If I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art. At this point art became more of an activity and less of a product.
Naumann attended the University of Wisconsin to study mathematics and music. He changed his major to art and graduating in 1964 before receiving an MFA from the University of California at Davis in 1966.
By the late 60s Nauman had earned a reputation as a conceptual pioneer in the field of sculpture. He began working in film with Robert Nelson and William Allen while teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute. He produced his first videotapes in 1968.
Nauman works in diverse mediums of sculpture, video, film, printmaking, performance, and installation. He concentrates less on the development of a characteristic style and more on the way in which a process or activity can transform or become a work of art.
Nauman has been recognized since the early 1970s as one of the most innovative and provocative of America's contemporary artists. Nauman finds inspiration in the activities, speech, and materials of everyday life. Using his body to explore the limits of everyday situations, Nauman explored video as a theatrical stage and a surveillance device within an installation context, influenced by the experimental work of Merce Cunningham, Meredith Monk, La Monte Young, Steve Reich, and Phillip Glass.
His use of video made him a pioneer in postmodern art. His video pieces frequently included actors involved in bizarre, repetitive acts. Other pieces invited the viewer into oddly shaped constructed spaces in which they soon felt trapped or confined.
Constantly provocative, his work was uncomfortable even for admirers to view. Critics variously described his work as humorous or painful. In fact, throughout his career, his work often defied description. It was unclear whether his pieces were sexual, aggressive, conceptual, or thought-provoking. Naumann's work served as a litmus test for viewers, received either as a pop-psychology experiment or psychological torture, depending on the work and the reaction it elicited. Naumann's work was called anti-art for its minimalism and the discomfort it provoked. He drew more wrath and invective than contemporaries such as Donald Judd, Mark di Suvero, and Nam June Paik.
Naumann's work was compared to earlier experimental and conceptual artists, particularly those in the Dadaist movement, such as Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, as well as to artist Andy Warhol. Naumann, who married painter Susan Rothenberg in 1989, cited John Cage, the minimalist composer, and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein as important influences.
His later work was informed by his own reading of accounts of political torture. His response was to build "experiments" that explored how various conditions might affect humans.
A survey of his diverse output demonstrates the alternately political, prosaic, spiritual, and crass methods by which Naumann examines life in all its gory details, mapping the human arc between life and death.
Naumann selected clowns as a metaphor in several video pieces. "Clown Torture" (1987) was a video piece featuring "the hoarse voice of Naumann, dressed as a clown , in a baggy suit of vertical stripes that slyly recalls the garb of concentration-camp prisoners, shrieking, 'No, no, no, nonono!' while writhing and jerking on the floor," wrote Hughes in Time. His obsession with clown imagery in the 1980s drew comparisons to author Samuel Beckett. This prompted a show in 2000 called "SAMUEL BECKETT/BRUCE NAUMAN." In his critique of the exhibition in Artforum International, Daniel Birnbaum said the connection between the two men was "exemplary. No other contemporary artist has worked so intensively with repetitions that turn the minor absurdities of the everyday into something unendurable."
Naumann's later video installations included "Learned Helplessness in Rats," a 1988 installation featuring a Plexiglas maze and loud punk rock drumming, and "Violent Incident" (1986), in which a band of video monitors displayed a domestic squabble that ends in a double homicide.
In an interview with Artforum International in March 2002, Nauman explained his 2001 project called "Mapping the Studio," his first installation work in seven years: "I have all this stuff lying around the studio, leftover s from different projects and unfinished projects and notes. And I thought to myself, Why not make a map of the studio and its leftovers?" He set up a camera in seven different positions and collected six hours' worth of tape that was projected in the exh ibit space. These tapes included images of the nocturnal habits of his cat and the studio mice. Nauman also made other video pieces based on his daily life at the ranch. "Setting a Good Corner" was a later piece showing how he went about building a corner on which to stretch a fence and hang a gate. The piece was utilitarian and, Nauman contended, artistic.
Although critics were polarized in their response to Naumann, his work could be found in museums and private collections throughout the world.
Naumann was recognized with two art awards in 1993 and 1994, the Wolf Prize for sculpture and the Wexner Prize. The Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective of his work in 1994.
His work was placed in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, Germany.
Copies of the works of Bruce Naumann
can be purchased and rented for exhibition in EAI
, Video Data Bank