MoMA, Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Daily through February 18, $14-$25
22-25 Jackson Ave. at 46th Ave.
Thursday - Monday through February 25, suggested admission $10
Jazz trumpet legend Miles Davis said, “Don’t play what’s there. Play what’s not there.” That approach applies to the wide-ranging exhibition “Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts,” which will disappear from MoMA PS1 on February 25 and MoMA’s main Midtown location on February 18. For six decades, the Indiana-born artist has been creating painting, drawing, sculpture, video, sound, and installation that addresses both the artist and the viewer directly, examining physical and psychological presence and absence. At PS1, Mapping the Studio is a multichannel installation consisting of speeded-up shots of Nauman’s workspace, taken by surveillance cameras overnight; occasionally, a mouse runs past, headlights shine from outside, or other movement is noticed, but it passes by so fast you won’t necessarily know what you’ve seen. In the hall, Naumann has a detailed chart of what happens when, but it is so expansive as to be overwhelming in and of itself. In Two Fans Corridor, visitors are encouraged to stand in an empty space surrounded by three walls as fans on either side, behind the right and left walls, blow air toward no one while adding a sound element. One person at a time can walk through Double Steel Cage Piece, a prisonlike construction with narrow alleys that can cause claustrophobia even though you can see the outside; meanwhile, audible from the previous room is Get Out of My Head, Get Out of This Room, making it seem like a disembodied voice is yelling those words at the person making their way through the cage. For Untitled (Wall-Floor Positions), a dancer arrives at predetermined times and performs on the floor and against the wall, but most of the time there is nobody there. You might not know what to make of Lighted Performance Box unless you look at the ceiling, where light is projected; you can’t go in the box, and there is no “performance.”
Corridor Installation (Nick Wilder Installation) is a series of narrow passages, some of which you can walk down, and some of which you cannot; Nauman adds cameras and monitors, but what you see on the monitors does not mesh with your actual experience. In the painting Beating with a Baseball Bat, a shadowy figure has his arms lifted above his head as if to inflict violence, but there is no bat in his hands. In My Last Name Exaggerated Fourteen Times Vertically, Nauman employs neon tubing to make his name unreadable, as if erasing himself. Wax Impressions of the Knees of Five Famous Artists is made of fiberglass and polyester resin, not wax, and the impressions were not made by the five artists identified nearby. And A Cast of the Space under My Chair is a concrete sculpture of empty space from a nonexistent chair.
Nauman also plays with opposites in Seven Virtues / Seven Vices, seven limestone blocks in which one vice and one virtue (for example, “Envy” and “Hope”) are spelled out in classical type over each other, making it difficult to read either. A black man and a white woman interchangeably say the same hundred phrases, including “I am a good boy” and “You are a good boy,” in Good Boy Bad Boy, which blurs distinctions between race and gender. Clown Torture is a room of television sets that show clowns being tortured, instead of the clowns doing the torturing. Leaping Foxes, made for this exhibition, is a group of skinless polyurethane animals hanging from the ceiling, stagnant in death. Nauman’s own body figures prominently throughout the exhibition. Contrapposto Split refers to one of his most famous series, in which he walks in a classical pose, but here he does so in 3-D, his body impossibly cut in half, the top out of sync with the bottom, something that is evident in a number of other old and recent videos projected on long walls.
“Disappearing Acts” is spread throughout three floors of MoMA PS1; back in Manhattan, it takes up the sixth floor with several large-scale installations that continue the theme of what’s there and what’s not there. “Nauman's work teaches us that making and thinking about art involve all parts of the brain and body. As we move through his environments or stand in front of a drawing such as Make Me Think Me, ideas surface about what it means to be alert — to be in the world,” MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry writes in his foreword to the catalog. (You can read a free fifty-five-page sample from the catalog here.) “Challenging the ways in which conventions become codified, his work erases all forms of certainty, mandating that we craft our own meanings rather than accede to more familiar rules. The lessons learned from Bruce’s penetrating intelligence become more and more necessary every day, and I am confident that the importance of his work will be clear as long as people find meaning in art.” In a May 1973 article in Interview, Nauman said, “I thought I might have to give up art, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do.” Thank goodness for Lowry, and for us, that Nauman did not give up art but forged ahead, pushing boundaries every step of the way. Going Around the Corner Piece is a huge cube you cannot go into, but you can walk around it, watching yourself appear and disappear on four black-and-white monitors placed on the floor. Audio-Video Underground Chamber shows what seems to be live footage of an empty room. You have to sign up in advance to be given the key to Kassel Corridor: Elliptical Space and be the one person every hour allowed to unlock the door and enter the extremely narrow area between two curved walls.
In Days, disembodied voices call out the days of the week from two rows of microphones; as you make your way through the room, you lose track of time and space. The neon sculpture One Hundred Live and Die flashes such phrases as “Cry and Live,” “Rage and Die,” “Laugh and Live,” “Kiss and Die,” “Live and Live,” and “Die and Die” in multiple colors. And Model for Trench and Four Buried Passages alters one’s understanding of what a model is, in this case a giant circular construction of plaster, fiberglass, and wire that calls out with emptiness. But there’s nothing empty about “Disappearing Acts,” an exciting retrospective filled with importance and meaning of your own choosing, in addition to plenty of fun. (There will be a closing party at MoMA PS1 on February 22, from 8:00 to midnight, with the galleries open late, DJ sets in the VW Dome, screenings of the documentary The Bruce Nauman Story, cocktails, and more.)