SOME FORTY-ODD YEARS after Bruce Nauman began tweaking the conventions of studio practice and the hallowed persona of the artist-as-seer, his station in postwar art history rests secure. His influence--whether through his affectless, task-based performances, his sculptural castings of negative space, or his intermedia mash-ups of language, video, and noise--is everywhere apparent in contemporary art. Nauman's reputation is, in short, not at issue today; what remains unsettled is the specific nature of his contribution. Recent scholarship has made significant developments in complicating his particular story. Janet Kraynak's 2005 collection of Nauman's writings and interviews, Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman's Words, for example, opposes the simplistic notion that Nauman is the pluralist artist par excellence, instead revealing him to be an artist systematic in working through problems of language. For the curator, however, such an interrogation brings with it a slightly different challenge: How might one stage an exhibition that says something new and concrete about such an established figure while simultaneously fulfilling the museum's role in educating a broader public? And what happens, moreover, when that institution is a university museum, with its curatorial mandate tied closely to art-historical pedagogy?
These are the recurring questions raised by "A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s." Organized by Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive senior curator Constance M. Lewallen, the exhibition walks a curatorial tightrope of sorts, teetering between a "greatest hits" survey of Nauman's early work and an attempt to make an argument about the specifically Californian inflection of his practice during that period. As the promotional literature would have it, "This exhibition and the accompanying catalog are the first to explore in depth his relationship to the place where he created his earliest and often most innovative works." In sharp contrast to the notion of "global Conceptualism" that has floated around the art world of late--a riposte to the sense that art historians have effectively limited Conceptual art's purview to the United States and Western Europe--Lewallen stakes a claim for Nauman's decisively local practice, a kind of West Coast Conceptualism of the Northern California variety. The trick, it seems, would be to reconcile the broad sweep of his famously wide-ranging practice with the relatively narrow optic of the exhibition's argument.
To make such a resolution visually is no simple task, and on sight "A Rose Has No Teeth" is most likely to strike one as an early-career retrospective--an excellent one at that. Nauman's work is presented in four galleries, from his first sculptures of 1965 to his groundbreaking video work at the end of that decade. And it's plainly thrilling to see (especially for those who come armed with knowledge of '60s art). The first gallery highlights Nauman's process-oriented sculpture from mid-decade, with its attention to the subtleties of architectural context. Betraying the artist's unorthodox approach to sculptural media, his equally unconventional methods of fabrication, and his tendency to internalize gravity in his sculptural compositions, these sinuous fiberglass forms and crumpled masses of latex directly align Nauman with Eva Hesse, Robert Morris, Richard Serra, and the other artists of the primarily New York-based anti-form generation. In the next gallery, Nauman's "body measurement" pieces speak to larger issues of Gestalt psychology and phenomenology; hence we find Mold for a Modernized Slant Step, 1966--a peculiar and obscure device that resists any useful purpose--and renderings of his body in a variety of media, like the fiberglass sculpture Six Inches of My Knee Extended to Six Feet, 1967. In the remaining two galleries, black box installations featuring both video and holography demonstrate an insistent exploration of new technologies, and sculptures that use words as their principal media jostle up against the artist's early forays into architecture (Performance Corridor, 1969). …