Selected excerpts from: Interview with Bruce Nauman
Conducted by Michele De Angelus
At the Artist’s home in Pecos, New Mexico
May 27 and 30, 1980
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: Can you talk about the way — what your working process was then? You were saying that now your process is dissimilar from Wiley’s, where he just goes and works every day. What was your process like then?
BRUCE NAUMAN: When I got out of school I got a part-time job at the Art Institute, so I moved to San Francisco and rented a space for a studio.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: Where?
BRUCE NAUMAN: Out in the Mission District, not downtown Mission, but out…I don’t remember the name of the street. I could probably take you there. It was a small space, but — other than Wiley, who lived out in Mill Valley, I didn’t know anybody in town. I taught early morning classes and very few teachers, much less students, came to school that early -I taught freshman painting or sculpture, or something. And I think when you’re in school you get a lot of encouragement, just from peers and instructors. When you’re out on your own, no matter how you deal with it, you have to reexamine why you’re doing that work. And especially because I knew so few people, I spent a lot of time at the studio kind of re-assessing, or assessing, why, why are you an artist and what do you do, and finally that’s what the work came out of — that question, why is anyone an artist and what do artists do. And so some of that early work after I got out of school had to do with how I spent my time. I paced around a lot, so I tried to figure out a way of making that function as the work. I drank a lot of coffee, so those photographs of coffee thrown away …of hot coffee spilled ….
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: Were you in anyway taking on the idea that this wasn’t what artists had been doing as art up to that point, did that in any way — that wasn’t a problem?
BRUCE NAUMAN: No. Well. I think there’s always, when you feel you aren’t getting a lot of attention anyway, or there’s a very small audience that you have, then I think that a certain amount of testing can …. I think that you do things to find out if you believe in it in the first place, just like often you’ll say things in conversation, just to test, and so you do that. I think a lot of work is done that way, which doesn’t make a fake or anything, it’s the only way you find out is to do it. So there was a lot of that. I made that neon sign which said, “The True Artist Is an Amazing Luminous Fountain,” and “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths.”
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: That set of photographs is really interesting to me. That’s the first — when I was first finding out about your work that was the first I saw, then I learned about the earlier sculptures, and to me that seems to be about what an artist is in this society. Were you consciously taking on those things?
BRUCE NAUMAN: Well, that was the examination, what is the function of an artist. Why am I an artist is the same question. And a lot of the reading that I was doing at that time. I think that I finally realized that the sculpture I had made in college revolved around that reinforcement — a lot of people doing work that was art about art. I needed to workout of a broader social context, and I needed to get more of what I thought and what I knew about it into the work …. I was reading — I think a lot of word/visual puns and other pieces come from reading Nabokov. I was reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which I think doesn’t provide you with anything except a way to question things. You can have an argument and follow it until you find out that it makes sense or doesn’t make sense, but it was still useful to me to find out that it did go to anywhere or it was wrong.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: Was this kind of isolation almost really good for you, do you need that in order to work generally?
BRUCE NAUMAN: Well, I’ve always — yes, pretty much so. But there were other strange things that used to go on at the school, I remember there was a guy who was a poet, Bill Withram (sp?) -he was a socialist and a poet, part of the time he worked as a stevedore or something like that, I think, but he was a friend of a lot of the artists and they had a that school, and mostly nobody came to school, so he and I would sit and have coffee. But then he would think up things like, “Today I’ll be hard to find,” and would go -the class would come in or whatever and he’d be hiding up in the corner of a window, or sitting there, nude, holding very still, and he’d do that until somebody would notice him. Just try and amuse himself, and a lot of curious stuff like that. And then a lot of the models they used were from the topless bars and stuff like that, so that would be weird, too, that kind of stuff. Strange things at that school. But the thing about the school was, I think it was probably as conservative in a lot of ways as any school is — art school — but there was a very strong moral atmosphere about being an artist. It was very important to be an artist, it was very important to do a lot of work, and to work at night and you’d work all day and having a studio — it went a little too far, because it had to do with the kind of work you could make. There were certain attitudes left over from, I don’t know what they were left over from, for me they never worked too long. Wiley would tell stories about going into Frank Lobdell’s studio or something, and Frank would have paintings he’d been working on for twenty years and they were so thick and crusty and he’d pull them out and show people and stuff would fall off and he would stick it back on. And everybody made paintings that were warped, you know, all that kind of stuff, which is very romantic but. It had a lot to do with being frustrated and angry, too, and being ignored, never having a show in New York. Which is eventually modeling budget for the sculpture department and so we used to hire him to come and model. Nobody worked from the figure at why I left the area. That frustration and energy used on hating New York and Los Angeles was phenomenal, it was an incredible paranoia among most of the people I knew.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: So it wasn’t necessary to be an artist and be accepted as a professional; people didn’t need to see your work, they just needed to know you were working.
