The Artist Who Gets Away With Everything

It took artist and critic Peter Plagens a long time to come around to the post-modern work of Bruce Nauman. But after overcoming a little jealousy and a few harsh reviews, he just can’t hide his admiration.

Phaidon’s pursuit of “an authoritative book on Bruce Nauman” had been a dead-end for years—the 72-year-old post-modern artist kept turning down writers, fearing his work would be “totalized.” So why after almost two decades was he finally agreeing to an all-encompassing monograph by abstract painter and former Newsweek art critic Peter Plagens? “I think it was personal,” the author tells The Daily Beast.

The two first met in 1970, while both artists were working out of nearby studios in Pasadena, California, which, at the time, was a much less gentrified area where up-and-coming and well-established artists converged and worked. Their acquaintance continued through weekly basketball games in Santa Monica and Plagens’s occasional visits to Nauman’s studio. “I was kind of afraid to go [to the studio], not because it was dangerous, but because I’m a painter and he was this weird conceptual artist. I was always afraid that I would go and would [realize] that everything I knew was wrong,” Plagens says.

Given the wide range of media and materials he uses, Nauman’s innovative and provocative works are hard to categorize, even today. There are videos and performances that often deal with representations of the human body through repetitive tasks. There are massive neon wordplay sculptures influenced by Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s linguistic theories. There are even sound pieces that combine everything from piano solos to archived recordings. All works are imagined and created through a unique method that he has perfected over 50 years.

According to Plagens, the development of Nauman’s method is one of the greatest moments in post-war American Art. It began as a graduate student at the University of California at Davis where Nauman was told that “he should just go into an empty room and make art,” which he did and has basically done ever since. Each time, “he goes back into that ‘room’ and waits for an idea, something to happen.”

Despite his fear of the experience affecting his own work, the young critic found himself participating in one of Nauman’s experimental films, Pursuit (1975), which “featured several of Nauman’s friends huffing and puffing, against a featureless deep black background, on a treadmill,” Plagens describes in his new book on Nauman, The True Artist.

Nauman’s work began to appear in art-world establishments across the world very early on in his career. By 1972, at the age of 30, Nauman had received gallery representation and was gearing up for his first retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Plagens, then writing for Artform, gave the show negative reviews, saying the pieces were, “‘unpolished everyday works’ to put it mildly.”

Spanning Nauman’s work from 1965 to 1972, the retrospective featured a combination of installations, sculptures, videos, and performances. Two moveable walls, named “Performance Corridor (1969),” were originally constructed as a video set, but became the setting of one of the most notable performance pieces in the entire show. Standing between these two structures, Nauman, along with his wife, Judy, and multimedia artist Meredith Monk, bounced between the walls, creating loud, rhythmic thuds for over an hour, subsequently enraging an attendee who stood up and exclaimed “Please, stop bouncing!”

“There was a lot of envy that Bruce could walk in and just do that,” Plagens says of his first reaction to the retrospective. “There was also a little bit of resentment because I thought, ‘There goes painting out the window.’” From LACMA, the exhibition continued to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and onward to Europe.

Over coffee at a café in TriBeCa, it’s clear that Plagens's view of Nauman’s work has changed from “superficial, smart-alecky and, in terms of sophisticated humor, quite lame” (which he said of Nauman’s show at Documenta 4, an international exhibition of the world’s top contemporary artists, in 1968) to total admiration for a man who has been able to stay relevant in the current art market while escaping the spotlight that is thrust on today’s superstar artists.

While Nauman is not a recluse, he still prefers the solitude of his 700-acre ranch in New Mexico, where he has lived for the past 25 years, making the obligatory emergence for his openings and an occasional appearance at friends’ exhibitions and other industry events; however, he rarely gives interviews. Plagens’s new book on Nauman is the closest I, and most of the world, may ever get to the artist.

Despite shielding himself from the spotlight, Nauman has remained in demand and highly influential. “Bruce has the historical fortune of being present at the creation,” Plagens explains of the conceptual works that have defined his, and many other artists’, career. Instead of working within a previously established style, Nauman’s installations, videos, and sound pieces were some of the first of its kind to reach and be recognized by the mainstream art market. This, along with his intelligence, passion, and—most importantly—his method, are what separates Nauman from the rest in his league, and what has allowed him to remain relevant, going into his “room” and making art in almost every medium imaginable for over half a century.