Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts Captivates the Art World

What you see is not always as it appears. This is one of the biggest aspects to artist Bruce Nauman’s work that has remained intact over the last several decades. “Disappearing Acts,” which first originated in Schaulager in Münchenstein, Switzerland and has now come to the US. The retrospective, which opened this month at both MoMA and MoMA PS1, Nauman has managed to both challenge and defy his audience yet again. The show features a staggering 160+ works. It is an expensive exhibition and showcases both Nauman’s reach as an artist and the breadth of his work.

Since Nauman emerged in the art world in the 1960s, the sheer versatility of his art has been apparent. Working across multiple media from sculpture, performance, video, drawing, and more Nauman is arguably  one of the most important artists to emerge out of the 20th and 21st centuries. Born in 1941, Nauman would go onto to study philosophy, mathematics, and art from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he graduated from in 1964. In 1965, he continued to pursue his studies as an MFA student at UC Davis. After graduate school, Nauman worked as an adjunct professor and eventually found his way to NYC where he fell in with a number of other conceptual and minimal artists working at the time.

“Too many people, Nauman’s influence is hard to fathom. Ever since his first show, in 1966, at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles, his prickly, uningratiating work has disturbed viewers, infuriated more than a few critics, and fascinated artists,” writes Calvin Tompkins in a 2009 piece for the New Yorker.

Tompkins assertion is right. Nauman, has, over the years disturbed viewers and has challenged the way people view art and approach his work overall. It is as much about the myth of who Nauman is in the art world, and how his work has evolved that has made him an anomaly that continues to capture his audience. The 1970s were incredibly productive period for the artist and he made a number of works. In 1971, Nauman had his first solo show at the Whitney Museum of Art which was on the heels of a solo show in LA in 1968.

Famously elusive, Nauman has taken long breaks from making work, and the art world,  and even left New York City in 1979 for the safety of New Mexico. In the Southwest, Nauman settled down and bought and operated a ranch he still owns today. The ranch, as well as the cowboy motif,  become a recurring theme in his work over the last few decades.

Despite Nauman’s popularity among art insiders, he is still not as well known to the general public. In an effort to better get to know an artist who has had such an influence on his generation, here are  five of Nauman’s most important works that are in the current retrospective at MoMA.

Bruce Nauman
Bruce Nauman. Corridor Installation (Nicholas Wilder). 1970. Wooden wallboards, water-based paint, three video cameras, scanner, frame, five monitors, video recorder, video player, and videotape (black and white, silent), dimensions variable (11 × 40 × 30 ft. [335.3 × 1,219.2 × 914.4 cm] as installed at Nicholas Wilder Gallery, Los Angeles, in 1970). Friedrich Christian Flick Collection im Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo courtesy Friedrich Christian Flick Collection im Hamburger Bahnhof, Berl

Corridor Installation, 1970

Surveillance and physicality have been themes Nauman worked with for decades. Through his use of cameras and TV monitors, as well as creating spaces that force people to interact with an installation or sculpture with their bodies in a certain way is important. In Corridor Installation, Nick Wilder Installation, 1970, the viewer is confronted with 5 corridors of varying widths. At the end of each makeshift corridor there is a single TV monitor.

As you enter the corridor, there is a camera that is placed on a live feed to the tv and captures your movement. It is disorienting to see and as you walk down one narrow corridor the camera catches as you enter, and when you enter down the other space it catches as you leave. There are cameras placed at different angles that result in different shots.

This piece, along with several others that appear between both MoMA spaces make reference to earlier surveillance technology. Nauman was ahead of the game in many ways with his playing with the cameras and spaces, and within the current climate of smartphones, GPS tracking on gadgets, and security, even larger sense of paranoia which art critics have written about his works over the years.

Bruce Nauman
Bruce Nauman. One Hundred Live and Die. 1984. Neon tubing with clear glass tubing on metal monolith, 118 × 132 1/4 × 21″ (299.7 × 335.9 × 53.3 cm). Collection of Benesse Holdings, Inc./Benesse House Museum, Naoshima. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Dorothy Zeidman, courtesy the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York

One Hundred Live and Die, 1984

Neon is a material that Nauman has been fascinated by and incorporated into many works over the years. From humorous word signs to other pieces, it is a form of media he still continues to engage even today. Nauman’s early neon works were satirical and playful. One Hundred Live and Die, 1984, encompasses Nauman’s sense of humor. In the sculpture, the phrase “lives and dies”, “fuck and live”, and “thank and die” , and others of them are spelled out in bright colors to equal one hundred versions. There is something absurdly funny and honest about these works. And this word place can be seen within his larger body of art. He has referred to these pieces over the years as simply being ‘signs’. Nauman was not the only artist to implement neon into his practice during the 1960s, with Dan Flavin being one of the most.

