Since the late 1960s Bruce Nauman has been one of the most highly respected and influential figures in contemporary art. His work is motivated by ideas often rooted in the human condition, which draw upon a wide range of sources including the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the music and writings of John Cage, Gestalt therapy, and literary sources including Samuel Beckett.
Nauman was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1941 and his father was an engineer and salesman. After showing an early interest in music, Nauman went on to study Mathematics and Physics at the University of Wisconsin, before finishing his studies with an MFA at the University of California. Having initially explored painting, he quickly began to work with alternative materials to produce sculpture, performances, installations, film, video, photography and neon works. His works from the mid-1960s included castings of his own body which often focused on the process of art-making itself.
Nauman quickly established himself as an artist in the mid-1960s, and in 1966 Nauman had his rst solo show at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery, Los Angeles. In 1968 he was included in Documenta 4 in Kassel, Germany – one of the world’s most important contemporary art exhibitions – alongside artists such as Joseph Beuys (cat.113) and Andy Warhol (cats 117–20). As well as the casts of his own body Nauman also began to use photography and lm to question the role of the artist in works such as Self-portrait as a Fountain, from the portfolio Eleven Color Photographs, 1966–7 (an edition of eight). In this work Nauman photographed himself shirtless, isolated in his studio, arms raised with palms towards the camera. Looking up, the artist projects a stream of water from his mouth. The artist and work are unified in evoking Marcel Duchamp’s iconic Fountain, 1917 (original lost, various replicas in existence), which half a century earlier had challenged conventional definitions of what constitutes a work of art.
In the 1990s, Nauman returned to working with casts. These were all given play-onword titles, such as From Hand to Mouth, 1967 (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Collection, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.), which is literally a cast of the artist’s body from his hand to his mouth. Yet in the work Untitled (Hand Circle) the hands are left to speak for themselves; without a title Nauman creates an open-ended narrative which in itself becomes representative of his restless exploration into the artistic process. Cast in bronze, a traditional sculptural material, the work provides an insight into Nauman’s experimentation with the medium of sculpture and his interest in his own body. Suspended from the ceiling, the work is hung just above head height, implicating the viewer and exemplifying Nauman’s exploration of human psychology and feelings of discomfort. As with many of Nauman’s sculptural and performance works Untitled (Hand Circle) appears to be concerned with systems, loops and dead ends.
This text was originally published in Facing the World: Self-portraits from Rembrandt to Ai Weiwei, 2016.