Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  

Bruce Nauman
Four Pairs of Heads (Bronze)

Masturbating Man

Still from Jump


Large Butt to Butt

Sex and Death/Double "69"
Signifying Malice
by Donald Kuspit

Bruce Nauman, "Selected Works," Feb. 16-Mar. 31, 2001, at Zwirner & Wirth, 32 East 69th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021.

"Malice," states a neon sign from 1980, declaring the theme of this exhibition. Bruce Nauman is nothing if not versatile, so we get malice in the form of hanging sculptures, blinking neon signs and drawings that are studies for both as well as works in themselves. And, to add to the diversity of mediums, there's a video installation, as though to drive the point home in what has become the most commonplace, invasive medium around.

In fact, while Nauman's exhibition is ostensibly about the variety of ways of signifying malice -- tortured and murdered animals, decapitated human heads, nasty jokes about masturbation and homosexuality (mutual fellatio) -- it is subliminally about Nauman's own malice toward the spectator.

The drawn and quartered animal is suspended in the spectator's space, blocking the way. One is instinctively repelled, giving the creature a wide berth, even as one's curiosity draws one to the details of its distorted body. It is in effect thrust in one's way, forcing one to identify with it: unconsciously shocked, one has the unconscious fantasy that one might also be drawn and quartered -- by the artist.

Similarly, Nauman's cast bronze heads are hung at the level of the spectator's head, suggesting that his or her head might also be cut off and hung by a wire from a ceiling (rather than displayed on a pike, as in the good old days of violence).

Even Masturbating Man and Sex and Death/Double 69 (both 1985) are confrontational: in-your-face neon signs of life-size mechanical figures mechanically performing a sexual act, in a way that strips it of all humanity and intensity. Indeed, Nauman offers stick figures -- barren signifiers of the male figure, fleshless caricatures of human beings, their passion ironically reduced to rapidly flickering lights. Nauman does as much violence to these figures as he thinks they do to each other and themselves.

Nauman maliciously mocks sexuality -- or maybe he's not malicious, but just doesn't get its point. Julie Head with Tongue and Nose in Neck of Andrew (1991) also makes a mockery of heterosexual intimacy, reducing it to malevolent perversion. All the heads are at odds with one another, even as they form different pairs, suggesting pointless promiscuity and incompatibility.

Sex is another instrument of malice for Nauman. Is this why he seems to hate it, and is unable to realize that it can be an expression of love? Or is he just showing that it is another social construction, with nothing natural about it? Is that why he has to show the body as a machine or a grotesque monster?

There is in fact a certain cruel coldness to Nauman's works. His use of neon and video and installation gives his work an ultra-modern -- or is it postmodern? -- look, but one wonders if he isn't an old-fashioned moralist, sternly warning against masturbation, homosexuality and promiscuity. (His animals are in fact a promiscuous mix of incompatible parts.) He seems homophobic and anti-hedonistic, for all the pseudo-hedonism of his brightly colored neon.

And, more generally, misanthropic and misogynist. As the cowboy video at the Dia Foundation suggests, Nauman is Mr. Macho himself, however much he is stuck in a procrustean bed of time and space, as his limited back-and-forth motion suggests. The irony seems secondary to the swagger. The technology seems beside the point of the self-righteousness. Is Nauman just another would-be preacher -- a protest artist (but he's protesting all the wrong things, for masturbation, homosexuality and promiscuity have become right these liberated, tolerant days) -- making fancy art?

But what about hunting animals? Nauman seems to love them more than he loves human beings, as his expressionistic rendering of their suffering -- death agony -- suggests. In fact, his expressionistic drawings indicate that, while he's a fashionably multimedia artist, he still has mastery of one medium. He's not a dabbler in diversity, like so many multi-media artists, who often leave the art to the media rather than to their own hand.

Nauman still has a hand -- a strong, redemptive, empathic hand. His suspended animal sculpture is as confrontational and accusatory as his other works -- it is a kind of animal sacrifice, a dead scapegoat on ritual display -- but his animal drawings are meditative, introspective and intimate, for all their explosive violence. He has lost the distance and detachment his sculptures and signs convey, however grotesque they both are. He is no longer protesting the violence of hunting, but morbidly identifying with the hunted animal. The intensity and depth of the drawings -- their very personal character, compared to the impersonal sculptural signifiers -- suggests as much.

Franz Marc loved animals more than human beings because they are more at one with nature, while Nauman loves them because they are the victims of human nature. He hates human beings because they can't help but victimize one another. The drawings are full of self-hatred as well as hatred of society. They are allegories of Nauman as victim -- not of society, but of himself. They show that he is not simply a cynical conceptualist -- an epigone of Duchamp (he also ironically regarded human beings as inglorious machines) -- but an expressionist, almost despite himself: he takes his own violence personally. His irony can hardly be solace for his deep pessimism.

DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.