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When I was making that piece [The Artist Is an Amazing Luminous Fountain, 1967] originally and then thinking about it later, people, a lot of people, were thinking about how to structure time. John Cage was making different kinds of ways of making music and Merce [Cunningham] was structuring dance in different kinds of ways. And then Warhol was making films that went on for a long period of time. And Steve Reich and La Monte Young were making music that was structured in a very different way. So it was interesting for me to have a lot of ways to think about things. And one of the things I liked about some of those people was that they thought of their works as just ongoing. And so you
Bruce Nauman, stills from Setting a Good Corner (Allegory and Metaphor), 1999.
could come and go and the work was there. There wasn’t a specific duration. This thing can just repeat and repeat and repeat, and you don’t have to sit and watch the whole thing. You can watch for a while, leave and go have lunch or come back in a week, and it’s just going on. I really liked that idea of the thing just being there. The idea being there so that it became almost like an object that was there, that you could go back and visit whenever you wanted to. In Setting a Good Corner, we’re building a corner to stretch a fence and hang a gate. It had a real purpose in the ranch here. I needed to do this. But at the same time, it made a beautiful structure. . . . My partner—Bill Riggins at the end of the tape—I showed him the tape, and he said, “Boy, you’re going to get a lot of criticism on that because people have a lot of different ways of doing those things.” So I put down some of the things that he said, about keeping your tools sharpened and not letting them lie on the ground where they get hurt or get abused and dirty and you can’t find them. And some thoughts about how his father used to do things. How these things—if you grow up with them—you learn them in one way. I wasn’t sure when I finished it if anybody would take it seriously. It turned out to be kind of interesting to watch. I gave a certain amount of thought to how I set up the shot and then after that. . . . That’s not an uncommon way for artists to proceed. What makes the work interesting is if you choose the right questions. Then, as you proceed, the answers are what’s interesting. If you choose
the wrong questions, you still get a result, but it’s not interesting. So that’s in there. I think I learned some of that from Sol LeWitt, who does a lot of that. He builds a structure that you have to work with, and the work could come out different every time. But if you follow the structure, it’s interesting, sometimes beautiful and sometimes just interesting. Well, that’s the art part and that’s what you don’t know. That’s the hard part. Sometimes the question that you pose or the project that you start turns into something else, you know, but at least it gets you started. And sometimes you finish and you look at it and say, “I got a bad result; I don’t like what came out here.” And so you have to start over or change it somehow. I mean if the fence is going to last it has to be done well. And so you want to do a good job. Other cowboys and ranchers are going to come around and they’ll see it and they’ll say, “Well, that—that’s a good one.” Or, “That’s not a good one.” It’s when you go to work at somebody else’s place and the gates all work, or you have to get out of the truck, or off your horse, and drag them around and make a lot of extra work for yourself because nobody wants to spend the time to fix them up and make them work better. I have a lot of other things to do, so if I’m going to do it, I’d like to get it right so that when I have to use it, it’s just there and it’s useful and usable and I’m not wasting time with a lot of extra baling wire and stuff, patching it every once in a while. You have to adjust yourself to it because it’s hard work. And so you adjust
yourself to the task and if you go out there and say, “Boy, I just hate doing this and I got to get it done,” you’re probably not going to do a good job. Or you might just forget, not even bother. But if you can find that spot—I suppose it’s like running—I used to be a swimmer and swim laps, and you just have to be there with what you’re doing. Your mind could actually go a lot of other places, but your body has to be there with what you’re doing. It’s a good discipline. In the studio, I don’t do a lot of work that requires repetitive activity. I spend a lot of time looking and thinking and then try to find the most efficient way to get what I want, whether it’s making a drawing or a sculpture, or casting plaster, or whatever. But part of the enjoyment I take in it is finding the most efficient way to do it, which doesn’t mean that corrections aren’t made. I like to have a feeling of the whole task before I start, even if it changes. If you’re an amateur artist, you can get it sometimes and not other times, and you can’t tell and you can’t always do it over again. And the part about being a professional artist is that you can tell and you can do it over again, even if you can’t say how you got there exactly. You’ve done it enough and you know how to get there. I don’t have any specific steps to take because I don’t start the same way every time. But there is a knowing when it’s enough and you can leave it alone. You could go on and maybe make some changes, but they could ruin it and they aren’t going to necessarily make it better. They’re just going to be different. And so that’s what keeps me in the studio, the not knowing part and always being surprised.
From an interview with Bruce Nauman conducted for the documentary series Art:21—Art in the Twenty-first Century (2001), originally published in the companion volume of the same title (vol. 1, 2001). © Art21, Inc. 2001–2009. All rights reserved.
Michael Peppiatt and Alice Bellony-Rewald Studios of America
It appears self-evident today that a distinctly American studio exists. No sooner are the words said than one sees a very large, plain, whitewashed space in a building that once functioned as a factory or a warehouse, frequently in a dilapidated part of town. There might be a chair or two, a couple of photos or images tacked to the wall, but the emphasis is entirely on the work under way. Nothing connects it to the plush, well-filled ateliers our grandfathers and great-grandfathers admired. Not only is there no attempt at a reassuring comfort and ostentation (quite the reverse!), but virtually every established studio practice and every piece of equipment has changed. In this bare modern room, palette and easel, punch and mallet would look like heirlooms. The canvas is spread directly on floor or wall, and a person dressed not in velvet but in workman’s dungarees goes at it with housepainter’s tools and huge pots of industrial paint, or operates trip-hammer and acetylene torch in an acrid, machine-shop atmosphere. Yet this freedom from the past was achieved only after many generations of American artists had absorbed centuries of tradition. Up until the 1930s, when the loftlike atelier made its tentative debut, the leading American studios closely resembled their European counterparts. When Frederic Edwin Church built his painter’s castle above the Hudson River, he was not unmindful of the hybrid splendor in which his peers were lodged in London, Paris, and Vienna. Similarly, William Merritt Chase vowed he would make his Manhattan studio as exotically impressive as anything he had seen during his six years of study and travel in Europe. Yet even the most slavish imitations of the way prominent artists were established abroad ended, naturally enough, by acquiring an irreducibly American note. And for every Church and Chase, there were scores of more humble artists who lived by painting anything from shop signs to portraits, setting up their “studios” wherever commissions were to be had, and then moving on like the itinerant artists of Europe during the Middle Ages. Church’s master, the highly gifted Thomas Cole, began his career in just
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