The Philadelphia Museum of Art in September will debut a major new installation by Bruce Nauman, the pioneering artist-philosopher whose works brought the museum the top national-pavilion prize in the 2009 Venice Biennale.
Contrapposto Studies, I through VII will visit the Art Museum Sept. 18 and remain up through Jan. 8. After it leaves, a handful of other Nauman works will be installed and remain on view for about a year.
The project represents a continued deepening of the relationship between the museum and the 74-year-old Nauman, widely considered to be among the most influential artists of the last half-century. He is the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 2018. “Disappearing Acts: Bruce Nauman 1964-2018” will include Days, a sound installation from the U.S. Pavilion in Venice.
Nauman’s new work follows in the steps of an earlier, seminal video he produced in 1968 called Walk with Contrapposto, a grainy, black-and-white 60-minute stationary shot of Nauman sandwiched in a narrow corridor, in the classical Greek contrapposto pose of putting the body’s weight on one foot or the other, but walking, with the thud of his steps and ambient noises the only sounds.
The new work expands the concept to seven videos, with color footage of Nauman manipulated in various ways – sliced into seven horizontal sections, sometimes stacked slightly askew atop one another, or rendered as negative images – with Nauman walking in jeans and a white T-shirt. The installation calls for the seven projections to be shown simultaneously in two galleries, with sound from each creating an aleatory swath of sound – or, a Cage-like experience.
“The sounds you hear are the sound of my walking and turning around and kind of shuffling,” said Nauman this week. “And then because the images are reversed you hear the sound reversed, and that sounds more strange, and there is this kind of shuffle and it gets mixed together. It gets pretty dense. I like that a lot.”
John Cage connotations echo naturally at the museum, which has a history with the composer. And Nauman’s work can be seen as dovetailing with that of other artists – Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns – in which the museum has been particularly strong.
After Venice in 2009, Carlos Basualdo, the Art Museum’s curator for contemporary art, continued to be in touch with Nauman, who lives in New Mexico, talking about his work and possibilities for the museum as it develops its contemporary art collections. Discussions centered on the 1968 video-sound work and developed from there.
“It will be very intense,” says Basualdo. “It’s a tremendous work and a level of ambition that he hasn’t done since at least Mapping the Studio," another Cage-tinged work from a decade and a half ago.
Nauman – whose artistic inquiries have spanned neon, sound, sculpture, photography, and performance – does not produce work in large quantities. He rarely goes back to a previous idea for inspiration, and this one, stretching across the decades as it does, represents a journey. “It was a completely different work and completely different image in 1968 of this beautiful young man,” says Basualdo. “He’s now a man in his mid-70s who has gone through a lot, and it’s a lot about fragility. He’s still wearing jeans and the white T-shirt, but there is a sense of mortality that you didn’t have in the other work.”
Of looking to a previous work for inspiration, Nauman said: “It’s rare that it’s that direct. Often I’ve found that after I finished something and had it around for a while I’d realize that some part of what I’d done which didn’t seem important turned out to me to be the most important part of it, and I would use that as a piece of the next work, but not as obvious a connection as this one.”
The technology has changed much, of course, since 1968, and Nauman can more easily manipulate it to achieve his expressive aims. “My thought was to make the video so I appeared to be staying in one place and the room would move back and forth,” said Nauman. He enlisted videographer Bruce Hamilton, who helped realize the technical and post-production aspects of the project.
“It is extremely intellectual at some level,” says Basualdo, “although once you are in the room it will be overwhelming sensorially.”
The 1968 video, referencing Greek sculpture, conveyed a sense of monumentality, Basualdo says, “but in the later period, you have the sense of monumentality breaking apart. The ultimate effect is that the figure seems to disintegrate and then come back together.”
Read a review of the Philadelphia Museum of Art show "Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens" from the 2009 Venice Biennale here.