BRUCE NAUMAN: People only saw work in somebody’s studio; nobody showed work, that was very rare. It was against the rules to go to New York. If you went you were an outcast and couldn’t come back; you’d better go and make it because you’d sold out.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: But in relation to your work, and what you were doing and what you had in your studio, were there many people that saw it, was that a need that you had?
BRUCE NAUMAN: No, very few people saw it.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: Was it just that you didn’t have that need, or were you a little hesitant?
BRUCE NAUMAN: I think there were both those things. I think there’s always a need to some extent and I think — but that was what was expected; that was the attitude. People didn’t expect a lot of approval or — I mean, I think some peer group, people came to your studio and you showed them what you were working on. There wasn’t a lot of paranoia about that, I don’t think.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: Did it seem an important part of the process of art making, to finally externalize it that way?
BRUCE NAUMAN: I don’t think I had that feeling so much, because when you’re at school, people see the work a lot. I think that later, when I was spending more time alone in the studio and not as many people were seeing the work, it was more important for the work to get out and to see it outside the studio.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: What was your relationship to New York and New York artists at the time you were in Southampton?
BRUCE NAUMAN: Well, I had a number of friends that I had known before. That year — let’s see, I first showed with Leo in 1968 before I moved there. So then after I moved out there I had that relationship, and then Richard and Keith started showing with Leo, and I knew them, and we were in a lot of group shows together. I knew them, I knew Walter De Maria and Sol Lewitt, other people from traveling mostly. Different shows. Frank Owen and Steve Kaltenbach were people that I’d known on the West Coast that were both living in New York. So I saw quite a few people. I used to take the train in two or three days a week and I’d hang out with those people.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: Was there anybody whose work you were seeing at that time that was important to you?
BRUCE NAUMAN: No. I think that what was important more than the work and other artists was the number of musicians I knew that I’d known before, but most of them were living on the East Coast -Phil Glass, and Steve Reich, and I knew La Monte Young’s music although I’d never known him, but I used to spend time with him at the studio.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: Talk a little bit about how the spectator — how you wanted the spectator to deal with these pieces.
BRUCE NAUMAN: Well, I wasn’t interested in a boring situation and I think what was important was that there was no — of course, there always was a beginning and an end, but it seemed to me that if it went on long enough, if somebody could come in and watch it you could give them an hour or a half hour or two hours or whatever, but what I always wanted to be careful about was to have the structure include enough tensions in either random error or getting tired and making a mistake -whatever — that there always was some structure programmed into the event. And I really was interested in tensions, not in the tension of sitting there for a long time and having nothing change. And I think the pieces that were successful were successful for those reasons, and the pieces that weren’t successful failed to be because they didn’t have enough structure built into them.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: This business of making art out of drinking coffee in your studio or, like, pacing in your studio — these are commonplace human activities, you know. They’re not, it’s not like, let’s say, the technique of painting or something where that is something that is an art activity as opposed to drinking coffee, which is also a life activity shared by your spectators.
BRUCE NAUMAN: But, see, that’s where — well, what I might say is I think that those early Warhol films and what I’d known and seen of Merce Cunningham’s dance were important considerations. Because his dance is built up of very normal activities. But again, it’s how you structure the experience in order to communicate it. I think that’s really important. You can’t just make a documentation and present it, because people do it all the time and some of it is boring and some of it will be interesting, and I think that’s where the art comes in, is the ability to communicate not just a bunch of information but to make an experience that’s more general.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: Is this analogy accurate, that, essentially — think about Duchamp’s readymades, okay, his whole premise was these were art because he took them out of a real-life situation and put them into a context that was other than a real-life situation, and that act gave you insight or made an interesting situation that evoked things or provoked ideas. Is this the same kind of process, to, say, take this act of walking on this square in your studio or drinking coffee in your studio, and to put it into an art context with a title –
BRUCE NAUMAN: I think that’s real risky. I’m not sure that I —
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: This isn’t what you’re doing, you’re saying.
