Bruce Nauman, edited by Robert C. Morgan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 430 pages. $22.95 BUY NOW

Leave Any Information at the Signal: Writings, Interviews, Bits, Pages by Ed Ruscha, edited by Alexandra Schwartz. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 472 pages. $44.95 BUY NOW


Like many in my trade, I have written art-critically about Bruce Nauman. And although the sample included in the anthology under review is pretty perky (due primarily to the space and mass-intelligibility constraints of Newsweek), most of my words elsewhere are as hermetic and dull as anything else in the book. Similarly, I've penned a few paragraphs on Ed Ruscha, and I could be suspected of disgruntlement since none of them are included in the MIT collection (which, by the way, goes down a bit easier than the writings on Nauman). But my point, to all you ambitious young artists among Bookforum's faithful readers, is that no matter how rebelliously witty and slyly prescient your work is today, you will, if successful, eventually be rewarded with a tome about yourself much like these well-meaning tombstones.

Grave markers? Isn't that a bit harsh? Perhaps. The contents of these critical anthologies were, in their original instances, hotter (or at least warmer) because they served as breaking news and current opinion concerning artists about whom people were puzzled or undecided. Exhumed and assembled after the artists have become world-famous seminar fodder, they seem pedantic and redundant. Readers who have kept up with the careers of Nauman and Ruscha will end up comparing critics more than learning about the artists.

Speaking of the artists, here's their "Tale of the Tape" breakdown:

  Ruscha Nauman
Born 1937 1941
To Calif. from Oklahoma Wisconsin
Stayted? Yes Left, eventually (New Mexico)
Marital status M, and back with wife M, second time
Children One Two
Went Hollywood? Yes, lived with actresses No
Art Paintings, prints, books Sculpture, video
Style LA Pop, clean Post-Minimal, messy
Irony Overt, comic Covert, semitragic
Political art? No A little
Big in Europe? Somewhat Huge
Historical rival Andy Warhol Joseph Beuys
Students like work? A little A whole lot
Hobbies Cars, fishing Horses, knife making
Hunk? Yes1 [No data]

To augment the above information: Ruscha drove to southern California, with his high school buddy Mason Williams, immediately after graduation to (a) meet the kind of women he couldn't find in Oklahoma, (b) become a successful commercial artist, maybe even work for Walt Disney and, as it turned out, (c) unload his Catholic upbringing. In his early LA years, Ruscha drove back to Sooner territory "five or six times a year" and, in 1961, hied off to Europe to see "the History of Art" ("I just yawned a lot"). Nevertheless, Ruscha met his goals and sometimes even combined solutions: "I lived with a girl for a couple of years, [the movie actress] Candy Clark. Her birthday was rolling around, and I felt like, 'God, I wish I could give you the world.' So I painted a picture of the world for her, a painting called It's a Small World." Ruscha secured for himself a beachhead as a junior member of the Ferus Gallery cadre that put LA on the map as a major contemporary art center in the mid- to late 1960s, and then moved on to establish himself, Leo Castelli˝wise, as an international player. Occasionally, the pressure got to the normally easygoing Ed:

I've been working for ten years now. A lot of artists don't stay around that long. Artists are getting more like athletes. . . . Their production is limited to a shot, to a real quick shot. They don't like to look at it that wayˇpainters become old and they still work. But I've always questioned that. I've left it open. If it happens I ever run out of work to do or the desire to do it, even though I'm making a good living, I always think of the possibility of just dropping art, of going on with something else . . . like working in a restaurant.

Eddie-Rew (as I once heard Ms. Clark refer to him) ended up, of course, eating in good restaurants, worldwide. He professes in Leave Any Information to preferring to work at night, not understanding why mere artists ever get invited to Hollywood parties ("Witness all the movie stars who buy clown paintings, and go off to make their own clown paintings"), and actually liking the San Fernando Valley ("everything's so level in the Valley. You can park on the street right outside the store. You can walk into that store and know your car's right out front. Well, you can't do that in LA anymoreˇyou've got subterranean parking structures to hassle with"). He also likes a certain amount of reverence for, and a "clean contact" with, the object he's depicting.

Nauman, on the other hand, is sequestered out on a New Mexico horse ranch (a real one, not just some acreage convenient to the enforced artiness of Santa Fe and Taos), doing whatever comes into his headˇstrange sculpture, enigmatic videos, combinations thereofˇwhenever he wants to do it. ("Things don't evolve in Nauman's work," writes Peter Schjeldahl. "They happen." His "single overriding subject" is "frustration," Schjeldahl adds.) Nauman likes groaner wordplay (an early work, Second Poem Piece, 1969, progressively removes words from the sentence YOU MAY NOT WANT TO SCREW HERE2) but reads Freud, Beckett, and Malcolm Lowry and lets a little of their darkness creep into his work. The art-critical result, in the anthology, is a parade of praising blurbs, e.g., "One might say that the artist is at the fulcrum of meaning, the place where language cannot be pinned down" and "Nauman's genius lies in the rendering of such philosophical questions into plain American English or its visual equivalent."

Me, I've said in print equally throat-clearing things about Nauman (and still believe them: The guy is a heck of an artist). But reencountering earnest explications of My Last Name Exaggerated 14 Times Vertically, 1967, or The Center of the Universe (a 1988 riff on Piero Manzoni's hilarious Base of the World pedestal, 1961), it suddenly hit me that Nauman was Jerry Seinfeld before the fact, a secretly intellectual avant-gardist whose works of art are analogous to the sitcom that was, as its creators claimed, "about nothing." The Seinfeld episode in which a soup kitchen director rages with indignation about being given the surplus muffin bottoms from the muffin shop after privileged paying customers make off with the prettier, crunchier muffin tops seems to me quite similar to Nauman's tongue-in-cheek stretched last name or cosmic omphalos. They're ridiculous on the surface, but there's much to think about underneath. Nauman says, "My work is basically an outgrowth of the anger I feel about the human condition. The aspects of it that make me angry are our capacity for cruelty and the ability people have to ignore situations they don't like." Jerry himself couldn't have said it better.

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