"The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths." Some years ago Bruce Nauman spelled out those words in a now famous electric wall piece. An exalted statement in burger-bar neon. Did he mean it? To this day we don't know. But if there is something about contemporary art that you find baffling or unnerving or belligerent, chances are Nauman is somewhere behind it.
Years before Damien Hirst submerged a sliced shark in formaldehyde, Nauman made his own comment on flesh and death called Carousel: four metal arms swing in a circle like a ceiling fan, with a faux animal carcass hanging from each and dragging hellishly along the floor. As for those neon wall pieces, every artist working in painted or electronic wordsthere are lots of themowes something to Nauman. And when the celebrated British artist Rachel Whiteread is done casting entire empty rooms in plaster, she can return the idea to Nauman, who long ago cast the empty space beneath a chair. "When I was in art school, I thought art was something I would learn how to do, and then I would just do it," says Nauman, 63. "At a certain point I realized that it wasn't gonna work like that. Basically, I would have to start over every day and figure out what art was gonna be." And whatever he figures it is, that's what it is.
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