What's an Artist? Who Knows?

Christopher Knight
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Bruce Nauman: The True Artist, probes the question, What is an artist? with wit, insight and a prodigious amount of research, plus personal experience.

Bruce Nauman The True Artist

Publisher: Phaidon
Price: $125.00
Author: Peter Plagens
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-05

Ranking high on my list of least-useful questions is the nonetheless common inquiry, “What is art?”

That became a conventional query in the 20th century, after pure abstraction erased traditional requirements for skill at mimesis in painting, while the advent of found objects did something similar for sculpture. But the nagging question was soon satisfactorily answered through the wonders of circular reasoning: Art is whatever an artist does.

End of story.

Except, not quite. The useful answer implied its own conundrum: If art is what an artist does, then what is an artist? What, exactly, does one do to become, be and remain one?

Bruce Nauman: The True Artist, a new and lavishly produced book from Phaidon, probes the question with wit, insight and a prodigious amount of research, plus a good deal of personal experience. Nauman is among our most significant artists, and author Peter Plagens has been following his work since 1966.

Back in the Middle Ages, artisans and craftsmen pulled themselves out of serfdom through the establishment of guilds, which gave a kind of professional stamp of approval to solve the artist-riddle. Patronage of church, state and aristocracy identified artists for the Renaissance, when they began to act as independent contractors.

The subsequent rise of government-authorized art academies codified the process. But then the modern democratic era overthrew them, stripping the academy of state regulatory power. The question of what an artist is shifted with the destabilizing rumble of slipping tectonic plates. What had been for centuries essentially a practical question became a philosophical one.

Today, art schools and MFA programs are often erroneously seen as a late, tenacious iteration of the old state academy, handing out artist benedictions. (Think of the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz deciding that he has a powerful brain because a diploma has been awarded.) Answering the question isn’t that simple, as this book shows.

As long as we’re asking questions, here’s another one: Do we really need another Nauman book? Among a handful of the most important and admired artists of the last half-century, he has already been the subject of plenty of writing.

This beautifully produced, profusely illustrated book includes full-page reproductions of Nauman’s work, followed by astute selections of other art for context, plus helpful documentary images. An unusual three-fold hardcover wraps the assembled two-dimensional pictures and text within a sturdy three-dimensional box. (Hence the hefty $125 price tag.) A virtual language-object, the design is Nauman-esque.

Flip to the back, and the bibliography lists scores of predecessors. The 167 items range from essential full-scale monographs to incisive Internet blog posts. Some are career overviews; others concentrate on one of the many materials and processes (drawing, sculpture, neon, film and video, environments, performance) and images (language, animals, self-portraiture, clowns) that he has employed.

Born in Wisconsin, Nauman moved to California in 1965, stayed until 1979 and then went to New Mexico, where he still lives. He has been the subject of roughly 60 international solo museum exhibitions, most also accompanied by publications.

The first was in December 1972, when a retrospective — at the tender age of 31 — opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, traveling to New York’s Whitney Museum the following spring. (Seeing it at the Whitney as an art history graduate student is what confirmed for me a shift in focused study from Renaissance to contemporary art.) Young Nauman was already prolific: The show featured 117 objects, 10 multiples, 18 films and 13 videotapes.

What’s surprising now is that the answer to the question of whether we need yet another big Nauman book turns out to be an emphatic “Yes.” Plagens makes plain that for nearly 50 years, Nauman’s work has repeatedly explored the philosophical question of what an artist is — and expressed radical skepticism about any definitive answer.

That can drive people crazy. Take the glowing neon sign from which the book gets its title: 1967’s The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths.

Is the neon sign satire or a statement of faith? Or somehow both?

The romantic artistic claim of mystical revelation is offered up as a straightforward declaration. But the radiant red and blue neon, which spirals like a hypnotic graphic from Hitchcock’s Vertigo as if the true artist is circling the drain, casts it in the blunt visual language of street commerce. (Think storefront palm reader.) Nauman’s sincere ambivalence is oddly bracing.

Plagens brings two distinct advantages to his project, which combines critical analysis with biography and even autobiography.

One is a background as a senior writer and art critic for Newsweek magazine from 1989 to 2003. (Full disclosure: I recommended him for the job.) Fourteen years in journalism honed reporting skills, plus writing with clarity and without jargon.

Numerous interviews with Nauman’s associates flesh out important biographical details and, on occasion, correct the record. Multi-disciplinary artist Meredith Monk, for instance, clarifies that a Nauman performance at the Whitney was not in fact his last, as is commonly repeated. The last came at a 1975 performance art festival at UC Santa Barbara.

One or two small errors have also crept into the text. For example, the big neon sign for Earl C. Anthony’s 1920s Packard showroom in downtown L.A. on Flower and 7th streets (not Olympic) is cited as the nation’s first commercial application of the then-new technology; the citation is meant to amplify Nauman’s pioneering use in California of the neon medium. But correction of the apparent urban legend about the Packard sign was published late last year; Plagens’ book was probably on its way to the printer.

The second distinct advantage is that Plagens is himself a well-regarded abstract painter. The question “What is an artist?” is personal.

This yields a fascinating, 288-page public meditation by one artist on the profound significance of another artist — one he has known, if rather casually, since they were studio-neighbors in Pasadena more than 40 years ago, back when Old Town was a crumbling wasteland.

He even appeared in Nauman’s short 1975 film Pursuit, which shows a succession of people running on a treadmill as they keep their eyes glued to a sign that said “truth”. Like hamsters on a wheel, they go nowhere — but the effort of going may just be the point.

The book is divided into 14 concise chapters, the longest focusing on the 1972 LACMA retrospective. At the time, Plagens reviewed it negatively in Artforum magazine. (So did William Wilson in The Times and Hilton Kramer in the New York Times.) He is frank about changing his mind, declaring “I was wrong.”

Plagens dives deep into work he has often but not always liked by an artist he has always respected. His insightful, shifting ambivalence echoes Nauman’s own. Together they illuminate what an artist is and what an artist does.


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Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

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1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

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The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

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When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

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(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

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Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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