Perhaps it was the Sperone Westwater balcony, hovering over a space lit only by a projected image, that summoned the line. But seeing Bruce Nauman’s latest effort, “Contrapposto Studies, i through vii,” brought me back to a scene in the film Chinatown in which John Huston’s Noah Cross delivers a rather acerbic view of reputation and longevity: “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” Age has apparently taken the edge off a notoriously edgy artist. To watch Nauman struggle through these new videos is to witness the introduction of an uncharacteristically sympathetic element into an overwhelmingly puerile body of work.
Between his celebrated beginnings at age 27 and a second Museum of Modern Art retrospective scheduled for 2018, Nauman’s reputation continues to glide effortlessly over a storm of extreme opinions, both pro and con. His significance became inevitable as he rode the benefit of a doubt (a short list of hecklers includes Robert Hughes, Jed Perl, and Hilton Kramer) that lent support to his champions: nothing elevates facetious vulgarity more than attempts to criticize it. In remaining true to the spirit of avant-garde transgression, which has been the mainstay of his work, he has secured a place in art history.
Now, quite suddenly at age 74, he offers the public a self-portrait that might be construed as a plea for sympathy. “Contrapposto Studies” is a revisiting of an earlier effort called “Walk with Contrapposto (1968),” in which a very young Nauman made a simple video of the same exaggerated strides up and down a barely two-foot-wide corridor. Comparing the performance from the 1960s with the digital multiview imagery at Sperone Westwater, what stands out is not just the advances provided by new technology, but an inescapable contrast between the older and younger Nauman.
“Contrapposto Studies, i through vii” is exhibited as a companion piece to a concurrent exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art called Contrapposto Studies, I through VII. The use of lowercase in the former was apparently in deference to the museum’s superior position in this adroit bit of high-end art marketing. Other equally superficial adjustments separate the two versions. According to a member of Sperone Westwater staff, the positive-negative aspects as displayed in the Philadelphia Museum version are reversed in the New York gallery version.
The brashness of the 1960s piece was clearly of the wise-ass variety, and as such in keeping with Nauman’s overall career output. The young Nauman’s thrusting his hips left and right with his hands behind his head gave the earlier version an unquestioned sense of mockery. Performed by the artist in his seventh decade, the same movement no longer jeers. In stark visual terms, a half century of living has left his posture slightly crumpled, his progress hesitant. His jerky hip tilt now resembles the uneasy gait of someone who has suffered a fractured pelvis. The forward and return path, which is much shorter in the new piece, looks more like the repetitive to-and-fro march of physical therapy. The 2016 work, whether intentionally or not, emphasizes vulnerability more than hubris.
This unusually introspective theme is carried further by the inclusion in the show of two miniature versions of the installation. Featured in the gallery’s upstairs front room are scale models of the lower galleries, with small video-projection machines minutely reproducing the images and sounds of the exhibition below. Presenting what may have been a working model for the installation as a third level of redux suggests echo and distance, as in old age looking back on youth — bold new territory for the author of “Clown Torture” (1987).
Each projection differs slightly. One screen has the artist in four rectangular divisions, side by side, showing his movements from back to front, while another shows the same movement from the side. In yet another projection, the four rectangles are repeated along the top, and each section is filled with a negative of the image below it. As the videos play out, horizontal splits appear between the upper and lower body. The whole effect is that of a professionally nuanced presentation executed in a formalistic theme-and-variation mode that packages the work neatly.
That Nauman was able to use the bile of his former work as a counterpoint to an expression of frailty is, in the context of his typically contemptuous voice, a remarkable development. For the older Nauman, adolescent humor may have finally lost its charm, though not entirely. Both early and late versions depend on the nonsense of his original premise. Contrapposto, as any graduate lecturer will tell you, is a highly artificial pose that seeks a balance between the illusion of movement and stasis in a static image. To add movement to a body in contrapposto is to embrace an obvious absurdity. I often asked my students to strike the pose, just to illustrate how unnatural and counterintuitive it really is as a physical stance. It was never meant as a runway stride. The only other artist I can think of who flirted with a similar misreading was Terry Gilliam, who back in the Monty Python days put Michelangelo’s “David” through a jazzy quick-step. The humor in Gilliam’s piece is up front. Nauman’s misreading seems more like selective ignorance.
“Contrapposto Studies” may represent a change of attitude for Nauman; he wouldn’t be the first avant-garde artist to abandon the edginess that made his reputation in order to slip quietly into old master mode. If that’s is what’s happening, it is an unusually late development, likely too late for those who consider his overall body of work beyond redemption. But in all fairness, this exhibition suggests that he may yet grow respectable — albeit in the inevitable way that Noah Cross understood the term.
Bruce Nauman: Contrapposto Studies, i through vii continues at Sperone Westwater (257 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 29.