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Crossing Borders: Bruce Nauman

The Deutsche Guggenheim is presenting Bruce Nauman's first one-person exhibition in Berlin. Berlin says "Welcome" - and how does Bruce Nauman answer? A portrait essay on the artist by Christine Hoffmann.

At the Deutsche Guggenheim on the Boulevard Unter den Linden, the highly-esteemed and controversial artist once again lives up to his reputation: what should we make of the defiant piece in the museum's front window, in which a clown is stamping his foot incessantly, crying out "No, no, no" - an image repeated, upside-down, on a second monitor: is this genius, or is it insanity?

Bruce Nauman
Mean Clown Welcome, 1985
Brandhorst Collection, Köln

The welcome inside the building is also anything but flattering: in a life-sized Mean Clown Welcome in colorful neon, two nasty fellows are holding out their hands in greeting, but wind up with rather improper erections, another one of those things we prefer not to notice in our civilized dealings with one another. The tragic-comic nature of mechanics and repetition, of uncontrolled reaction and desired behavior provokes a laughter that also carries a touch of the creeps.

It is surprising indeed that an artist whose work is so heavily multi-media, whose stylistic clarity resides in negation at best, and who furthermore leads a relatively normal life has remained in the upper reaches of the art charts since the early nineties, side by side with Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. Yet he shouldn't be underestimated as an enemy when important critics and theorists label him an arrogant know-it-all, a misanthrope, or a psychiatric case. Extremes in praise and rebuke, panegyrical high esteem and disdainful contempt have been unleashed in waves since the early seventies, when the artist, who was 31 years old at the time, presented his first retrospective in America and Europe.

Bruce Nauman
Mean Clown Welcome, 1985
Brandhorst Collection, Köln

When we take a closer look, however, it becomes clear that this success has been due to the consistency of the work. Nauman has been making art for nearly forty years that is straightforward and direct without falling back on spontaneous gesture, an art capable of bringing ideas, even those that seem far-fetched, to a head to confront the viewer. Something of a "secret," however, remains nonetheless in the way he manages to relocate his art and shift the borders he is continually crossing. He construes and invents situations that can be described in their various components, but not entirely, however, in their effect.

The fact that only very few of Nauman's works could be seen to date in collections and group exhibitions in Berlin is as surprising as the lack of a direct flight from Tegel to New York or Chicago. But at least the former will be changing soon, because thanks to the Flick Collection and the Deutsche Guggenheim, a respectable body of works is finally drawing near. More Nauman wouldn't be so bad for the city's artistic socialization - "Measuring up to Bruce Nauman" is the title of a text by Franz Meyer from 1986, a title that was also understood as politely pointing the way out of the stagnant art debates of the time and on to new horizons.

Yet no one listened in Berlin. From here, it took a few hours longer to reach Nauman's exhibitions, to Hamburg or Karlsruhe, Cologne or Wolfsburg, Vienna or Switzerland, where he was and continues to be present more than anywhere else in Europe. Comprehensive exhibitions and retrospectives also took place in Paris, London, and Madrid, and since his earliest pieces, his works have been shown regularly in Düsseldorf, where his German gallery is based. Bruce Nauman became well known to the European art scene early on through Konrad Fischer. In 1968, he invited Nauman to join his new gallery.

Bruce Nauman
Untitled, 1991
Sammlung Deutsche Bank, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003

Back then, Nauman was only 27 years old. Born in 1941 in Fort Wayne, Indiana as the son of an engineer who worked for General Electric, he was already interested in art at an early age. As a child, he took lessons in piano and classical guitar, played jazz in the school band, and began studying mathematics and physics in 1960 with a minor in art; he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1964 from the University of Wisconsin. Nauman was heavily involved with music (above all Berg, Webern, and Schoenberg) and philosophy (particularly Ludwig Wittgenstein). In 1964, he joined the graduate program of the University of California in Davis and studied art with Robert Arneson and William T. Wiley, who promoted an open and experimental approach to art.

Early on in his studies, Nauman gave up painting and began making Fiberglas sculptures. Together with Robert Nelson and William Allen, he worked on film projects about unspectacular subjects, such as catching a fish.

In 1966, he completed his studies with an MFA and moved to San Francisco, where he took a studio in a former store and taught drawing part-time at the San Francisco Art Institute. He had his first one-person exhibition in the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles, where he showed strange sculptural objects such as Device to Hold a Box in a Slight Angle or Platform Made Up of the Space between Two Rectilinear Boxes on the Floor. He was in the New York exhibition Eccentric Abstraction. He read Beckett and Robbe-Grillet and became involved with Gestalt therapy. He got to know Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, and the works of John Cage and Merce Cunningham.

In 1968, he received a grant to travel to New York, where he began working with video. He had his first one-person exhibition in Leo Castelli's gallery in New York, in which he surprised the art world with, among other things, a spiral-shaped neon object that bore the following sentence: The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths." The same year, he traveled to Europe, had his first one-person exhibition in Düsseldorf at Konrad Fischer Gallery, and took part in Documenta IV.

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