Disappearing Acts, the Museum of Modern Art’s second Bruce Nauman retrospective in a quarter century, is a repackaging of an artist whose propensity for Neo-Dada stunts in the late 1960s evolved over five decades into fatuous gallows humor and an inexplicable obsession with torment. Seeking a balance between the harmlessly nonsensical and the strangely aggressive, the organizers seem to have committed to a total overhaul of Nauman’s puzzling body of work. The more palatable Bruce Nauman that emerges is the creature of a curatorial burden shared by the Laurenz Foundation, Schaulager Basel and MoMA, a triad of entities so intertwined that some unraveling is in order.
The Laurenz Foundation is the exclusive underwriter of the Schaulager, an art storage and research facility in Basel, Switzerland. The Schaulager houses the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation’s huge art collection that includes a great many Naumans. To appreciate the reach of their collective influence, think of the Laurenz Foundation as a corporate Fabergé egg, its core nugget a Laurenz-endowed curator post at MoMA. Allocated to the museum in 2016, the new post was assigned to Kathy Halbreich, who was at the time MoMA’s Associate Director. Halbreich was an obvious choice. As director of the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis in 1995, she and Neal Benezra curated the earlier Nauman retrospective — the same show that travelled to MoMA and several other locations. Occupying the top-floor galleries of the museum’s 53rd Street building, along with a good chunk of MoMA PS1 across the river, Disappearing Acts seems designed to showcase the artist’s multi-media prowess.
To accomplish this, the first task of the current curators was to avoid repeating the 1995 show’s antagonistic sensory overload that generated a near-unanimous critical thrashing. The only sound that bleeds from its assigned space in this even larger installation emanates from “The End of the World” (1996), a three-screen projection featuring Texas steel guitarist Lloyd Maines which can be heard clearly in the PS1 lobby. For those of us who remember the 1995 show, this sweet-sounding replacement carries a whiff of sarcasm.
The next job was to give Nauman himself a makeover. Halbreich proposes in her catalog essay that the artist’s move to New Mexico in 1979 echoes a theme of “disappearance” in his work, which she outlines with a thirteen-point argument presumably meant to put space between the artist and the psychotic persona lurking behind his more disturbing pieces. The result, assuming one is swayed by her argument, is a subdued Nauman, punctuated here and there with inane sex- and-death clichés expressed in garish neon.
Visitors are greeted with “Venice Fountains” (2007), a pair of improvised slop sinks fed by spewing masks, which leads into galleries with several installations crafted according to the artist’s instructions. Examples of his early and funkier hand-made efforts are presented as formalist masterpieces with plenty of surrounding space, ostensibly to focus attention on sculptural qualities that are uneven at best. One giant gallery is dedicated to “Days,” (2009) an array of fourteen paper-thin speakers suspended from floor to ceiling that generate a voice repeating a calendar sequence as a viewer steps into each panel’s directional field. The recent and digitally sophisticated “Contrapposto Studies, i through vii” (2015/16), installed at the PS1 location, supplies the exclusive imagery for the exhibition’s public relations campaign.
Yet the show is not a total gloss. The very Naumanesque “Carousel” (1988), an improvised device dragging fake animal carcasses in a circle, raises the inevitable question nagging anyone pondering the artist’s motivations: to what purpose is Carousel’s implied cruelty aimed? “Clown Torture” (1987), installed in PS1 with a notably lower volume that its 1995 presentation, begs the same troubling query. Aside from excluding many of Nauman’s more odious works — “Anthro/Socio” (1991), for example, an oversized projection of a screaming head featured in the 1995 show — the museum seems determined to minimize viewer discomfort, even to the point of hiding work in plain sight. One of the larger pieces at the 53rd Street location titled “Kassel Corridor: Elliptical Space” (1972) is locked and can only be entered after reserving a timeslot — the work is designed to accommodate one visitor at a time.
For centuries, artists have crossed into uncomfortable emotional spaces, but the difficulty with Nauman is that he does so for uncomfortably vague reasons. Even his admirers struggle with the haze obscuring the space between the artist and his studio persona, an ambiguity amplified by the random leaps he makes from one subject to another. The ensuing confusion leaves supporters no choice but to dodge the inconsistencies with assertions of avant-garde heft. Artist Ken Okiishi, in a recent Artforum preview of the exhibition, suggested the show “is a master class in producing art, and in curating an exhibition, that confounds the impulse to make coherent statements about it.” The unassailable honesty in that sentence distracts from Okiishi’s astonishing admission that Nauman’s work is incoherent. And yet somehow it sounds like praise.
Though there are eighteen contributors to the show’s 350-page catalog, it fell to the curator Halbreich to provide the exhibition with a single interpretive distillation. Like Okiishi, she leans heavily on vivid assertion. Her introductory essay warns of the pitfalls in reducing Nauman’s perspective, “to a closed system of concerns,” suggesting instead we, “imagine his mind as a gravitational force that over time filters out everything unnecessary, leaving behind something of unusual conceptual purity.”
Aside from the absurd proposal of nature’s most indiscriminate force as a filtering agent, the evasive notion of “conceptual purity” leaves a reader little choice but to fall back on the premise of the statement: that we must “imagine” the artist’s mind. Once again that same problem rears its head: How do we separate the affable New Mexico artist/rancher from the nasty chaos he chooses to produce? Do a few jokey neon signs like “My Name as Though it were Written on the Surface of the Moon” (1968) excuse the mannered aggression of a drawing that asks us to meditate on the words “Shit and Die” (1985)?
The most revealing catalog entry was penned by Catherine Lord, a writer and artist who was asked by Halbreich to hunt for signs of anti-female aggression in Nauman’s videos — a boldly transparent cover-your-ass effort that if anything demonstrates Halbreich’s institutional savvy. To her credit, Lord sidestepped the obvious snare of collusion by writing her piece with a diarist’s frankness. Simply put, she did her homework and found no misogyny. Her review of the videos concludes that Nauman is an equal opportunity offender.
But then Lord drops a real gem of critical analysis that glimmers so brightly it made the $75 catalog suddenly worth the hole it left in my wallet. In the video titled “Shadow Puppets and Instructed Mime” (1990), an androgynous looking mime (Julie Goelle) executing Nauman’s off-stage cues (à la Richard Foreman) subverted his control with subtle gestures of independence. Gliding effortlessly through Nauman’s routines, this talented and disciplined individual, an artist in her own right, filled the silence between commands with an improvised finger-tapping performance of her own, scoffing impatiently at her tormentor’s badgering posture, the posture that lies at the heart of Nauman’s edginess and at the core of his reputation.
Though “Shadow Puppets and Instructed Mime” was shown at the Schaulager installation of Disappearing Acts from March to August of this year, it was not included in the MoMA exhibition. Somewhere between Basel and New York—rather ironically—it disappeared from the exhibition checklist. To be fair, Shadow Puppets is cited in the catalog as part of the Emanuel Hoffman Foundation collection, which suggests its inclusion in the New York show was not MoMA’s or Halbreich’s call to make. So, who decided? Why Basel and not New York? Could the artist have decided to leave it out after reading Lord’s critique? Like many questions surrounding this artist’s work, we can do no better than to imagine the answer.
Disappearing Acts continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53 Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through February 18, and at MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Avenue, Queens) through February 25. The exhibition was organized by Kathy Halbreich, Heidi Naef, Isabel Friedli, Magnus Schaefer, and Taylor Walsh.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version mistakenly identified the co-curator of the earlier Nauman exhibition as Robert Storr, when it was Neal Benezra.