Bruce Nauman

Installed: May 14, 2016 - Summer, 2017

Yerba Buena: 151 Third Street, SFMOMA

During its exhibition at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), Bruce Nauman's wry wordplay and playful use of neon tubing in Life Death/Knows Doesn't Know (1983) subverted expectations of neon signage, replacing the lexicon of commercial advertising with weighty but contradictory terms: life/death, pleasure/pain, love/hate — intersected by ambiguous sentence fragments that underscore the haphazardness of language itself. The light cast by neon on the surrounding walls enveloped the viewer, while the tone of dry satire spoke of high art in the materials of low culture and advertising, setting up a clash that questioned old assumptions about the purpose of art and artists. Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's ideas about language have been an important influence on Nauman’s work, shaping his interest in the way words succeed or fail in referring to objects in the world.

Artist: Bruce Nauman pioneered and remains at the forefront of exploring language and the body through revelatory, rigorously conceived and realized individual artworks, installations, and performance. Although his work is not easily defined by its materials, styles, or themes, sculpture is central to it, and it is characteristic of Post-Minimalism in the way it blends ideas from Conceptualism, Minimalism, performance art, and video art. The revival of interest in Marcel Duchamp in the 1960s also clearly influenced Nauman in various ways, from encouraging his love of wordplay to infusing his work with a satirical and sometimes absurdist tone. Despite the impact of Dada, however, he continued to view his art less as a playful or creative enterprise than as a serious research endeavor, one he likes to carry out in seclusion from the art world, one that is shaped by his interests in ethics and politics.

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