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Bruce Nauman - visionary

8 January - 2021
by Alice Broeksma

Exhibitions around the world

until 21.02.21 - Tate Modern - Bankside London

The video installation chosen to greet visitors of the major Bruce Nauman exhibition in Tate Modern could not have been more timely. ‘Washing Hands Normal’ (1996) is projected on two monitors, showing the American artist frantically washing his hands. Each screen offers a different view of the act, creating a lengthy hypnotic scene. Thought up a quarter of a century ago and exploring repetitive everyday gestures, the hand washing of course is now part of the international campaign trying to outsmart a roaming world virus. 

Bruce Nauman
Bruce Nauman

For Bruce Nauman, always far ahead, the study of body parts was a component of his physical and psychological themes. Since the end of the 1960’s he has continually tested and reinvented art by reshaping traditional forms an creating new ones. Ground-breaking work, using a wide range of media, including sculpture, sound, film, video and neon. Aged eighty this year, Nauman is widely recognised as one of the most innovative and influential artists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.


The exhibition in Tate Modern, with more than 40 projections, sculptures and installations, is the most substantial survey in London of Nauman’s work for more than 20 years. The exhibition includes the artist’s early iconic neon spiral, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window and Wall Sign, 1967). Tate Modern has included other early neon work such as My Name As Though It Were Written On the Surface of the Moon, 1968 – a drawn out image of his own name, inspired by images of an Apollo space mission mapping the moon. Artworks such as Henry Moore Bound to Fail 1967/70 and A Cast of the Space Under My Chair 1965/68 highlight Nauman’s conceptual and often performative approach towards sculpture, the body and studio practice. Black Marble Under Yellow Light 1981/1988 is an encounter with his unsettling manipulation of space and light.

Falls, Pratfalls and Sleights of Hand
Falls, Pratfalls and Sleights of Hand

Mathematics, physics, conceptual art

Bruce Nauman (1941) was born in the Midwest, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His father was an engineer for General Electric, which meant the family often moved. Bruce studied mathematics and physics in Wisconsin (1960-1964) and art in California (1965-1966). At the end of the 1960’s the artist moved to Pasadena, later to New Mexico. He painted, followed by sculpture, performance and cinema. Art for him was an activity more than a product, commentating, also playing with language and visual symbols.

Many collections in museums of contemporary art worldwide include Nauman’s work. The organisers of the current London exhibition, Tate Modern and Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, ask: ‘Why Nauman, why now?’ This is their explanation: ‘Nauman is not unknown to contemporary art enthusiasts in Western Europe and the United States of America. A hundred or more monographic publications, or catalogues for important group exhibitions in which his works have featured, testify to his reputation and influence. 

A Cast of the Space Under My Chair
A Cast of the Space Under My Chair

Added to the weight of all this, his preoccupations over more than fifty years are those that distinguish so much contemporary art making today – the deployment of humble materials, the blurring of performance and its documentary means, and the use of moving image as immersive installation. It is precisely the normalisation of these approaches that confirms Nauman’s prescience and relevance today.’

Nauman was a visionary. Tate Modern concludes: ‘It is appropriate and timely that an artist of his influence and standing should be the subject of deeper exploration.’ It was in Western Europe the American artist first gained significant attention, his work shown by Konrad Fischer in his gallery (Düsseldorf, 1968), in Harald Szeemann’s influential exhibitions When Attitudes Become Form (Kunsthalle Bern, 1969) and Documenta 5 (Kassel, 1972).

Black Marble Under Yellow Light
Black Marble Under Yellow Light


The book (100 illustrations) published alongside the exhibition in Tate Modern includes texts on Nauman’s video works of the 1980s and 1990s. Also a conversation between the artist and former Tate Modern curator Andrea Lissoni and -director Nicholas Serota, commenting Nauman is both the last modern artist and the very first contemporary artist. A restlessly inventive artist, shaping our understanding of how contemporary art can both reflect and comment on our experience of ourselves and of the world.  

Ref: Tate Modern, Press department; ‘Brue Nauman’, edited by Andrea Lissoni and Nicholas Serota, Paperback (9781849767187)

Online tour

Tate Modern is currently closed due to Covid. However, there is an online tour of the Nauman show available exclusively to Tate Members.

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