In a recent bit of hagiography in the New Yorker, Calvin Tomkins claims that Bruce Nauman is now the most influential living artist in the world. But who is the biggest influence on Nauman? I would argue that it is Jasper Johns.
Start at the obvious place, Johns' celebrated target with four cast body parts at the Museum of Modern Art. For decades Nauman has essentially turned the target on its axis, wired the body parts to it and spun it around. Doing something to the famous Johns highlights the contrasting visions of despair long practiced by the two artists: Johns standing outside a fixed point of entropy with whimsical detachment, while Nauman, shouting from a point of vertigo within, proclaims that there is no escape.
Johns’ mastery gives the most humble arguments a permanent dignity, a light bulb, for example, entombed, but ennobled, in sculptural stone. To Nauman, fixedness and perspective are denied even, and especially, to the artist. Thus, his Lighted Performance Box from 1969 teeters under a burning light bulb, forcing the viewer to constantly shift his level of vision. To Johns, death, however tragic, retains its dignity. His Diver, memorializing the chaotic last hours of a drunken Hart Crane, who may have either jumped, fallen or been pushed from the back of an ocean liner, captures Crane in the final moment of life and leaves him there forever.
To Nauman, Crane and his romantic ilks are nothing more than clowns. Life itself is a rushing rapid of falls, jumps and being pushed, and the worst part, even worse than death itself, is that someone is always ordering us to perform these painful, nonsensical acts. There is no sexual play in Nauman's body of work, whereas Johns constantly winks at us like a wet satyr in a verdant forest.
Yet Nauman, like Johns, remains enamored of form. He is an archaeologist, picking with fascination the carcasses around him, carcasses which spring to ghostly animation in the shadowy figures of John's The Seasons. Formalists forever, neither Johns nor Nauman could ever reduce themselves to the measurements of a Bochner, the linguistics of a Kosuth or the simple jokes of Richard Prince.
For Bruce and Jasper, the body is the starting point and all their efforts return to it, the mind being merely an engine for its mortal glories. Let them waltz in each other's arms into eternity.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).