Bruce Nauman: from Smart Aleck to True Artist
Writer and author Peter Plagens explains how his view of Bruce Nauman went from disdain to admiration
We’re used to reading about the lives of great artists in admiring, effusive terms. It’s rarer to hear about the difficulties fellow painters and sculptors face seeing a rival’s work elevated above their own. Yet this view from a practitioner is one of the many insights on offer in Bruce Nauman: The True Artist, Peter Plagens’ new book.
As Plagens has been explaining during his recent book tour, his initial reaction to Nauman’s work was far from positive. Plagens, a fellow artist as well as a journalist and author, told the New Mexico arts magazine Pasatiempo, that he first came across a series of Nauman photographs at Documenta 4 in Germany back in 1968. Plagens, then a painter, wasn’t taken with images, such as Nauman's Waxing Hot snap. “I thought, God, what lightweight stuff, and real smart-alecky.”
Only later did the author realise that in his reactions “was a considerable amount of envy that I didn't recognize at the time.” This was piqued again in 1972, when Plagens saw Nauman’s retrospective at LA County Museum; both he and Nauman were aged 30 that time – startlingly young for such an honour. However, he adds, “there was a recognition that there's something here. The 'something here' scared me in the sense that, here goes painting out the window."
Later, he and Nauman became friends, and Plagens is today among the best-qualified commentators to explain just what that ‘something’ in the work is. In this Santa Fe Radio Café interview he describes Nauman’s early career, wherein the artist began to realise the practice of making art was more important than the end product, as well as Nauman’s polymorphous output, and his nuanced wordplay. It’s a great layman’s guide to Nauman; listen to it here.
When it came to addressing an art-world audience at the New Museum in New York last week, Plagens seemed more comfortable talking about Nauman’s position today. In conversation with curator Carlos Basualdo and associate director Massimiliano Gioni, Plagens described Nauman’s latter-day influence; “His impact approaches the ridiculous," he said. Plagens also commented on his friend's unique abilities; "he is comfortable in his own skin making art as an extreme thing,” the author said.
If you’re curious to hear more, you can catch Peter on Thursday, June 12 in conversation with Juliet Myers and Paul Schimmel work at the Baltimore Museum of Art. And of course, for a richer understanding of this important artist, do order a copy of our new book.