When Bruce Nauman was working under the direction of Leo Castelli in the late 1960s, Castelli bequeathed to him some video equipment. Nauman used the equipment to make short, pointed films like Art Make-Up. As minimal and potentially arid as the film is (it consists of Nauman smearing white and black paint over his naked body), the ideas it presents raise questions that seem to be products of a fecund mind. Who can say what art is? Is creating art as artificial (and potentially perverse) as smearing paint all over one's body? Who is capable of "making up" art? Perhaps most importantly, the video makes clear with great lucidity the artist's dilemma: having to wake up every day and "make up art" all over again. This is relevant to those of us who work (one way or another) on a daily basis. The Sisyphean nature of the project (call it Project Art Make-Up) is a major theme (often implicitly, sometimes explicitly) in Beckett, as in Nauman, and I tie it in (on a routine level) to how it feels to wake up in the morning, and not know exactly what you want to do. Of course, often I wake up and know exactly what I have to do, but even then I have a hard time coping if I can't create something on a daily basis. If Art is the paint I smear myself with, then I am an obsessive-compulsive smear-fiend. Yet there is always a sense of emptiness, of the incomplete, of loose ends and un-mined territories. It is exciting and torturous in equal measure. And Nauman's short film exteriorizes the whole dilemma.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art has another interesting Nauman piece. Nauman, early in his career, often worked with neon lights (as did Dan Flavin.) Nauman's neon, that hangs in the Modern Art wing of the PMA, is a circular neon sculpture that reads the true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths. I first encountered this piece in my early 20s (largely through Matthew Collings book It Hurts, and then I realized by accident that it was actually situated in Philly), and I saw in it a "marijuana consciousness of absurdity." There's a good chance that this was a projection; I was smoking a lot of pot at the time and the neon seemed to evince a kind of stoner wisdom (most easily appreciated when one happens to be stoned.) As I've grown older, the neon hits me with a mystery on several levels. The first level to clear up: how much of irony is there in the piece? Nauman is not a naive man and not a naive artist; he works with questions of absurdity, alienation, and anger. Given the piece's place in the context of Nauman's oeuvre, it seems fair to wonder if the piece is meant to be taken straight or not (which leads us, unfortunately, straight into the very Beckett-ian abyss of whether or not "artist intentionality" is relevant or not, but whether it is or not, one can't help but wonder, and that "can't help" says something about our humanity.) Let's say we do take it straight: then we have to decide whether we agree with Nauman or not. Does the true artist help the world by revealing mystic truths? First, we need to know what a "true artist" is or is not. Of course, we don't. It's an individual decision that each of us has to make. Then, we need to decide whether true artists reveal mystic truths. Not all of us even believe in mysticism (I do, but that's beside the point.) In one phrase, we get "true" and "truths," but the context makes the artist's sincerity doubtful. So you see, this piece, as glowingly serene as it is, actually presents a quandary that is fathomless, dark, and troubling. Yet, to get on the Warhol level: it's a really nice-looking piece, and fun to look at. You could pass it without thinking twice, or say "Hey, cool," or (as I once did) look forward to more inebriation and feeling the "vibe."
Now, I am willing to admit that Nauman's paint is my paint and (not to be kinky) Nauman's naked body is my naked body. I am consumed by my art while knowing that art is, possibly, artificial. Yet if you want to do it right (assuming there is a "right"), you have to be in it all the way (cover your whole body with the paint.) Nauman loves puns: we see the pun between make up (as in create) and make-up (women's cosmetics), and more than a pun, this is a metaphor/ implied comparison. Works of art enhance appearances, just like cosmetics; put a gloss or shiny finish on reality, just like cosmetics; hide the real nature of things, mislead, distort, and potentially disorient, just like cosmetics. Yet Nauman uses cosmetics to get beyond cosmetics; in a "meta" way, his "make-up" is a demystification of the "making up" process. He shows us the illusion being made, so that there is no illusion. Or, the process of the illusion being made demonstrates to us that everything, on some level, is an illusion. What is the poetry which does the same thing? One of the first things I published was an ekphrastic rendering of Nauman's whole ethos. It was in a UK journal called Great Works, which in and of itself could be a Nauman-ic pun. Anyway, for me the foundation of Nauman's relevance is just this: truth. Human truth, human realities, human attempts to make sense of a meaningless/confounding world. Good art is just this, and Nauman knew it and expressed it just as Beckett did. One man, one vision, one room. A snake, perhaps, eating its own tail; or just the feeling of having to make life up all the time.