The Museum of Modern Art’s much-anticipated Bruce Nauman retrospective is here, and to call it exhaustive would be an understatement. If the show’s organizers haven’t assembled the entirety of Nauman’s output over 50 years, they’ve accomplished something pretty damn close.
Occupying MoMA PS1 from top to bottom, with a floor at the Midtown Modern thrown in for good measure, the exhibit covers Nauman’s essential role in U.S. art, especially during the late 1960s, a period which produced video, installation, performance, body and conceptual art. Nauman had a hand in developing them all.
Starting out as a painter, Nauman switched to sculpture, though not in the conventional sense. Initially perplexed about which direction to take, he concluded that, since he worked in an art studio, anything he did there could be considered art—a performative corollary to Marcel Duchamp’s notion of the Readymade. In this respect, Nauman was his own Readymade, and because he treated himself as an object, effacing his subjectivity in the bargain, he became, in effect, the anti–Marina Abramovic: not a dramatic actor in his work, but a kind of void—hence this show’s title, “Disappearing Acts.”
An early filmed performance from 1967–68 serves as a prime example, with Nauman, seen shirtless from the waist up, applying makeup to his face and body—first in white, then in pink, next in green and finally in black. The result is something of a paradox, as Nauman stands out from the wall behind him while erasing himself in the process. In a neon sign from the same period, his signature is stretched vertically like Silly Putty until it becomes an unrecognizable scribble—an abstract gesture that diminishes the self.
At the same time, Nauman tied his work to the figurative tradition in art, imagining himself as a fountain for a public park or posing on camera in contrapposto like Greco-Roman statuary. (MoMA PS1 has both the original 1967–68 video of the piece and its spectacular, multichannel 2015–16 restaging of it.) Moreover, he was interested in how space controlled the body, as in a 1970 installation of shoulder-width, dead-end corridors that viewers can walk down while being surveilled by CCTV. Similarly, two steel cages, one nested in the other, leave a perimeter pathway that can be negotiated only by sliding along it.
By the 1980s, Nauman embarked on a broader exploration of the various hierarchies of power as manifested by, respectively, human and animal behaviors. The latter is easier to parse as the relationship between predator and prey, depicted by an installation in which various animals (wolves, deer), represented by taxidermy forms, are dragged around by a rotating carousel in a sort of never-ending chase. The much more complicated business of the human condition, meanwhile, is illustrated by, among other things, a series of animated, outlined neon pieces that depict pairs of figures poking each other in the eye, stabbing each other with knives or sucking each other’s dick along with other antisocial activities.
Inadvertently, the Modern reinforces Nauman’s “disappearing act” by mounting the preponderance of the exhibit at MoMA PS1 in Queens, where fewer visitors venture. Nevertheless, this revelatory survey exposes Nauman for who he is: A titanic presence who, by absenting himself from his work, changed contemporary art.