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Monday, April 19, 2021

How Bruce Nauman’s Workshop Started Out as Paintings, Then Materialized

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— On a quiet Tuesday morning, Bruce Nauman’s workshop in Chelsea’s Garment District was pulsing with activity. The lanky New York City artist, sculptor and NYU professor greeted visitors who had arrived to stop by and have a look at his wall-sized assemblages. One by one, the visitors settled into pairs to peruse the raw materials and try on the finished objects that day.

More visitors gathered at the back of the workshop, where Mr. Nauman covered the walls with scroll down works by Andy Warhol and Marilyn Monroe.

“A lot of people come to see works in progress,” Mr. Nauman said. “They can see the freedom of it, but they can also see the blocks at the back of the room.”

To make that possible, Mr. Nauman has created wall coverings for his studio — highly stylized text that turns the walls into collages.

“The scrolls are a compromise between smooth and ‘workman’s’ illustrations,” he said.

The “surroundings” — as Mr. Nauman put it — are a blend of ancient Egyptian imagery and expressive street pictures. The wall coverings have been on display at his former workspace in 1988 and at the Museum of Modern Art in 1990.

Mr. Nauman sits in the back of his second-floor workshop and leads visitors through the various, intricate parts of his still-running studio, which dates to 1950, before the late-20th-century upheaval brought artifice to the forefront.

“I have to bring it to the present,” he said, and be mindful of the artist’s tradition.

He still incorporates objects from his background into his works, to the chagrin of critics. Mr. Nauman’s 9-foot-tall “in-the-round installation” is made of crumpled brown paper, “like the laundry in a can of cornflakes” — a suggestion at a moment when the once-proud industrial age had been replaced by the humanization of our times. The objects are boxed. But Mr. Nauman says he’s making his most recent works with “material” including paper, card stock, packing tape and other building materials.

“It’s like a cross between e.T.A.O.U. and bioart,” he said.

At one point, he pulled a handful of papers from his desk to show visitors how he makes his collages. They came up with many different uses: to write on, to make drawings, to tie a bandana around his neck. But the paper remained completely unused on the edge of his desk.

He said the work is built almost entirely out of what is readily available in the world.

“It’s like a long poem about the times we live in,” he said.

Because “workman’s” illustration techniques were defunct in the 1960s, the scroll coverings came from sources he didn’t have access to — in large part because most wallpaper companies now demand use of approved graphics, according to Mr. Nauman. That meant he had to create his own images.

One final use of paper on his desk was the folded piece that he attached to the wall above his work at MoMA — a nod to J.M.W. Turner.

Mr. Nauman’s respect for old photographs stems from his childhood: His parents would put the photos of their two daughters on the wall, hoping they would show who the girls were, he said. That made him start keeping a photo journal at the age of 15, he added.

Mr. Nauman said his biggest source of inspiration is from the past — “not just looking at old stuff, but looking at the idea behind things.” He was especially enthusiastic about contemporary designers like Yves Béhar, Dan Lippe and the Carolina Herrera designers.

He showed a pair of fans, which he had connected through wires to weight belts and set on a shelf above his desk. He had seen other artists use this concept. “When you use those things,” he said, “they disappear.”

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