Revealing light

By - Jan 1st, 2006 02:52 pm
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By Evan Solochek


Bruce Nauman has spent his life and career bending artistic conventions, one of the few living artists successful at avoiding labels. And regardless of how one feels about the work itself, he is inarguably viewed as one of the most innovative living artists of our time. Recently, Nauman made the top 10 of the London Financial Times� �Top 100 Art World Movers and Shakers.�

Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1941, Bruce Nauman�s family followed his father�s job as an engineer for General Electric around the country. They landed in Milwaukee while Nauman was still a boy. He attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he began honing his renaissance approach to life and art, studying mathematics and philosophy, music and physics. Eventually, Nauman�s interests began to focus on what would bring him fame in later life, and in 1964 he graduated with a Bachelor�s Degree in Art.


The following year, Nauman began work on his Master�s Degree at the University of California-Davis, where success found him quickly. In 1965, at the age of 24, he headlined his own gallery show and published his first art book, Pictures of Sculpture in a Room.

Nauman originally studied painting, but felt limited in the medium�s ability to adequately subvert what he saw as artistic preconceptions and order, and quickly abandoned it. Entranced by the old neon beer signs he saw from the window of his first studio in San Francisco (a former grocery store), Nauman turned his attention to the light itself, using its stark but fluid form and motion to play with language, imagery and iconic symbols. And while he has successfully explored a wide variety of mediums from sculpture to video, it is his work with neon that has garnered the most widespread attention.

With works like My Name As Though It Were Written on the Surface of the Moon (1968), in which he tackles the relationship between name and identity, and One Hundred Live and Die (1984), which bombards the viewer with the banalities of life and forces reevaluation, Nauman sits at the top of the art world. And while each piece has its own identity and message, an overreaching theme does exist.

�Nauman makes artwork that doesn�t look like art,� says Joseph Ketner II, Chief Curator of the Milwaukee Art Museum. �He wants to make it in a non-traditional medium, and so he employs a commercial medium, neon signs.�

While rebellion and non-traditional art is nothing new, one facet of Nauman�s work transcends conventional subversion. He doesn�t �make� any of it. Nauman designs his pieces on paper, then hands the plans over to a neon fabricator to construct.

�It parodies this whole romantic notion of the artist hand being the supreme expression of humanity,� Ketner says. �This whole exhibit will contain no objects touched by Bruce Nauman.�

This inevitably raises questions about basic artistic tenets. Can a man who never physically touches his own art be considered an artist? What�s more important, the vision or the physical specimen? If a person tells someone what to make and how to make it, then who is the real artisan? These are all tough questions without definitive answers, but one can at least look to Bruce Nauman for illumination.  VS

Elusive Signs: Bruce Nauman Works With Light opens on January 28 at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Nauman�s first exhibit in the state of Wisconsin, it will feature neon pieces created between 1965 and 1985, as well as two full-room installations, all designed to playfully raise questions, inspire reevaluation and incite debate. For more information visit or call 414-224-3200.

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