BRUCE NAUMAN: No. I think that it was important for me not to do that -certainly I deal with it in an art context all the time, and the work goes to museums and it doesn’t go just out on the street or in a department store or whatever. It does give people a clue as to where to start. But I really mistrust art that’s just about art. Which I’m not sure — I have no way of classifying Duchamp’s work, but certainly there’s a lot of work that I would call “hothouse” work or whatever, without the context of this –
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: — of art you don’t understand it. It doesn’t exist.
BRUCE NAUMAN: Maybe even in the context of a certain kind of art, a certain period of time. And I would hope that I could go beyond that to appeal to people without that importance of the particular social, cultural — it’s too narrow a cultural apprehension of the work. I don’t know. I have no idea, how well that works ….
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: The neon pieces that come out of your body, the templates from your body — so much of your art does come out of your physical presence and size. How do you think the audience can relate to that? Does it involve an imaginative process of evoking the artist and his presence?
BRUCE NAUMAN: No, I think those things were really quite impersonal. I think I used myself as an object; maybe impersonal is the wrong word. I think the attempt is to go from the specific to the general. Maybe it’s the same kind of way of making a self-portrait, as Rembrandt made a self-portrait, and a lot of other people, making a self-portrait where you’re not interested so much — you’re making a painting, but you’re also making an examination of yourself and also making a generalization beyond yourself.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: I’ve always thought that part of the reason that Johns did that was because he didn’t want the responsibility for creating an imagery.
BRUCE NAUMAN: Yes, well, I think there is that. In fact, I was thinking after talking the other day about the first photographs, the visual puns, the wax and stuff like that, that I had an idea to do some of those things — I think it was after I saw the Man Ray show and went back home and thought, how will I do these, I can’t just make paintings of them because I haven’t painted in a long time and I hadn’t even made any drawings, at least drawings of things in the world, and I didn’t have any style. I would have to learn how to paint all over again and I wasn’t very interested in that, so I came up with these photographs. Somehow I think, I may be mistaken, I had the idea that I could just take a picture, and I wouldn’t have to think about how to draw it or something. Of course, when you take a picture, you have to think how to take the picture, but in another sense I knew enough about painting to know that it would be a whole lot of work and I didn’t know enough about photography to get involved in trying to make a really interesting or original photograph. I would have done a painting, I suppose. I think that was my problem.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: It seems that the execution, the physical embodiment of your work is always cool, a cool thing. There’s a detachment or an objectivity. It seems you don’t want to establish, as you were saying, a physical style. Do you understand what I’m getting at?
BRUCE NAUMAN: Yes, but —
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: Is that a conscious thing, do you think? Or do you think it’s true?
BRUCE NAUMAN: I think it’s true in the sense that I think that I, at different times, found myself trapped into using a particular medium, or not trapped so much as, you use it a lot and finally find out it’s wrong. It’s getting in the way. I didn’t want to get stuck in something like that because it was very hard for me to stop painting, when I did stop painting, because I really enjoyed painting, moving around and mixing paint, and just all the sensual things involved in making paintings. I think that I got away from making things myself for a long time. And then I finally did start in the last several years making things out of plaster, the models, and making them out of wood and whatnot. I really enjoy it, I like to do it, and I missed it a lot by not letting myself do it for a long time.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: I’m curious about the way your work manipulates the spectator. Do you feel any kind of responsibility about that? It’s clearly an aim in a lot of the work.
