VENICE, Italy - It won't be at all surprising if the Bruce Nauman show assembled at the Venice Biennale by the Philadelphia Museum of Art moves art critics to high praise. But back in the 1960s, Nauman shook up another kind of critic.

While a student at the University of California, Davis, he made a work of four square pieces of latex rubber and cheesecloth. Its moment of creation would occur when it was tossed into a corner.

The fire marshal, tipped off about flammable materials in the wooden studios, showed up with a photographer to document the event as evidence of unsafe practices. Pointing to Nauman's piece, he told the photographer to get a shot of "that accumulation over there."

The students burst out laughing - but it was an "enlightening moment" to conceptual artist Stephen J. Kaltenbach, suggesting to him for the first time that art could be something so remote from traditional appearances it could be mistaken for trash.

This incident is recounted by Constance Lewallen in her book A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s. Four decades later, Nauman is still appropriating unlikely materials to isolate points about what art is, asking what its purpose might be, and redirecting art into areas of inquiry well beyond the bounds of mere aesthetics.

Viewers now have a chance to gauge what is perhaps Nauman's crowning "accumulation" - "Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens," assembled by the artist and Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Carlos Basualdo and now filling the U.S. Pavilion and two other sites at the 53d Venice Biennale, which opens to the public on Sunday.

Many art fans still reject the idea that what Nauman does is art. This week, over lunch, he deflected the what-is-art question, preferring to say that art for him is "trying to figure it out all the time. Trying to figure out what's next. When art works well it is available on a lot of levels."

Asked his thoughts on seeing nearly three dozen of his works spanning more than four decades in one place, he looks across the water from Giudecca to Venice and says, after a long silence:

"I don't know. I don't know that I can say anything about that."

Nauman, 67, who lives and raises horses in New Mexico, is tall and, if not shy, at least guarded. Today he wears jeans and a refined straw fedora - part sphinx, part cowboy. How he's going to get through this week of press appearances, speeches, dinners, and parties - or whether he'll even show up much - is a matter of speculation for his handlers. One says that at some openings he has sat in a back room with a glass of whiskey while gallery staff out front were left to say, "He was here just a minute ago. . . ."

In fact, he didn't turn up yesterday for press events opening the two parts of the exhibition at the Università Iuav di Venezia at Tolentini and the Università Ca' Foscari, though he had worked closely with students and professors during the last year to create works for the show.

Nauman has shown in Venice - he was given the festival's Gold Lion in 1999 for lifetime achievement, along with Louise Bourgeois - but this is his first full one-man show here. He's been asked by other museums to participate in proposals, he says, but liked the Philadelphia Museum of Art's plan to involve neighborhoods beyond the U.S. Pavilion in the Giardini area.

"To spread it through the city was more interesting to me. I love the idea of unexpected places."

Artists, curators, and scholars say it's about time.

"Bruce is really one of the giants of the last 30 years," says Paul Schimmel, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

The art market might agree. Some of Nauman's works have passed from collector to collector for staggering sums. Julie Head/Julie Head, a 1990 wax sculpture, sold through Sotheby's last year for $1,049,000. His Henry Moore Bound to Fail set an auction record for postwar art when the hammer came down at Christie's in 2001 as bidding reached $9.9 million.

But there's a big drop-off in price after those two, in part because many of Nauman's works aren't something you hang on the wall. It might be hard, for instance, to live with Think, a double-screen video piece at the Iuav with Nauman's head popping into the screen in purple tones to continually yell "think!"

"Not everyone is willing to live with a neon piece, not everyone wants to live with an installation, and video collectors are still a relatively small part of the collecting population," says Robert Manley of Christie's. "When you actually narrow down his important works that will appeal to the mainstream collector, there really aren't so many."

Nauman is not a prolific artist. He doesn't work on commission. "There always has to be some idea before I start" - and sometimes there are none for "weeks, months, years." The period leading up to the Venice proposal was a dry patch, he says.

