Forty years ago Bruce Nauman made a squat, unpainted block of plaster sculpture titled A Cast of the Space under My Chair. This single work, one of dozens in the Berkeley Art Museum’s absorbing exhibition "A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s," is said to have provided enough inspiration to fuel the career of British artist Rachel Whiteread, who famously cast the interior of a condemned Victorian house. Nauman’s sculpture, here seen as cast exhibition copy, could easily be overlooked. It’s modest in scale and, like much of this show, constructed with the most basic materials. The piece points, as do others, to Nauman’s uncanny and influential ability (Matthew Barney’s use of physical endurance and film are connected to Nauman) to activate negative space, be it a physical zone or the creative void artists face in the studio. As is evidenced here, he exalts, questions, liberates, and gibes the anxiety-ridden act of making art, irrespective of material form. He quite often relies on the one thing always at hand: his body.
The show, curated by BAM’s Constance Lewallen, is limited to works made during five prolific years while Nauman lived in Northern California. There are an impressive number of classics here, including Self-Portrait as a Fountain, a 196667 photograph of the artist squirting an arc of water from his mouth, and Wax Impressions of the Knees of Five Famous Artists, a 1966 phlegm-colored, rectangular wall sculpture that subverts the promise of its title (it’s fiberglass, and all the knees are Nauman’s). But the exhibition is less about masterpieces than it is about the spirit of experimentation that’s always been a hallmark of Bay Area art making. In four galleries fitted with drawings, sculpture, photography, film, video, and neon, text, and sound works, the show easily proves its thesis: Nauman established his artistic vocabulary using whatever means necessary to focus on the physical, playful use of language and that sense of void while living here. "Rose" also communicates the thrill of seeing the vision, propelled by a sustained, successful run of art production, of an artist who became one of the most important of his generation.
It’s rare to see static and projected works installed together so handsomely, and the spare yet lively exhibition design is a key to the show’s success. Nauman’s promiscuous use of media is in glorious effect throughout. In the first gallery, fiberglass sculptures cast from architecture and forming homely objects sit next to videos that find the artist slowly and sometimes suggestively interacting with a corner of a room or a glowing fluorescent light tube. Nearby, small ceramic works from 1965 depict imploding cups and saucers. Drawings and neon present Nauman’s interest in text and wordplay. Later the exhibition adds Nauman’s quasi-how-to 16mm films, pieces that illustrate his interest in the notion of making. Andy Warhol made dry, deadpan films concurrently, but Nauman’s are more boyishly wry and reveal the artist getting his hands dirty, literally. Challenging the hegemony of minimalism, Nauman channeled the 1960s spirit of political and lifestyle fomentation. His classic studio videos, in which he engaged in repetitive, sometimes strenuous physical acts for the camera (Bouncing in the Corner, No.1 and Stamping in the Studio, both 1968, among them), directly link the artist to his work.
Lewallen’s decision to focus on pieces made in a specific region, one outside the art world mainstream, introduces elements of Bay Area art history and the contested notion of regionalism and place in a contemporary art scene ruled by international biennials and art fairs. Here we see pieces made while Nauman was in the nascent graduate art program at secluded UC Davis, where he studied with William Wiley and Robert Arneson and TA’d for Wayne Thiebaud. That backdrop indirectly surveys the role of graduate schools when they were affordable and in this case, laid-back and apart from the limelight and marketplace.
Nauman has always seemed to operate as a lone cowboy and has long resided in New Mexico, far from art world centers. He’s notoriously reticent about attending openings, though he surprised everyone by showing up in Berkeley for this one. The exhibit’s catalog pinpoints Nauman’s onetime studio at 144 27th St. in the Mission District, a neighborhood still attractive to artists. But "Rose" doesn’t so much suggest a Bay Area aesthetic as use location as a framing device.
In a 1970 interview Nauman said that his work was initially confused with funk art, a 1950s-born movement that had a strong Bay Area presence in the early work of Bruce Conner and others. "It looked like it in a way," he said, "but really I was just trying to present things in a straightforward way without bothering to shine them and clean them up." Scruffy still works around here, and in that spirit the show generates a frisson of hometown pride that feels anything but sentimental. It’s heartening to see what amazing things emerge from under the radar. *
A ROSE HAS NO TEETH: BRUCE NAUMAN IN THE 1960S
Through April 15
Wed. and Fri.Sun., 11 a.m.5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.7 p.m., $4$8 (free first Thurs.)
Berkeley Art Museum
2626 Bancroft Way, Berk.