“What is universal about neon is that it implies commercialism, not to say outright tawdriness. Neon works best at night, not in the light of day, connoting lower-end cocktail lounges and hotels, greasy-spoon restaurants, and the kind of entertainment definitely not suited for children” Peter Plagens writes in his book Bruce Nauman: The True Artist.

Neon became Nauman’s material of choice for a number of years. He has used it to create images of stick figures engaged in sex acts, to words, and larger statements. In another piece from 1967 titled, My Last Name Exaggerated Fourteen Times Vertically, showcases Nauman’s use of color and willing to play with the materials he uses. This is one of his earliest signs that use the material and also incorporates a drawing-like quality in the way it was constructed.

Bruce Nauman
Bruce Nauman, Clown Torture, 1987

Clown Torture, 1987


Video has remained an important medium in Nauman’s artistic practice. In the now famous Clown Torture, (1987), a four-channel video installation that features several clowns in various scenarios from being in the bathroom to a bucket that falls over and over again on its head. The kind of torture the clown endures, as well as what the piece viscerally does to its audience, is visceral and can be seen and heard before entering the room in PS1 that it is displayed in.

Nauman’s ties to the American West are also ever present in the show. In “Setting a Good Corner (Allegory and Metaphor”, 1999, is a video piece that features him clad in a cowboy hat, boots, and blue jeans, trying to create the perfect corner of a fence. The title literally and figuratively a metaphor for the action he is performing and seems to be a tie into his earlier, simpler performance-based works from the 1960s.

Bruce Nauman
Bruce Nauman. All Thumbs. 1996. Plaster, component A: 10 × 5 1/2 × 4″ (25.4 × 14 × 10.2 cm); component B: 9 1/2 × 4 × 4 1/4″ (24.1 × 10.2 × 10.8 cm). Private collection, courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo courtesy the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York

All Thumbs, 1996

A 1996 piece titled, “All Thumbs” is a plaster cast of Nauman’s hands. The thumbs are more pronounced and the title is also meant to act as a pun. In many of Nauman’s works the tension between the title of the piece and the subject matter are often literal, but also take on a deeper meaning upon closer examination. The sculpture is both humorous and literal and captures his overall approach to creating art in general. It is funny, funny, and is a visual representation of what he has strived to achieve.

Bruce Nauman
Bruce Nauman. Untitled (Wall-Floor Positions). c.1965. Performance reenactment in Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts (October 21–February 25) at The Museum of Modern Art (also performed at MoMA PS1). Performer: Kiyan Williams. © 2018 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital image © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Martin Seck

Wall-Floor Positions, 1965

Performative-based works have remained a hallmark of Nauman’s creative process. And throughout his nearly 40-year career, his impulse to create performances has never really ceased. The first version of these performances emerged in 1965 when he was still a graduate student at UC Davis, and since then the piece has taken on a life of its own. Within the performance, Nauman is seen performing a series of repetitive actions where he is laying on the floor, with his back towards the wall as he moves his legs repeatedly. He first created a video for this in 1968 which is on view within and the exhibition and for the duration of the retrospective, there is a live version that will be performed by various artists.

Nauman’s reach as an artist is captured within this show. MoMA’s retrospective is not only helping to solidify his influence on the art world at large but is also a celebration of his work. As Nauman has continued to evolve, and in some regards disappear, he has contented to layer, meaning onto his art, and, in the process, challenge his captive audience with every new turn.

Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts is on view at MoMA until February 18, 2019.

About the Author:

Anni Irish has been a contributing writer to several online publications including Boston based publication, The Dig, New York Arts Magazine, and ArteFuse among others. She holds a BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts/Tufts University, an MA in Gender and Cultural Studies from Simmons College, and an MA in Performance Studies from New York University.