"I had a really hard time working. I go into the studio every day whether I make anything or not. Both my wife [artist Susan Rothenberg] and I feel it's important. . . . It was getting depressing, day after day. That's when I start thinking about what I can do about it."

It was at that point he began working on Days, now in the Biennale. In the audio piece, voices emanate from 14 speakers, each reciting seemingly randomly the days of the week. One university has the English version, the other an Italian version, Giorni.

The effects are unexpected - one collective sound sensation comes across as lyrical as chant, another arrives as a web of consonants resembling bird chatter. The effect is musical, perhaps not surprising given Nauman's background.

The man frequently hailed as the greatest living American artist wasn't shaped by New York or any of the venerable East Coast art schools. Born in Fort Wayne, Ind., as a boy he moved often - to Schenectady, N.Y., Milwaukee, and then Appleton, Wis.

You might attribute his unusually liberal idea of what it means to be an artist to his seemingly poky path to art. He learned piano and guitar, and played bass in polka bands. He entered the University of Wisconsin to study mathematics, then switched to art.

Music has been a constant and, Nauman says, influential presence. He played in a band - Blue Crumb Truck - and blind jazz pianist Lennie Tristano, a pioneer in free jazz and polytonality, provided an artistic role model.

". . . Like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat," he told Art in America, describing the appeal of Tristano's playing. "Or better, like getting hit in the back of the neck. You never see it coming. It just knocks you down."

He also was attracted to music's minimalists "because they were finding different ways of structuring time - the idea that music is always there in the room, waiting for us."

His ideas are often called pioneering, but it's hard to credit Nauman, despite his influence, as the first to do anything. He was quick to blur the line between advertising and art in his use of neon, as seen in 1967's The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths. He was an early user of video and holograms. His 1960s installation pieces use standard tools of the trade for artists today. Yet he wasn't the first.

What's clear, however, is that Nauman's manipulation of these various methods and media was so deft, and the points he made with them were so sharp, that the art world now sees him as its elder statesman of innovation.

Manley, of Christie's, calls Nauman "one of the most influential artists of the last 40 years" and says his moment is now.

"It seems to me in today's art world, when people are a little more open to ideas and less worried about the market in the last six months, it's about who is an important artist and what are the things that are going to stand the test of time rather than which painter is going to appreciate in the next two years."

Nauman's influence was obvious in Venice with the preview yesterday of a new contemporary art museum in the renovated Punta della Dogana, a 17th-century customhouse where the Grand and Giudecca canals meet. The massive building has become the home of the art foundation run by the billionaire French art collector Francois Pinault.

The first room was filled with a huge installation, Untitled (One Hundred Spaces), by British artist Rachel White–read from 1995. It echoed, in jewel-tone resin, Nauman's concrete A Cast of the Space Under My Chair from three decades earlier. Even the title of the show at Pinault's museum comes from Nauman works: "Mapping the Studio."

"From the very beginning his art has been about questioning what it is to be an artist, which sort of gave artists permission to think about what they do," author Lewallen says in an interview. His influence, she says, has been huge.

"I was at a lecture in New York by William Kentridge, the South African artist, whose work on the surface would not immediately make me think of Bruce, and one of the first things he said was how important Bruce Nauman's work was to him. It's really astonishing how many artists say that."

For all the accolades and attention this week, Nauman seems eager to soak up as little as possible, avoiding the fetes whenever he can.

"It's probably from being a Midwestern person," he says. "No, my parents were from Chicago, so it can't be that. My father was a salesman, very gregarious, loved to tell stories. Maybe it's a reaction to that."

Then, after a well-timed pause: "I don't know."

The Inquirer in Venice

Inquirer culture writer Peter Dobrin is at the 53d Venice Biennale through its opening Sunday. Read his coverage of the Venice art and social scene in Sunday's news pages, his review of Bruce Nauman's U.S. Pavilion show in Sunday's Arts & Entertainment section, and catch daily updates on his "ArtsWatch" blog at www.philly.com/

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Contact culture writer Peter Dobrin at 215-495-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. His blog is at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/artswatch/.