BRUCE NAUMAN: Well, maybe at the simplest level, but when I do something that’s of interest to me, or the experience of the work is interesting — I don’t know, that’s confusing — well, then I just have to assume that some number of people will, if I’ve done a good job and made some interesting statement, be interested in that, too. And so I don’t in that sense feel that it’s a manipulation. I think that — but of course it’s real complicated because I’m involved in the whole discovery of the piece, and what’s left is the piece which I made. I seldom have a lot of interest in it once it’s finished; I’ve done what I set out to do or gotten someplace and found something out about it. In the end all you can do is trust that my needs and the situation are general enough that other people can become involved in it. And I know they’re quite often quite demanding, but I think that’s all right, too. I think one of the most important things in the last — well, quite a long time — in the work — I’m not clear how it’s manifested. I was talking to Peter Schjeldahl (sp), he’s a poet and critic, and we were talking about where the work came from and that we both felt that our work came a lot out of frustration and anger. So a lot of the work is about that, frustration and anger in the, with the social situation, not so much out of specific personal incidents but out of the world or mores or any cultural dissatisfaction, or disjointedness or something, and it doesn’t always appear that way in the work, I think. Somehow it generates work; it generates energy from the work. But a lot of the work — the tunnels -has maybe been closer to that, more directly involves things that can’t be made, and things you could never get into and dead ends and uncomfortable spaces. I made a print for a portfolio for Jasper’s foundation that was called, Human Companionship, Human Drain, and somebody came in and saw it and said to Harriet,* “Aren’t you terribly offended by that?” Because it clearly — I mean, it wasn’t directed at anyone or at Harriet at all, it was a much more general kind of frustration with people unable to get along with people. I’m kind of lost as to where we started out and where we’re going.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: Frustrating the spectator, in short.
BRUCE NAUMAN: Yes. Well, I think a lot of the work is about that — not about frustrating, more about the tension of giving and taking away, of giving a certain amount of information and setting up some kind of expectations and then not allowing them to be fulfilled, at least not in the sense that you expect, which is another way of giving two kinds of information that don’t line up. Because you set up certain expectations, then go someplace else, or don’t follow them at all, or stop people from getting wherever you might be going. I think those are real interesting kinds of ….
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: Joseph Beuys’s work deals, it seems to me, with a lot of aspects of societal frustration. Do you find that important in his work? Or what do you find important in his work?
BRUCE NAUMAN: I’ve never read much of the stuff that’s been written or that he’s written. I’ve never listened to him talk. I’ve seen quite a lot of the work from 1968, and when he had some work at Documenta, in Kassel — he had a huge room full of stuff, quite an amazing bunch of stuff to see all together. The last time I saw his work was at the Guggenheim. Not as nice a kind of installation, things were separated. To see all of it just together in a room is much nicer. You can differentiate between objects and stuff. So I don’t know if he has all kinds of mythologies and some German stuff — and some ….
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: But what did you like about the work, what was important to you?
BRUCE NAUMAN: It has an incredible physical presence, which is what I think most of the Americans took from him, the physical manipulation of materials. But they cleaned it up a lot. His work has an altogether different kind of presence from that (?) certain …. I really don’t know how to characterize it. It’s not work that’s easy to take a picture of. I mean, you can take certain — maybe like a Pollock. What can you do, there’s a Pollock painting and all you can do is make an imitation of a Pollock.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: So that’s not a big difference here. That’s pretty interesting to me because — and it’s really heartening — because you aren’t somebody who goes out, I think, and tries to create a persona in the art scene, you know, and yet your work has had a real success and really been widely seen, pretty quickly after you made it.
BRUCE NAUMAN: Although, and I’m not sure what I would have done to be more accessible, if I would have made more work, if there would have been more demand for work, if the prices for the work would have been a bit higher. I don’t know how any of that stuff would have worked. As it is, the work sells very slowly, and the work from four years ago sells before the new work sells, and all that kind of stuff, so you don’t have any immediate pressure to make any particular kind of work because by the time something sells I’m already making different stuff anyway. So most of the pressures, I think, are pressures I put on myself when I do any of that in the studio. It’s for whatever reason, in the studio. I remember when Paul Waldman was at Davis, and he’d say, “God, it’s terrible,” because he only did a third as much work as he did when he was in New York, because there was no pressure, there were no people there and no demand, nobody was doing work around him. So I said, “Why are you doing all the work if you’re just doing it because other people around you are working?” It seemed that the work needs to come from the artist needing to do the work. Well, in a certain sense that was a naive attitude. At that time I was doing tons of work because that’s what students do. But that is a combination of pressures you put on yourself and needs that you have and then pressures that other people put on you. I know that when there’s a demand for work I often do a lot more work. It’s not worse or anything, I like it. But I think it’s also not just the demand, it’s the recognition from people, saying they like the work and they want it, and you feel good and you go do a lot of work.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: Do you trust that?
BRUCE NAUMAN: Oh, it depends on where it comes from.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: Are you able to live from the sale of your work?
