Bruce Nauman
Biography of American Postmodernist Scuptor, Installation Artist.

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Bruce Nauman (b.1941)

One of the famous American sculptors of the postmodernist era, installation and video artist, Bruce Nauman works in a broad range of media, including sculpture, drawing, photography, screenprinting, neon-light spirals, video and installation art. Although art critics are often polarized by their response to Nauman, his plastic art can be found in private collections and museums throughout the world. Famous works include: From Hand to Mouth (1967, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC); The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths (1967 Neon Light, Philadelphia Museum of Art); Bouncing Balls (1969 video); Green Light Corridor (1970, Samuel R Guggenheim Museum NY); South American Triangle (1991, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC); and Anthrosocio (1992, Kunsthalle, Hamburg). Avant-garde, challenging and highly versatile, Nauman is regarded as one of the most experimental of all 20th century sculptors.

For a list of sculptors like
Bruce Nauman, see:
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For details of the origins and
development of the plastic arts
see: History of Sculpture.

Art Work

The true artist helps the world by
revealing mystic truths (1967)
Neon Light Art (Philadelphia Museum)

Early Career

Nauman was born in Indiana, in 1941. He studied mathematics and music at the University of Wisconsin before switching to fine art, graduating in 1964. There is no doubt that Nauman's early interest in maths and physics assisted him with some of the more technical aspects of his later installation work. While still at college, he was granted a solo exhibition at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles, which gained him some attention. Initially interested in painting, he worked briefly as an assistant to the Pop Artist Wayne Thiebaud (b.1920), who painted pictures of cakes, pastries, toys and lipsticks. However, Nauman turned to experimenting with sculpture and the performing arts, working with film and photographs. In 1966 he became a teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute.


Nauman employed a variety of materials in his sculpture, including bronze, video, animal parts, drawings, and installations. Gradually he built a reputation as a highly innovative and experimental artist. His best known work from the 1960s is probably the neon spiral incorporating the words 'The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths'. Around the same time he started working with holography and sound.

Video Art

The first retrospective exhibition of Nauman's work was held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1972. He was only 31 years old at the time, relatively young for such an important biographical show. The exhibit travelled across the USA and was shown in established museums including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. It was provocative, and some critics described it as painful, humorous and thought-provoking. His entry into non-traditional areas, such as video art made him a pioneer of postmodernist art. His videos often showed actors involved in repetitive acts of bizarre behaviour. In one, he video-taped an audience who were experiencing an installation he created, and when they felt trapped or confined, he recorded their panic on video.


Nauman's work is conceptual and has been compared with Dadaists, particularly Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. In the 1980s Nauman became obsessed with clown imagery, and in the process drew comparisons with the writer Samuel Beckett. It was said that 'no other contemporary artist has worked so intensively with repetitions that turn the minor absurdities of the everyday into something unendurable'. Later video installations by Nauman included Learned Helplessness in Rat (1988), which featured a Plexiglass maze and loud punk rock music; also, Violent Incident (1986), featuring a domestic fight which ends in murder. Other artists, including Andy Warhol, turned to video art in the 60s - along with avant-garde composers like La Monte Young and John Cage (1912-92).

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to evaluate multi-media contemporary sculptors like Bruce Nauman, see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture. For earlier works, please see: How to Appreciate Sculpture.

Awards and Exhibitions

Now seen as one of the great postmodernist artists of America, Nauman was awarded the city of Frankfurt's 1991 Max Beckmann Prize; in 1993 he won the Wolf Prize for sculpture, and in 1994 the Wexner Prize for innovation and artistic quality and integrity. Also in 1994, he had his first major retrospective since 1972 at the Museum of Modern Art New York. A critic wrote that Nauman made "art so dumb that you can't guess whether its dumbness is genuine or feigned... When it is really silly, the dumbness can be disarming, as it was with the American Dada gagman Man Ray". Nauman's work is sometimes considered anti-art for its minimalism and the discomfort it provokes.

Even so, Nauman is represented in several prestigious collections in some of the world's best art museums, including: the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, Germany. He represented America at the 2009 Venice Biennale. Since 1979 Bruce Nauman has lived and and worked on his ranch in New Mexico.

• For more about the history and styles of contemporary plastic art, see: Homepage.
• For more about postmodernist sculpture, see: Contemporary Art.

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