Seen and Unseen

The Bruce Nauman solo at the DAM is filled with contradictions.

The modern and contemporary department at the Denver Art Museum has essentially been on a forced retreat for the last year or so. Pushed out of the spacious Stanton rooms on the first floor in order to make room for various traveling blockbusters, the department has had to deal with a skeletal roster of spaces put at its disposal.

Next month, however, the good old days will return, at least for a while, when an Alice Neel retrospective opens in the Stanton rooms. Together with Bruce Nauman: Four Works, which opened in the Close Range a few weeks ago, modern and contemporary art will again occupy most of the first floor -- as it should.

Unfortunately, I don't think Four Works is going to be too popular. The pieces in this riveting if irksome show are not just difficult; at times they're downright antithetical to the visual arts.

"Plaster Steps," by Bruce Nauman, plaster, steel and light maquette for a large sculpture.
"Plaster Steps," by Bruce Nauman, plaster, steel and light maquette for a large sculpture.
"Ten Heads Circle/Up and Down," cast colored wax.
"Ten Heads Circle/Up and Down," cast colored wax.

Despite its title, the exhibit consists of seven works -- a video, a drawing and two installations in the Close Range, and three videos playing in a constant loop on ceiling-mounted monitors in the cafe. The videos, which feature Nauman, date from the 1960s and show the artist as a skinny hippie. They are basically nonsense and thus are part of the neo-dada craze of the '60s and '70s.

These videos also act as an introduction to the newly hired master teacher for the modern and contemporary department, Adam Lerner, since it was his idea to include them. Thankfully, they are not the usual kind of thing produced by the museum's education department, of which Lerner is a part. That department, long headed by Patterson Williams, has set a national example at the DAM in the field of art education as applied to museums. A lot of those ideas, such as thematic installations and interactive features like dress-up stations ostensibly geared to children, have become well established throughout the country. As regular readers of this column know, I loathe these things and see some of them, notably the non-contextual installations, as an effort to dumb down a particular show. Clearly, by including the Nauman videos as a part of the education component, Lerner is taking a decidedly different approach. Far from dumbing down the exhibit, he has made a valuable contribution to it.

Lerner's thoughts about his role as master teacher are indicative of why he is such a good fit in the well-established atmosphere of the DAM's modern and contemporary department. "I don't make a distinction between the art and the educational aspects of it," he says. "Art is an exploration of ideas, and education is another component of an exploration of ideas. Both are about relating to visitors."

Dianne Vanderlip, chief curator of the department, is delighted to have Lerner on board. "Most of the museum's other departments have had master teachers for years, and I was very, very annoyed that we didn't have one," she says. "It meant we were outside the tent, so to speak, and education is a very important department at this museum, [one] with a lot of money, and we wanted to get involved. But it took us a long time to find the right one."

Philosophically, Lerner is a dyed-in-the-wool postmodernist; he points out that he was born in 1966, adding that this was the same year the late French philosopher Michel Foucault's The Order of Things was first published. Foucault is a key figure in the development of postmodern theory, and though his ideas weren't specifically directed at the fine arts, they have, nonetheless, had a mighty impact on them. Nauman, for his part, was an early illustrator of postmodern concepts as applied to the fine arts. Whether he's aware of this is unclear, however, since he doesn't give interviews and rarely writes about his own work. In fact, according to Lerner, Nauman is opposed to self-interpretation. Therefore, Lerner was forced to quote others -- notably the late poet Robert Frost -- in the didactics that accompany the show. Using the words of someone like Frost (who never said anything about Nauman) is quite a stretch, but this innovative tact is also a creative solution to the problem.

Nonetheless, Lerner was able to find a rare Nauman quote or two, and he had one of them painted on the wall at the start of the show. The quote, "My work comes out of being frustrated about the human condition," was placed up front because Lerner wanted viewers to cast the entire show within the context of this sentiment. Vanderlip agrees, saying "the exploration of the human condition absolutely summarizes Nauman, absolutely brings his work together."

What Vanderlip is really saying, though, is that Nauman's work needs to be brought together because it has no stylistic unity and because his pieces do not, typically, look anything alike. The stylistic discontinuity is easy to see in the Close Range show, where two of the pieces, the sculpture and its preparatory drawing, though interrelated, seem to have nothing to do with the video or the installation. Nor do any of these pieces have much in common with the videos in the cafe. So unless we link them conceptually as broadly grouped explorations of the human condition, there seems to be no other pattern that connects them.

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