What is striking about Bruce Nauman’s work is that it has always involved what was directly accessible to the artist—the space around him, his own body, and language. The language aspect, in particular, reveals how the subjectivity of the artist breaks with social convention. Nauman does not invent expressions or turns of phrase. He finds them in everyday speech and makes them his own. In this respect, he can be compared to Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns, who also used language, and, by way of minimal vocal changes, brought astonishing new meanings to the surface from the depths of the words themselves, without shying away from disturbing connotations. Nauman’s approach is diametrically opposed to that of his contemporaries Carl Andre and Lawrence Weiner, for instance, who treat words as objectifiable material things.
In drawing, Nauman found a medium at an early stage of his career that could hold its own with his sculptural work, for it served him not only as way to project his ideas, but also as a field for exploring and evolving his propositions, and leaving their traces visible. Over time, he worked with sheets of paper of ever-larger dimensions, so that they commanded a presence of their own on the wall, thereby bringing the sensual appearance of objects to the fore. This is especially true of the drawing shown here, in which the relief of the letters has been highlighted in watercolor, while the background remains cursory. The three-pronged alignment seems to have been derived from the tunnel pieces that Nauman had worked on quite extensively in the years before. The writing, on the other hand, is redolent of the neon pieces that he was creating around the same time as this drawing. Such correlations can also be found in the wording itself. For instance, in a 1978 drawing of a five-part structure with the inscription “DRAIN 1 + DRAIN 2,” we can actually discern a star-shaped configuration converging on a central point that could well be seen as a drainage system.(1) In the neon piece “Human Nature,” the words “HUMAN NATURE / ANIMAL NATURE” appear alternately.(2) These word pairs are a mirror image of the pronged alignment in “HUMAN NEED / DRAIN,” suggesting nature as the common denominator between human and animal. Nonetheless, “HUMAN NEED / DRAIN” is not a pendant piece to this, for we suspect that the word “drain” may well be a corruption of the word “brain”: the fundamental opposition of need and thought, of physical and intellectual existence, is dissolved by the replacement of a single letter, whereby the heights of the cognitive are replaced by the depths of all that is washed into the sewer. The idealistic notion that human existence is an equilibrium between two mutually balancing opposite poles is quite literally washed down the drain.(3) Nauman skeptically infers that the asymmetry of language overrides the visual symmetry of the construction.(4)
(1) Bruce Nauman. Zeichnungen 1965–1986, exh. cat., Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel; Kunsthalle Tübingen; Städtisches Kunstmuseum Bonn, Basel 1986, no. 372.
(2) Bruce Nauman. Exhibition Catalogue and Catalogue Raisonné, ed. Joan Simon, exh.cat., Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Basel 1994, no. 304.
(3) The drain itself is the subject of Nauman’s drypoint and aquatint print Floor Drain (1985). See Bruce Nauman. Prints 1970–89. A Catalogue Raisonné, ed. Christopher Cordes with Debbie Taylor, exh. cat., Castelli Graphics and Lorence-Monk Gallery, New York; Donald Young Gallery, Chicago; New York 1989, no. 49.
(4) A related pair of opposites also appeared two years earlier in the lithograph Human Companionship / Human Drain, in which the words “HUMAN DRAIN” spiral into the depths. See Bruce Nauman. Prints 1970–89, no. 46.