Bruce Nauman is one of the most significant and influential artists of the 20th Century. In the late 1960’s and early ‘70s he took Marcel Duchamp’s revolutionary Dada “readymades” 10 steps further, deploying a multi-faceted process and site-oriented work to break radical conceptual ground.
Nauman viewed his work as research into the creative process, not the creation of objects and things with production values inherent in a consistent style. He was one of the first artists to use his own body as both medium and substrate to question language and to activate space. His work was often absurdest, a cocktail of sculpture, performance, video, drawing, and large-scale installation which first emerged while he was a graduate student at UC Davis.
The Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis, with guest curator Ted Mann, has organized and produced the first exhibition of Blue and Yellow Corridor, an architectural installation Nauman conceived in 1970. Working alone in his studio, Nauman videotaped repetitive tasks he performed with props or set pieces he constructed. The important one-hour early video, Walk with Contrapposto (1968), shows the artist walking up and down a narrow 20-inch wide corridor, hands clasped behind his neck, in an exaggerated sashay or hip-swinging saunter, like a slow-motion classical Greek sculpture.
Nauman wanted the viewer to experience the body’s encounter with the sculptural object or constructed environment. He wanted viewers to participate in their own perceptions and not just watch him. Between 1969 and 1976, he constructed or designed some 40 architectural sites and settings. Nauman’s rooms and corridors require various awkward and/or repetitive acts, like bending or inching along, not to just see, but to inhabit their confounding, enigmatic and mesmerizing experiential conditions.
Blue and Yellow Corridor (1970-71/ 2018) consists of fluorescent light, two video cameras, two video monitors, and painted wallboard. It’s basically a room-sized three-sided box. Walking into the darkened gallery, the viewer sees three connecting walls running parallel to the gallery walls. A spectrum of ultraviolet, blue, and yellow light radiates onto the ceiling from behind the plain white wallboard. Minimal, beautiful, and inexplicable, the piece challenges the viewer not to just look but also to initiate action. Exploration is irresistible. The piece lures the viewer into the impossibly seductive, light-soaked corridor between the inner and outer walls.
With nothing to encounter but light and the austere, narrow, 12- and 18-inch wide corridors, the viewer is directed to his or her own bodily experience in real time and space. With little room to maneuver, most viewers must turn slightly sideways to inch along the length of the corridors to navigate the sculpture. Video monitors are installed at both entrances, enabling viewers to witness themselves navigating the piece.
Blue and Yellow Corridor is weirdly theatrical. Like an instrument, it must be played or performed to be experienced and fully realized. Nauman’s innovative brilliance is in creating the synchronicity and conditions for viewers to encounter themselves encountering.
The exhibition includes the conceptual drawings for Blue and Yellow Corridor with a few pieces of concurrent work in video, photography, and sculpture as additional context. Manipulating a Fluorescent Tube (1969) is another one-hour, black-and-white video of Nauman performing with a studio prop. He sits with, stands next to, and holds an 8-foot fluorescent light tube, creating an austere, absurdest piece of kinetic sculpture. Studies for Holograms, (1970) is a suite of five screen prints of closeups of the artist manipulating his face. Pulling down his lower lip, stretching out his mouth, pulling the skin away from his neck, contorting his face into figurations not unlike letters or signals — Nauman invents a homegrown Morse code of the body.
The Manetti Shrem exhibition coincides with the major Nauman retrospective, co-organized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Schaulager Basel. But for anyone who is interested in the lineage of contemporary art, and for place and history, it is particularly moving to see Blue and Yellow Corridor realized for the first time on the very grounds upon which this towering artist conceived it. This jewel of an exhibition is not to be missed.
Blue and Yellow Corridor
Runs through: December 17, 2018
Where: Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art
254 Old Davis Road, Davis CA 95616
Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday: noon to 6 p.m.; Thursday: noon to 9 p.m. Saturday-Sunday: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.