Please Pay Attention Please, the collected writings and interviews of Bruce Nauman, feels like such a crucial text because Nauman’s early work feels seminal, his later work still excellent, and his whole output so consistently ahead of its time in so many ways. Yet he remains an enigma. No catalogue raisonné of his works is available yet, and much of the work is difficult to document or describe. In a lot of cases, you had to be there.
Which is exactly why a collection of writing (mostly instructions for performances and wall text for installations) and especially interviews is so valuable. What was this guy thinking when he smeared make-up over his naked torso and face and called the video "Art Make-Up"? Why is a video of the artist pacing his studio art? Janet Kraynak, editor of Please Pay Attention Please, situates Nauman neatly within the context of structuralism’s rise to prominence in the 1960s. According to Kraynak, the sixties meant not just pop counterculture, but the critical reevaluation of the structure of language, making utterances and sentence fragments—what she calls the "speech act"—viable as art. Language is a critical concept in Nauman’s work, and the extent to which he manipulates it and uses it is a product of the sixties art world, where certificates of authenticity and directions for institutions to present artists’ works became common. So Kraynak has a point. But Nauman’s work is by no means wholly devoted to subtle social protest via the grand mechanism of institutionalization and control—language. His work is too diverse and too personal to pigeonhole him as another soldier of structuralism.
At least part of why Nauman’s work feels so key right now is because his concentration on the body and oblique video work is the only obvious precursor to Matthew Barney, whose cold update of surrealism at the Guggenheim divided the art world into for and against factions. Reading Nauman’s early texts makes it clear that then-contemporary audiences must have met his work with the same confusion and outrage that Barney’s has inspired. Is he a genius or a fraud?
While most of Nauman’s "writing" in Please Pay Attention Please isn’t meant to be read as straight text (nearly all of it was exhibited with a visual component in galleries and museums), it is always psychologically acute, and some of it ("Cone Cojones," "The Consummate Mask of Rock") holds up well as pure poetry. But the writing functions as a teaser for fourteen exceptional interviews, in which Nauman divulges a surprisingly large amount of detailed information about his works from the early sixties through the recent video installation (now showing at Dia: Beacon) "Fat Chance John Cage." One thing becomes clear in Nauman’s amazingly consistent answers to questions from his sometimes-skeptical, sometimes-awed interviewers: he’s always been on the outside looking in. With some necessity, seemingly. Not that Nauman refused to let himself become wrapped up in the trendiness of the art world; he just seemed incapable. The center of the art world was New York—Nauman lived in California and New Mexico because he "felt comfortable with the space in the West." He didn’t follow current visual styles—he consciously aligned his work with minimalist music (La Monte Young, Steve Reich), Warhol’s films, and modern dance. The central concept of Nauman’s video and installation work is to present a structured experience with rules and clear instructions, due to his "mistrust of audience participation." This mistrust led to pieces like "Corridor Installation," in which the viewer walks between two large walls that are very close together. Once inside, the viewer sees him/herself in a video camera, from behind, an angle you never see. Meanwhile, others may enter behind you at any time, creating a typically Nauman experience that emphasizes the tension of self-awareness and self-consciousness.
As he talks about the early videos, shot in his San Francisco studio in the mid-sixties (many shown last winter in P.S.1’s Video Acts show), the connection with minimalist music becomes more convincing. Nauman says he had no ideas for artmaking at the time, so he simply rented video equipment and documented himself screwing around in his studio: "My conclusion was that I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art." But he later tempers that potentially narcissistic observation by saying what he was really going for was a sense of timelessness. Listen to Young’s music or watch an early Warhol film, and you can miss hours and not miss a thing. The same is true for the early videos, and the recent one, "Fat Chance John Cage," for that matter.
In a sense, you finish Please Pay Attention Please not with the sense that Nauman’s oeuvre is a micro-project deconstructing language, but that he’s the consummate, most successful minimalist imaginable. Canonical minimalists like Donald Judd attempted a reconceptualization of visual art based on the viewer’s physical positioning and relationship to the object. So he put his pieces on the ground, forcing you to walk around them and examine everyday materials you could just as well find at a local hardware store. But audience mistrust notwithstanding, reading Nauman talk about his videos and installations obviates the necessity of viewer participation to the works’ success. Please Pay Attention Please reveals the work of an artist whose ideas are not only mature and advanced, but that still comment strongly on contemporary life as the western populace becomes even more self-conscious under the inundation of so much visual material and so many metaphorical mirrors.