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April 4-10, 2007

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'A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s'

A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s
(By Constance M. Lewallen, with essays by Anne M. Wagner, Robert Storr and Robert R. Riley; UC Press; 235 pages; $39.95 cloth)

In the mid-1960s, Bay Area artist Bruce Nauman broke a lot of the extenuated ties that still moored art objects to traditional materials and methods. He experimented with materials like dirt, latex and neon; he cast simple blobby forms from fiberglass and polyester resin and stuck them to gallery walls at odd angles. He coated some burlap with resin and tossed it in a corner. As Constance M. Lewallen explains in her essay for this survey of Nauman's early works, the artist "rejected the strict geometry of Minimalism," aiming instead for a kind of "anti-form." Eventually, Nauman forged into the realms of Conceptualism, in which how the artist thinks up and documents a work of art is more important that the work itself. His pieces started to rely on puns for their effect—a wax form of a man's arm and lower face is nothing without its title: From Hand to Mouth. More significantly, Nauman decided that "whatever he did in his studio was art." Setting himself commonplace activities, like Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square or Bouncing in the Corner, Nauman did just that with an obsessive-compulsive attention to his repetitive scheme and filmed the result. These pieces were extremely influential in the movement toward process and body art but can seem, in retrospective, like tedious art-school gags. Take, for instance, Flour Arrangements, a photo series showing Nauman pushing some piles of flour around on the floor. The gesture may reference Duchamp's Big Glass, but it also proves that Nauman was getting stir crazy in that studio. The book is well illustrated, but it really should also come packaged with a DVD of the films (a sprinkling can be found on YouTube), which would help the reader better assess Nauman's ideas. (Nauman is also the subject of a retrospective through April 15 at the Berkeley Art Museum.)

Review by Michael S. Gant


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