Ruscha (whose comedic style is much more old schoolóBob Newhart, say) and Nauman didn't, as far as I know, hang out much together when both were fresh to the art-world big time in LA in the 1970s. Nauman had a studio in Pasadena, palled around mostly with Richard Jackson, stayed away from what was called the "Venice Mafia" (Ferus alumni with elegant storefront studios), and seemed continually on his way to or from Germany. Ruscha painted for years in a déclassé section of Hollywood but moved amiably among all the art scenettes in LA. Nauman said he wanted his art to hit viewers like a baseball bat to the back of the head; Ruscha merely wanted his audience to end up scratching theirs. Ruscha says, "Words have temperatures to me. When they reach a certain point and become hot words, then they appeal to me." Nauman remarks, "I like to read writers who pay very careful attention to the words, making them work beautifullyómostly as prose." Both artists are interviewed to the third degree, and, not surprisingly, both punctuate the tedium every once in a while with a deft nonplusser:
Interviewer: I can't think of anyone else who used the book medium as an art vehicle.
Ruscha: Well a lot of poets have done it but it hasn't been called gallery art.
Interviewer: How did you come to do that?
Nauman: I don't know.
Interviewer: Who is your favorite artist?
Ruscha: Hieronymus Bosch. He hasn't had that much influence on my work, either.
Although Bruce Nauman and Leave Any Information containóbarelyó enough amusing moments like the ones above to carry the reader through to the end (I kept having to switch back and forth twixt the two volumes to counter drowsiness) and although one can, with a little note taking, cobble together mental Hockney-esque Polaroid collages of Nauman and Ruscha as artists, the books are fairly slow going. Schjeldahl notices a "flat tone of voice infecting statements of sincere praise" about Nauman, which, I think, translates as "Many critics feel compelled to praise Nauman despite not having the foggiest idea what they're talking about, because, well, everybody else is praising him." Nauman's canny literary allusions, psychological ploys, and philosophical paradoxes seem to cut off the writers' avenues of speculation rather than (as might be expected) open them up. The overall tone is of critics struggling to prove they're worthy of discussing the art and, often, opening memberships to the Dead Sentences Society. (Try "But the drawing does illustrate Nauman's belief that the visual processes of high technology can be used with great effectiveness in art" or "Performing at the Whitney Museum with two people made Nauman realize that he could involve others in his performances if he gave them specific instructions.")
When Nauman's chroniclers do go out on limbs, as in the final two or three sentences of the reviews included in the anthology, it's off-into-the-sunset, ringing-profundity time: We don't know whether to laugh or be disturbed. The truth is we have no choice but to do both. Grounded in sound, Nauman's words always implicate the corporeal forms of their speakers and readers: they exploit their subjects' vulnerability to find the ground where bodies and signs collide in a struggle to make sense of madness. Each time you enter into this process [of repressing your self in order to make something] there's a moment, no matter how brief, when you think you have lost your way and will never find it again. Terror and rage, exhilaration and joy, drive this process, and force one to return to it over and over again in order to experience one of the most profound feelings in lifeócreativity. How we grasp and tolerate what we are doing to ourselves and what we see done to each other, how we feed on complications to keep ourselves numb: These are themes that make Nauman's work seem like the most necessary art being made today. Nauman has always done things his own way, and relied on the good-natured conundrums in his objects to win people over. It's always worked with collectors and critics. Maybe it'll carry the day with security guards, too.
That last oneóobviously different, no?óis mine, from Newsweek, where my primary concern was to come full circle to my opener about museum guards having to endure months of noise from the video installation Clown Torture, 1987. And, yep, I did err on the side of rhetorical cuteness, which, I'll admit, may be as misguided as trying too hard for resonating depth.
Leave Any Information is more colloquial (mostly because Ruscha is) but bland. Alexandra Schwartz begins her editorial task by invoking that de rigueur eyelid-drooper, "As historians reevaluate the production of artists who came of age during that era . . ." (These are historians from the Federal Office of Reevaluation, and the "production" is to be tested for PCBs?) She ends it by hauling Ruschaówho's already been grilled in the book more times than Sammy "The Bull" Gravanoóback to the tape recorder to press him one last time on "gaps" in his previous answers about Futurism, sculpture, art rivalries between cities, and whether he'll reconsider photography as art. We're talking serious overkill hereóin both books. Nobody deserves a surfeit of critical attention, of course, any more than do these two current and former West Coast masters of darkly comic and comically dark Conceptual art that delivers so much more than concepts. But there's a limit to what even a fan of both (such as I) can take between the covers of one volume on each. Neither Nauman nor Ruscha would, I presume, want readers to feel like they're watching Clown Torture over and over again while trapped in Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire.
1. Based on a highly unscientific poll of women I know in the art world, including, dangerously, my wife.
2. Possibly ripped off that old tourist-shop joke sign whose top line is OH GEORGE LET'S NOT PARK HERE and whose successive lines each remove one word from the end.
Peter Plagens is a contributing editor of Artforum and art critic for Newsweek.