A man somewhat advanced in years, dressed in blue jeans and a white T-shirt torn with small holes, walks back and forth in front of the camera. You hear the ambient sounds – clicking of heels, moments of friction with the floor, and perhaps the breathing that comes with this small labor.
Bruce Nauman’s Contrapposto Studies, I through VII opened Saturday at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Confronting the giant video projections in the larger of two galleries showing the works, some visitors looked concerned, others delighted. Nauman is shown taking his walk from various angles, and images are manipulated almost as if put through a kind of digital kaleidoscope. Some video panels present him whole. Elsewhere he is sliced into seven horizontal sections, each one phasing in at a different point in time. Some panels show the video playing in reverse, or treated as film negatives, or both.
There is an aleatory joy to this jumble, the odd sensation that revelation, expressivity and humanity can be found in unexpected places, if you have the eye for it. Nauman does. A virtuoso scavenger, the American artist has a soft spot for the mundane and a touch for turning it into philosophical inquiry.
The Contrapposto, I through VII are classic Nauman, and his most ambitious suite of pieces since he filled the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale for the Philadelphia Museum of Art (winning the top national pavilion prize).
This burst of Nauman, up through Jan. 8, represents a deepening of the relationship between the museum and the highly influential and often prescient 74-year-old artist. After the Contrapposto Studies leave in January, a handful of other Nauman works will go on view here for about a year.
If visitors don't immediately know what to make of the epic main gallery with five of the seven Contrapposto Studies, they might try seeing the pieces as a particularly elegant act of slicing and dicing classicism. Nauman’s earlier outing with this idea, from 1968, is being shown on a small monitor in a nearby video room. Walk With Contrapposto shows Nauman walking a corridor in low-resolution black and white. In both the earlier and later work, Nauman puts into action the contrapposto pose with all of its historical resonance – used in works such as Michelangelo's David and going back to Greek antiquity – in which weight is shifted onto one leg, bending the body ever so slightly.
Newer classical references echo. If the main thrust of the classical era in music is asserting an idea, breaking it down to reveal expressive meaning and unexpected possibilities and putting it all back together, Nauman's new work is as legible and economical as a Haydn piano sonata. The phased video loops recall Steve Reich.
A nearby gallery contains a simplified iteration of the piece – actually, two of the seven Contrapposto Studies – with just a few images to serve as a clarifying coda to the larger installation.
As the Art Museum increases its identification with Nauman, his works seem to be finding unexpected resonances elsewhere in the collections, particularly in the modern and contemporary galleries. In its segmentation of the human form and exploration of movement, doesn't Nauman's new work close a century's distance with Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)?
What it all adds up to is highly personal. Nauman could have chosen anyone to walk the walk in his video – a Gap model, a character actor – but he chose himself. He is now obviously older than he is in the 1968 video, and this, combined with the video treatment, where a cut torso at times looks like it is about to fly apart from its lower-body mooring, suggests human fragility. He makes his journey in solitude, then, in 1968, at the beginning of his career, as he does now toward the end. The viewer who starts with the 1968 work and moves to the new one may be reminded of a personal history we all share from the past two decades – from a quaint, slow-moving, single-channel image, to dozens of images generating noise and vying for our modern, infamously multi-tasking and severely fractured attention.
On Sunday, it was fascinating to watch a few younger museum visitors walk into the big gallery of tall, stunning images and look baffled. Nauman's visual vocabulary seems tailor-made for them – kinetic, seemingly random – and yet they looked almost put out by having to stop and dig for meaning. For them, maybe the work just needs an alternate title, something that invokes the short, repetitive sequences that scroll by on their Facebook news feeds. A Roomful of GIFs should do it.