, infused with the obsessive qualities that define outsider artists. He doesn’t betray himself any more that he can betray gravity, he simply plunges into whatever intrigues him.

Curator Kathy Halbreich, an associate director at MoMA and about to take up the position of executive director of the Robert Rauschenberg foundation, observes that Nauman’s latest works are as urgent and compelling as those of a 24-year-old.

“Few artists do consistently fine works over such a long period that foster such independent thinking. He has a restless inventiveness that invites us to relinquish the familiar.”

There is an eerie intensity in everything Nauman does, perhaps to the point of lacking humour, or a form of poetic levity. That is, until you happen upon a tape recorder spinning a magnetic tape like an extended rubber band, or admire the exquisite drawings made in anticipation of a thought or a project – of which there are a many in the exhibition.

There is also a disturbing fragility, a hanging onto nothingness; even the massive works are in a state of suspended welcome.

Art beyond art

How many of us believe that art should hit us between the eyes and in the heart at the same time? Bruce Nauman does neither. So, why do we have the extraordinary feeling that he has shared with us something that no one has ever before, nor will again.

There is a beauty in Nauman’s artistic autism, one that escapes the destructive forces of the ever-demanding art market. He may be one of the most successful artists of our times, but he hasn’t allowed that to get in the way.

When Kathy Halbreich says that “Bruce makes art, not exhibitions,” we feel like asking, what if he did neither. Bruce Nauman has been walking on the tightrope of creative questioning for almost 77 years, and each one of his explorations is a disappearing act.

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A large-scale retrospective of the US artist from his earliest work to his most recent installations

17 March to 26 August 2018 at Schaulager, Basel

21 October 2018 to 17 March 2019 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and MoMA PS1.

Organized by Laurenz Foundation, Schaulager Basel and The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The exhibition is curated by Kathy Halbreich, Laurenz Foundation Curator and Advisor to the Director, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; with Heidi Naef, Chief Curator, and Isabel Friedli, Curator, Schaulager Basel; and Magnus Schaefer, Assistant Curator.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

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