I’ve been told that Bruce Nauman is the father figure of modern art, an icon of contemporary culture, that he created an entirely new and profound ideology, that he is one of the most innovative and provocative artists in the history of creative thought, that he will inspire the world for centuries to come, and finally that he is a true artist who, to use his own words, “helps the world by revealing mystic truths.” While I understand and accept the commentary of his relevance to modernity, it doesn’t change the fact that I would most likely mistake an actual pile of his dirty laundry for his most recent “mystic truth.”
I’ve considered myself moderately skilled at understanding, appreciating, and even genuinely validating the perspective of others that’s vastly different from my own. But despite exhaustive efforts searching for a silver lining to counteract the disorienting nausea I felt while walking through “Disappearing Acts” at MoMA, I unfortunately must admit that my opinion of Nauman is negative, maybe even bordering on bitter. The wall of the retrospective reads that Nauman “has made a career-long pursuit of the gap between ‘what you imagine and what you intend and what you make, and then what’s there.’” I feel the value of that sentiment and relate to that experience deeply as an artist, but the accompanying framed piece of paper that reads “Shit and Die” does not translate the gravity of this intended truth to my innermost self.
Is this the art world we live in now? Should I throw away my oil paints and brushes and just record myself dragging a cash register across the rain forest? Is my study of color theory and perspective inadequate? Is talent an unfair advantage in the eyes of the art critic today: the ability to render human flesh considered naïve while videotaping a clown throwing a tantrum revolutionary? I am in no way claiming I know the right way to make art. I am not qualified to make such assertions, but can I call bull shit on something just this once?
My overwhelmed reaction is perhaps received as narrow-minded and petty. I’ll be the first to admit that. A genuine critique of Nauman’s work must be a bit more objective. Nauman is undoubtedly controlled by creative impulse and his prolific and diverse body of work is inarguably noteworthy. He clearly draws inspiration from the activities, speech, and materials of everyday life with a specific interest in our role within that environment. Nauman’s retrospective reads almost like the findings of an archeological dig: pieces of a person, an idea, a place. Though the work is conceptually adventurous, as a whole it conveys a sense of stagnation. His fragmented language cannot piece together thoughtful conclusions. It seems aggressively hopeless and insistent on meaninglessness. While some pieces hold an element of humor, it is holistically filled with dread.
In comparison to Nauman’s work, which feels like an endurance test, Charles White’s retrospective, smaller and also on view at MoMA, exhibits a thoughtful and humanistic body of work rooted in a lifetime of the injustice he endured. White, an African American artist working at the same time as Nauman (who is Caucasian) created empowering and monumental figurative images in a variety of more traditional mediums (paint, graphite, ink, print). His work is an icon of the Civil Rights movement as it pushed for equality, respect, and acceptance of race in an unjust system. The images tackle the senselessness and tragedy of the African American reality yet appear to have been painted with a peaceful precision that finds its strength in struggle, demands empathy, and creates in hope. (put a couple sentences here about your favorite works. Angular) I find it ironic that Nauman, coming from a more privileged position at the time, would transfix on a message of permanent victimhood and arrogant despair while White, who is much more entitled to that suppressive position, preached endurance, optimism, and faith in mankind. White’s deep, abiding concern for humanity fuels his art resulting in a retrospective that is humbling, illuminating, and an embodiment of dignity. While in contrast, Nauman’s enormous, two part/ two location, exhibit is, for me, unsettlingly selfish and vacuous.
I think artists have a deep responsibility to marry their exceptional capacity to deliver an aesthetic truth to something more ultimate, and irreducible, and, if that were not asking enough, to somehow accomplish that without violating the integrity of the other. Personally, as an artist, I fail at this mostly, probably entirely, but I also think art honors the intention, regardless. Despite my skeptical opinion of Bruce Nauman, I can say with honest respect and admiration that if he were the last person on this earth, I believe he would still show up to the studio and make more art. And that is worth celebrating. However, apart from innovation or materials and exploration of process, his work, purely in my opinion, is void of authentic substance. And while both artists’ work illustrates a search towards understanding how we fit into our world, Charles White uses his method and medium in a way that transcends materiality and speaks to something more timeless, more placeless, more spaceless.