Bruce Nauman was born December 6, 1941, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In 1960, he started studying mathematics and physics at the University of Wisconsin and chose the fine arts as his minor. In 1964, he transferred to the University of California, Davis, where he enrolled as an art student and studied with William T. Wiley and Robert Arneson. In 1966, he finished his studies and, for a while, worked as assistant of painter Wayne Thiebaud. Starting in 1966, Nauman taught at the San Francisco Art Institute and at numerous other institutions, for example at the University of California, Irvine, where he was a member of the faculty in the early 1970s.
Already during the course of his studies, Nauman’s artistic interests which had originally focused on painting, shifted to sculpture and installation, Performance, film, and video. Nauman is to be considered one of the pioneers of conceptual neon sculpture and video art. With early video works from the 1960s (for example, Wall-Floor Positions, 1968, and Bouncing in the Corner, 1969) – most of them closely relate to his performances and installations – Nauman refers to spatial structures, probes spatial boundaries, or dissolves them altogether. Also, the Theater of the Absurd and experimental dance of the time, with their approaches to space and movement, become important points of reference for his videos (Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk), 1968). Moreover, the videos focus on the viewer’s relation to the surrounding space and to the possibilities of movement within that space (Video Surveillance Piece, 1969/70).
The human being with her or his socially conventionalized, conditioned, behavioral repertoire which keeps repeating itself remained the decisive reference for this group of works. The body is used as reference and as material, its relation to space, rhythm, movement were of special significance for the artist. »One only gains consciousness of oneself through a certain amount of activity and not through thinking about oneself. One exercises, works out, becomes conscious of one’s body. That doesn’t happen if one reads books« (Nauman, in: Nauman Interviews, 1967 — 1988). With his works, Nauman created »experimental setups« that deliberately trigger irritating perceptions, for example, through the discrepancy between the heard and the seen in the video Lip Sync (1969). The viewer is actively drawn into distressful or shocking scenarios (Life-Taped Video Corridor, 1970) or driven to »radical conditionings« (s. Arns, Interaktion 2004) through orders, insults, jokes or aggression. »I am interested in very precise experiences, not in anything arbitrary, not in playing. Of course, in the end, I do not have any influence on the reception, unfortunately not. But I can give clear instructions (Nauman, qtd. in: Die Zeit, 14.10.2004).
Perception and a focus on the viewer remained decisive aspects also in Nauman’s photographs, yet even more so in his language- or word-related works and neon installations (Run from Fear, Fun from for Rear, 1972). In the mid-1960s, almost simultaneously, drawing on advertisement aesthetics and neon signs became important for the works of artists like James Rosenquist, Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Kosuth, Mario Merz, and Jasper Johns. For Nauman, this orientation has remained just as noticeable as his basic interest in mathematical, physical, and abstract music or sound phenomena which he kept including in his works. His involvement with music and choreography of the time, with the works of John Cage or Karlheinz Stockhausen, also led to a Performance that was realized in cooperation with choreographer Meredith Monk. It took place in 1969, parallel to the exhibition ›Anti-Illusion, Procedures, Materials‹ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
In the 1970s, Nauman gave up video as a medium for a while. In New Mexico, he created hanging sculptures made of steel (South America Triangle, 1981; Musical Chair, 1983). Positioned between sound object and critical political statement and relating to earlier spatial installations, they are geared towards changes in multimedia perception. Yet towards the late 1980s, a new facet of Nauman’s artistic work, a facet that again takes up the former focus on the body and physical experience in performance and video, led to the creation of the Wachsköpfe ((Wax Heads) Rinde Head / Andrew Head (Plug to Nose) on Wax Base, 1989). In the 1990s, this renewed focus was realized in the Handabgüsse (Hand Casts). Like the casts of animal cadavers (Carousel, 1988), they critically turn towards the body-focused presentation techniques and perception patterns of a medical-scientific context.
Next to installations, videos, and sculptures/objects with which Nauman has thematized body-, space-, and sound-experiences during the last decades, a comprehensive collection of drawings and graphic prints emerged. An example would be the much-noticed video installation Raw Material – OK, OK, OK from 1990.
Since the 1960s, Nauman’s exhibition have met with international recognition. During this decade, his works were shown at the Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld (1966), at the Gallery Leo Castelli in New York (1968), and at the Gallery Konrad Fischer in Düsseldorf (1970). In 1968, Nauman participated in the Documenta 4 and was a consistent presence in the Documenta exhibitions to follow (1972, 1977, 1982, 1992). Until today, his works have been shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions, for example, in the context of a large retrospective done by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (1994/5), at the Venice Biennale (1999, 2005), at the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, Geneva (2000), at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne (2003), at the Tate Liverpool (2006), and at the exhibition ›Skulptur. Projekte Münster‹ (2007).
In 1989, Bruce Nauman moved to Galisteo, NM, where he now lives and works.
Bruce Nauman, Audio-Video Underground Chamber und Frühe Filme: Ausst.-Kat. MUMOK, Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, hg. v. A. Hochdörfer, Nürnberg 2005
Kraynak, Janet (Hg.): Bruce Naumans Words. Please pay Attention please, Cambridge/MA 2005
Bruce Nauman: Ausst.-Kat. Museum für Neue Kunst, ZKM Karlsruhe, hg. v. G. Adriani, Ostfildern-Ruit, 1999
Bruce Nauman – Versuchsanordnungen – Werke 1965 — 1994: Ausst.-Kat. Kunsthalle Hamburg,Hamburg 1998
Bismarck, Beatrice v.: Bruce Nauman – der wahre Künstler, the true artist, Ostfildern, 1998
Bruce Nauman – Skulpturen und Installationen, 1985 — 1990: Ausst.-Kat. Museum für Gegenwartskunst Basel, Städt. Galerie im Städelschen Kunstinstitut Frankfurt/M. hg. v. J. Zutter, Köln 1990