Bruce Nauman, "One Hundred Live and Die" (1984), neon tubing with clear glass tubing on metal monolith, 299.7 x 335.9 x 53.3 cm; Collection Benesse Holdings, Inc./Benesse House Museum, Naoshima (© Bruce Nauman / ARS, NY and DACS, London 2020, courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York)

LONDON — What is Bruce Nauman for? What kind of an artist is he? Let me give you an aerial impression, based on memories, all loosely stitched together, of squaring up to various works of his, from here and there, over the years. 

Squaring up is a phrase chosen with some care. It is neither easy nor especially relaxing to spend time with Nauman. Nauman’s works are a studied provocation, a bit of a poke in the eye. The fact that he is all over the place means that you are too.

Nauman is alarming, if not frenzied, noisy as they come, jitter-bugging all over the show. He almost never stays still. Voices shout at you, accusatory, from small monitors. There is much jabber, flash, jump, and flicker. You want to shout back, but you’ve been shouted down. Clowns are a particular menace in Nauman’s world. So much for the idea that clowns are for children to laugh at — or with. Clowns, with their yawning red mouths, are the stuff of nightmare, but especially when they rave as they beat their over-large shoes on the floor. 

Bruce Nauman, “Clown Torture” (1987), four-channel video with sound (two projections, four monitors), approximately one-hour loop; The Art Institute of Chicago, Watson F. Blair Prize, Wilson L. Mead, and Twentieth-Century Purchase funds; through prior gift of Joseph Winterbotham; gift of Lannan Foundation, 1997 (© Bruce Nauman / ARS, NY and DACS, London 2020, courtesy Sperone Westwater, New York)

The state of mind of this artist (you conclude as you brace yourself against the latest assault) is one of perpetual anxiety, a frenzied unstillness. Every piece seems to be a bellowing into the void, a yearning to explain this artist (or perhaps any artist these days) and the art he makes. Put another way, the work seems to be asking, how does he define his own legitimacy to himself? Which takes us back to the question I posed at the beginning. What is Nauman for? And what exactly does he do?

Well, Nauman was last seen at Tate Modern in a Stetson in 2004, when he installed some speakers inside the Turbine Hall (Bruce Nauman: Raw Materials, October 12, 2004-May 2, 2005). As we moved past each one, we found ourselves listening to human voices, one after another, shouting, pleading, roaring at us, making a kind of mayhem of noise and chatter and prattle…

So what exactly is he then? Difficult to say, even more difficult to wrestle to the ground. The moment you get him down there, he springs back up, and starts walking away from you all over again.

Bruce Nauman (October 7, 2020-February 21, 2021) at Tate Modern, London: installation view featuring “Anthro/Socio (Rinde Spinning)” (1992); (photo: Tate Photography (Matt Greenwood); artwork © Bruce Nauman / ARS, NY and DACS, London 2020)

Today we have Bruce Nauman, a spasmodic, discontinuous retrospective (of sorts) at Tate Modern, which begins with a sequence of film stills — there is a lot of whirring and rattling of old technology as you enter — of his studio from the 1960s (early days), a messy maker’s sort of place. There are drab, grainy interior shots; clutters of machine tools; paint slopping histrionically out of a paint pot; chairs on wheels suggesting that you could wish either to sit still or scoot like some wild thing across the floor, niftily avoiding all the mess and clutter as you go. Some of the images are upside down. 

Nauman himself is present quite a lot in these early galleries, young and not so young, whiplash slender or slow-paunchy, pacing about, locked into a mood of perpetually bepuzzled rumination. He’s his own living template. 

Here he is, in one photo, pulling his mouth about, turning himself into a ‘60s gargoyle. In another he pinches his neck as if it’s clay to be manipulated. Does Nauman need anything other than himself to make an impact as an artist? 

He loves sound to be present. It makes the whole thing hop and skitter, whatever it is — when he films himself walking, he doesn’t forget to collide with the wall, noisily, so that we can hear him banging about lustily. 

Bruce Nauman, “Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square” (1967–1968), 16mm film on video, projected, black and white, sound; 10 minutes; (exhibition file courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York; © ARS, NY and DACS, London 2020 ) 

He’s trying to make sense of it all, we feel, to place himself and his own body in movement, within some kind of a continuum of art-making. Where does he fit in? How does filming himself pacing about a rectangle — one large enough, it should be said, for an Abstract Expressionist to roar across — define the space where a work of art could be conceived? And what is this art to be anyway? Is it possible for him to say? 

The show ranges all over the place, from sculpture to installation to video. The early sculptures are made from all that a poor man can afford — cheap, rough-and-ready stuff. There’s a bit of fun-poking at the expense of Henry Moore, who was getting a beating just then for being so puffed up and monumental. The title of the piece has all the swinging arrogance of cocksure, shit-scared youth about it: “Henry Moore Bound to Fail” (1967). Young Nauman himself, ever restless, is all improvisation, seeking out direction from everything he stares at or kicks or handles… What does the idea of this action-packed studio mean to him anyway? He told us once. 

It’s “the place where you make yourself insecure.”

Bruce Nauman (October 7, 2020-February 21, 2021) atTate Modern, London: installation view featuring “Double Steel Cage Piece” (1974); (photo: Tate Photography (Matt Greenwood); artwork © Bruce Nauman / ARS, NY and DACS, London 2020)

He finds glorious insecurity everywhere, which is why the works are often so unpredictable. A giant metal cage encloses a smaller one. We can’t walk through them to experience the displeasure of incarceration anymore, but you could have done so once, when the work was first shown. Two monitors at either end of a false wall seem blank when you first stare at them from a distance, but as you make a turn around one end of the wall, you catch your own self (only just though, you look so sneaky), retreating. Is this political art, surveillance art? Nauman wouldn’t necessarily agree, but he probably wouldn’t show the door to the latest ambulant critic’s smart thought.

Yes, this is a show not so much of answers as questions. Every work is discrete and singular, but over the years — it’s inevitable, of course — any artist returns to certain key preoccupations, if not obsessions. Here are some of Nauman’s: his own body; prestidigitation; snooping, on self and others. And, ultimately, the lengths that an artist might go to become one with the art that he is making.

Bruce Nauman continues at Tate Modern (Bankside, London, England) through February 21, 2021. The museum is currently closed to the public due to restrictions necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The exhibition has been organized by Tate Modern and Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in collaboration with Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan.

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times, the Financial Times,...