A much-circulated story about the American video and performance artist Bruce Nauman has to do with how he got started.
It was 1966. Having moved to San Francisco after graduation from Davis (he’d been offered some part-time work, teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute), his first step was to get a studio because — so he reasoned — that’s what an artist does, and has. This studio was a broken-down shop front still bearing broken-down signs of its former use, signs like ‘California Grocery’, ‘Enjoy Coca Cola’, and ‘Candy’. A photograph by Jack Fulton taken at around that time shows an equally dishevelled, check-shirted Nauman standing in the sunshine, leaning against its dusty entrance-way.
“I had a studio” he told an interviewer in 1971. “I was working [i.e. teaching] very little… and I didn’t know what to do with all that time. I think that’s when I did the first casts of my body and the name parts and things like that. There was nothing in the studio because I didn’t have much money for materials. So I was forced to examine myself, and what I was doing there.”
What You Got
A striking aspect of Nauman’s ethos as an artist becomes apparent from those words of his: the power of starting where you are, with what you happen to have to hand. In Nauman’s case, at first sight, this wasn’t much: at its most basic, a more or less empty room and a lot of unassigned time, but also his own body, the capacity to reflect — to think — and the capacity to record. And here I don’t just mean photographically (see his portfolio Eleven Color Photographs, 1966-67/1970, which includes such works as Coffee Spilled because the Cup was too Hot and his well-known Self-Portrait as a Fountain) but also via such other means as making those body casts (his misleadingly titled Wax Impressions of the Knees of Five Famous Artists, for instance, a panel made from fibreglass and polyester resin incorporating casts of his own knee). In other words, look at what he was able to do with those simple, interacting elements and capacities; the many permutations through which he was able to push them.
But perhaps the most important characteristic of Nauman’s ethos was his professionalism. Perhaps also the most surprising, at first sight, given his consistently innovative, whimsical and anarchic art-making. What I mean is this. He didn’t begin with a fantastically original idea or with a flash of inspiration. He started with a workspace and not too much else, and he kept turning up there, noticing and thinking, until something started to happen. That is, until ways of operating as an artist in that space began to emerge. The body casts, as he said, and the photographs. And, provoked to a degree by a neon beer sign still in the window of his studio, a series of new works in that medium, Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at Ten-Inch Intervals, 1966, being one of the earlier San Francisco pieces.
Shifting perspective somewhat, this is precisely the point that the best-selling author Steven Pressfield makes in his non-fiction book The War of Art from 2002. In a short section called ‘A Professional,’ Pressfield focuses on the novelist and playwright Somerset Maugham’s approach to writing:
“Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. ‘I write only when inspiration strikes,’ he replied. “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.’”
“That’s a pro,” Pressfield continues, “… Maugham reckoned… that by performing the mundane physical act of sitting down and starting to work, he set in motion a mysterious but infallible sequence of events that would produce inspiration, as surely as if the goddess had synchronized her watch with his. He knew if he built it, she would come.”
The workspace, then, as that which comes first, and the work. The studio, literally, or the study — but also the act of studying. (The other thing Nauman did in his studio was read a lot. He studied the work of others and got inspired by it. Early on, he liked the work of Picasso and de Kooning. And Man Ray’s eclectic, and as Nauman saw it, productively inconsistent image-making was crucial for the evolution of his own work processes.) The physical and the metaphorical spaces of learning as starting-points, then, including, by extension, those of the university.
I will probably be writing about, or around, the topic of starting for a while. In my next post, certainly, I’d like to begin with what is to my mind a chilling shadow scenario to the ones I’ve just discussed, portrayed in a painting in the Royal Academy’s just-ended J. W. Waterhouse show.