Bruce Nauman (b. 1941)
Works from the Cy Twombly Foundation
One of Bruce Nauman’s earliest sculptural works, Device to Hold a Box at a Slight Angle contains the first traces of the vigorous formal and artistic investigation that would forever define the rest of the artist’s career. In 1968, David Whitney organized Bruce Nauman’s first one man exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, having seen his work the year before at Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles. The exhibition was a departure from what had previously been seen at Castelli through the early Sixties, which was mostly the work of Pop Artists. There was a new perspective emerging in sculpture in particular, and Castelli had presented some of the first exhibitions of Richard Serra, Dan Flavin and Donald Judd. Device to Hold a Box at a Slight Angle was one of the 44 works included in Nauman’s first exhibition at Castelli, and it is notable that of those 44 works nearly 40 are now included in museums and institutions worldwide.
Device to Hold a Box at a Slight Angle was constructed from a plywood mold, onto which Nauman lays down Fiberglas cloth brushed with polyester resin. Once set, the original mold is removed, leaving the object that remains and the experience of negative space, a concept which would occupy Nauman throughout his career. The plywood mold leaves behind a highly textured wood grain surface while the underside shows the Fiberglas cloth strips layered like bandages, revealing the working process. Whilst the title suggests a utilitarian object, but one without a real purpose (why would one want to hold a box at a slight angle?), the paradox is further pushed because if one did attempt to hold a box at a slight angle it would most certainly not be secure with this device. These works share the same conceptual irony found in the work of Marcel Duchamp, (who had recently had a retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum, organized by Walter Hops) in works such as To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour.
Nauman’s use of industrial and found materials certainly aligns him with the Minimalist sculpture of Donald Judd, Carl Andre, and Richard Serra. But, as would become evident in Nauman’s work, it also contains direct references to the human body, and its relationship to the world which it inhabits, as the critic Robert Storr points out. “In fabricating their ‘primary structures,’ the minimalists made use of previous constructionist tendencies. …Nauman’s choice of synthetic materials also links him to new technologies, but the specific connotations—the uncanny sensation of sharp, brittle, semi-translucent fiberglass molded with irregular contours is somehow skin-like—separate these objects from the realm of inanimate, machine made things, lending them a vaguely totemic quality reinforced by the direct confrontation of one’s own upright body positioned in relation to their odd verticality” (R. Storr, ‘Partial Truths,’ in Bruce Nauman: Neons, Sculptures, Drawings, exh. cat., Van de Weghe Fine Art, New York, 2002, p. 15).
Throughout Bruce Nauman’s extensive career, the theme of the body has been one of his most consistent themes. As early as 1966, with his Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at Ten-Inch Intervals, Nauman began what became a life-long inquiry into self-exploration, often using his own body as the vessel for his investigations. Throughout his self-referential practice he has used casts of his face, feet and hands as the tools with which he explores what it means to be an artist. With works such as these Nauman focused on the process of making by analyzing the venerable tradition of casting – they possess no front, back, side – and made no attempt to refine the finished surfaces. As Robert Storr explains, “…his first sculptures defy the tradition of sculpture in almost every regard. They are constructed of nonart materials, and their unorthodox and casual appearance places them at odds with the history of the medium” (R. Storr, quoted by N. Benezra, ‘Surveying Nauman,’ in K. Halbreich & N. Benezra (eds.), Bruce Nauman, exh. cat., Walker Art Museum, Minneapolis, 1994, p. 19)
Executed in 1966 (the year Nauman left University of California, Davis) and exhibited in his first one-man show which was held at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles, Device to Hold Box at Slight Angle is one of the artist’s earliest accomplished works. Challenging the conventional notions of what constituted art, Nauman wanted to explore pushing the boundaries of creativity in a completely new, unchartered direction. “Among the first group were a group of husk-like fiberglass, resin, or occasionally latex shapes…that occupied the space around them with a strange, subliminally corporeal presence, even as those ambiguous forms appear to evoke and then turn inside out the reductionist idiom of early minimal sculpture” (R. Storr, ‘Partial Truths,’ in Bruce Nauman: Neons, Sculptures, Drawings, exh. cat., Van de Weghe Fine Art, New York, 2002, p. 15).
Part of Nauman’s process as an artist is to involve his audience in the artistic process by leaving the ultimate conclusion of his work unresolved. “I think there is a need to present yourself,” Nauman expands. “To present yourself through your work is obviously part of being an artist. If you don’t want people to see that self, you put on make-up. But artists are always interested in some level of communication. Some artists need lots, some don’t. You spend all of this time in the studio and then when you do present the work, there is a kind of self-exposure that is threatening. It’s a dangerous situation and I think that what I was doing, and what I am going to do and what most of us probably do, is to use the tension between what you tell and what you don’t tell as part of the work. What is given and what is withheld become the work. You could say that if you make a statement it eliminates the options; on the other hand if you’re a logician, the opposite immediately becomes a possibility. I try to make work that leaves options, or is open ended in some way” (B. Nauman, interviewed by Joan Simon, in J. Kraynak (ed.), Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words, Cambridge, 2005, p. 326).
Abandoning the pursuit of painting in the 1960s, Nauman began a restless investigation into the possibilities of sculpture, performance, installations, film, video, photography and neon. Device to Hold Box at Slight Angle belongs to an early group of work in which Nauman began to grapple with the body’s relationship to identity and which eventually evolved into a rich legacy of videos and neon sculptures that draw on the artist’s awareness of his own body; seen in such videos as Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk),and Neon Templates of the Left Half of my Body, Taken at Ten-Inch Intervals. These early works offer widely differing functions and widely differing demands, but they have become masterpieces in their own right, equally as valid and with their own artistic justifications.
Bruce Nauman , 1960s, Sculptures, Statues & Figures, United States of America, Post War
Los Angeles, Nicholas Wilder Gallery, Bruce Nauman, May-June 1966.
New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, Bruce Nauman, January-February 1968, n.p., no. 22 (illustrated).
Kassel, Museum Fridericianum, documenta 4, June-October 1968, p. 206.
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
29 5/8 x 23 1/2 x 30 in. (75.2 x 59.6 x 76.2 cm.)
C. V. Bruggen, Bruce Nauman, New York, 1988, pp 131 and 170 (illustrated).
N. Benezra, ed., Bruce Nauman: Exhibition Catalogue and Catalogue Raisonné, exh. cat., Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, 1994, p. 200, no. 35 (illustrated in color).
S. Brundage, ed., Bruce Nauman: 25 Years Leo Castelli, New York, 1994, n.p., no. 22 (illustrated).
P. Plagens, Bruce Nauman: The True Artist, London, 2014, p. 47, pl. 41 (illustrated).
David Whitney, New York
Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 19 June 1969