Nauman is undoubtedly a key figure, both in international postwar developments in art and in the S.M.A.K. collection. He might be considered the American counterpart to Joseph Beuys. However, he is above all a loner who provides the link between several diverse trends. He is sometimes counted as part of arte povera, using the term in the broader sense than just the sixties Italian movement of that name, and rather as a collective name for artists who, in their sensitivity to materials, the breadth of their visual idiom and their poetic-symbolic work, formed a counterpoint to the rigidity of Minimal and Conceptual Art. At the same time, one can also see in his work a kinship with Minimal Art, and its strict, intellectual principles are certainly related to Conceptual Art. In this way his work can easily be seen as a bridge between what one might call the ‘European’ and ‘American’ options in contemporary art. The theme running through his work - which is so varied in form that it has countless points of contact and has expanded horizons in several areas - is a reflection on the bodily experience and the limits this body is constantly coming up against. He does this inimitably and with uncommon directness. In the early nineties,
Nauman’s work culminated in an impressive series of sculptural installations in which casts of body parts assumed a new, grating intensity. The climax of this was a series of animal torsos combined with limbs and heads of other animals to form new entities, engaged in a constant struggle with themselves and at the same time held in an unstable equilibrium in larger constructions, pyramids and carousels. They make reference to the classical sculptural tradition, by using the model and the cast. This is certainly the case in Four Small Animals, Nauman’s key work in the S.M.A.K. collection: these bodies hang precariously so that the spectator cannot relate to them in any framework of determinable distances. The classical ‘architectural’ setting in which the ground provides the reference points is replaced by a direct bodily confrontation. The charm of the title is immediately eroded by the visual impact of the image, and changes into something off-putting. The basis of this presentation is formed by the works from the S.M.A.K. collection, and to them are added several pieces from private Belgian collections. For instance, a prominent place is taken by the 1983 neon sculpture Death.
In the eighties Nauman made a whole series of sculptures using coloured neon tubes, referring to advertisements and signs for discotheques. The attractiveness of the medium is often in sharp contrast to what is depicted. In these pieces Nauman often plays with language and the meaning of words. Six words are shown in a circle. They light up one by one in a set pattern: life, death, love, hate, pleasure and pain. This work is a masterly visualisation of the human condition and all the paradoxes essentially bound up with it. Lastly there are a number of video installations. In his videos, Nauman often starts out from very simple situations. One such work is the 1986 Clown-torture. On two screens we see two clowns who are both telling the same never-ending story. Here too he plays with contrasts and enters into a direct confrontation with the spectator. The function of a clown is to entertain. However, because they are constantly telling the same story and also appear to greatly enjoy themselves doing it, they ultimately arouse irritation and even aggression in the spectator. Nauman appeals to the primal feelings of the spectator which he is unerringly able to arouse using the simple power of the medium.More about Bruce Nauman