BRUCE NAUMAN: Yes, I have mostly. Sometimes I teach.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: Talk a little bit about where you’ve taught after San Francisco.
BRUCE NAUMAN: After San Francisco I taught at U.C.L.A. a little bit, and at Irvine for a while. Irvine first, and then U.C.L.A., and then I taught at Cal Arts. And I’ve done a lot of sort of one week here, one week there kinds of things.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: What did you teach while you were at Irvine?
BRUCE NAUMAN: Let’s see, I taught sculpture and I taught some kind of –I don’t remember what it was called at U.C.L.A. — people did anything they wanted to.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: Was teaching a useful process for you?
BRUCE NAUMAN: Not particularly. I think sometimes it has been interesting, and sometimes pretty ….
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: Are students aware of what your work is when they take your courses?
BRUCE NAUMAN: Not always. It depends on, like if I go and talk or lecture or spend several weeks someplace with graduate students they tend to know something. But there’s not a lot of information anyway. A lot of the work goes to Europe; it never gets introduced here or anything, so, no, in that sense. And if they’re younger students they tend to not know anything about it.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: What do you try to give to them; how do you teach? I always wondered how you teach art.
BRUCE NAUMAN: Well, it depends on what it is. Mostly what I’ve done is talked to or spent time with graduate students — or upper division — in which case I look at individual work, one at a time, and have seminars. I can deal with small groups of people in seminar situations, and then we can talk about most anything: art or books or whatever. I suppose I’m more interested in why anybody does art, so those are the kinds of things that get discussed.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: Why do you think you do art now, in an ongoing way? Is it that you come to this idea that you’re an artist and therefore you make art, or is it an exploration?
BRUCE NAUMAN: Well, I don’t know. I told you before that my work comes out of frustration, and I feel that. But I don’t think I was aware of it so much before but …that provided some sort of motivation. In that sense I think it’s almost a philosophical response to the environment at large, to the culture or whatever.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: But this art doesn’t affect the culture in a larger sense. It’s not like social work or something.
BRUCE NAUMAN: Oh, no. I think that people make a mistake about that. Art can never — I don’t think I know any good art, very, very little good art that has any direct political or social impact on culture. But I would think that art is what’s used in history; it’s what’s kind of left and that’s how we view history, as through art and writing — art in the broad sense: music and writing and all that, and it’s not ever — you know, art is political in the sense that it pokes at the edges of what’s accepted or what’s acceptable, or because it does investigate why people do art or why people do anything, or how the culture can and should function. I think art’s about those things, and art is a very indirect way of pursuing those kinds of thoughts. So the impact has to be indirect, but at the same time I think it can be real. I think it’s almost impossible to predict or say what it is, but it certainly doesn’t apply to the political situation today or tomorrow, except in an abstract and more general way.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: Irwin has an image that he uses that I’ve always liked. He talks about a culture being an egg and artists as pushing and expanding the boundaries of what’s inside the egg.
BRUCE NAUMAN: I think that with art or philosophy or any kind of — at the edges of any discipline, if you think of art as discipline, the people that are interesting are the people that are exploring the structure of the discipline. In that sense they’re breaking the discipline down, too, as they’re expanding it. They tend to break down what’s there. Certainly there are artists who function entirely within the discipline. I would find those people uninteresting. Not that they’re not talented or skilled or all those things, but it’s not of interest to me. In that sense there’s a great deal of confusion, because it doesn’t require being able to draw or being able to paint well or know colors, it doesn’t require any of those specific things that are in the discipline, to be interesting. On the other hand, if you don’t have any skill at all, then you can’t communicate, either, so it’s an interesting edge between -that edge is interesting for those reasons.
MICHELE DE ANGELUS: Is it important that your art communicate these things within your lifetime?
BRUCE NAUMAN: I don’t know. I think if you don’t see any response, or wrong responses always — it depends on who is doing the responding. Some people like the work and you understand why they like it and that feels good, and you know why, they understand what you’re doing. And other people are irritated by it, and that’s important, too, because you understand why they’re irritated by it. Those tend to be signs of respect. Other people could like it or be irritated or anything but it would mean nothing because you don’t think they have any understanding of what’s going on at all. So I suppose you select your audience when you need to get some positive response; in a much broader sense than that it’s hard to expect much more.