Bruce Nauman’s Words


This book, ‘Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words’ edited by Janet Kraynak, is a difficult one to write about. Describing the important parts means realizing it can’t be said better than Nauman himself, which leads to copying quotes, and then other quotes and pretty soon, the entire book. So the short and sweet is: if you’re interested in anything that has happened in contemporary art in the last 50 years, READ THIS BOOK!

The book itself, as a vehicle for Nauman to ‘speak’, is pretty close to perfect. It starts out with his writings, which are proposals, or directions for performances that ultimately coalesce into a kind of genius poetry. These are followed by 14 interviews, which occured from 1966 to 2001. Some of these, in the first half of the book, become slightly redundant. The lines of questioning are similar, as are the pieces the interviewers are interested in, but it seems petty to point this out. In a weird way, the repetition mirrors Nauman’s work, as it serves to “re-make (it) and re-make (it).” (319)

If you didnt already know that Nauman’s influence in contemporary art is blanketing, this book leaves no doubt. From video, performance, photograhy, to casting negative spaces, (think Rachel Whiteread) to working with language, space, sound, light, neon, to the sheer diversity of approaches, it’s difficult to think of a major museum show or influential work of the last five years that did not have a Nauman pedigree. The more surprising moments, however, are when he pins down ideas that artists working today have about their work or process. Ideas that are in the air, but are profound and affirming when articulated in Nauman’s plain language.

As, for example, when he says, “There are all kinds of art you can do that fulfill the need for busy work when you dont have many ideas.” (353)

Or, one of my personal favorites:

“I realized I would never have a specific process. I would have to re-invent it, over and over again, That was really depressing…if I stop and try to look at how I got the last piece done, it doesn’t help me with the next one.” (320)

And another, when he recounts a conversation with Coosje van Bruggen,

“I would tell her about something that had been very important to me, in terms of how to structure a performance or some art activity and she would say: ‘Oh, but it wasn’t like that.’ I said: ‘Its the way I remember it.’ So she calls what I did ‘a creative misreading or a creative misunderstanding.'” (311)

There’s also Nauman, being pressed repeatedly by interviewers about his relationship to painting:

“I just couldn’t see how to proceed as a painter. It seemed that if I didn’t think of myself as a painter, then it would be possible to continue.”(321)

Or, “it seems to me that painting is not going to get us anywhere, and most sculpture is not going to, either, and art has to go somewhere.” (180)

And thought-provokingly: “Art ought to have a moral value, a moral stance, a position.” (322)

There are times when you put this book down, after all of the probing and the words and mind-blowingness and  feel like you’re no closer to putting the pieces of Nauman’s work together and understanding what it’s all about. To that, Bruce Nauman answers, “Well, that was the examination, what is the function of the artist? Why am I an artist is the same question.” (231)

-Gina Beavers

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