Bruce Nauman – Soundtrack From First Violin Film (1969 / 2016)
When speaking of most artists, we generally account for what they have contributed and progressed within existing fields. In the case of Bruce Nauman, the consideration is different. Almost single-handedly, in one way or another, he laid the groundwork – in thought, context, practice, and materiality, for every generation of artists, following in his wake. It could be argued, that his influence within the movements of 20th century creative practice (and extending into the 21st), out-steps that of Picasso and Duchamp – for whom there are no trump cards. The Nauman’s singular influence – the change his ideas provoked, is unequaled. He is the towering pillar of conceptual thinking. Even those who do not directly draw on the ground he gained, must contended with a world in his image.
Nauman is a fascinating figure. His persona is shrouded in mystery – a once student of mathematics and physics, to artist / philosopher (drawing heavily on the ideas of Wittgenstein), before evolving into the reclusive specter of a cowboy – who many years ago retreated from public view, rarely allowing new works to leave his studio. He is one of the most striking thinkers of the 20th century, yet so unpretentious, that he almost seems worried that others might notice his voice.
Bruce Nauman – Self-Portrait as a Fountain, 1966. The Whitney Museum.
The imprint of Nauman’s influence begins in 1966 – issuing its challenge from a storefront studio in San Fransisco. During this period, he recognized that any act made by an artist, could be considered art. It allowed him to free himself from the signifiers of materiality – the principle of knowing something is art, because it looks like art – or is made from the ‘stuff’ of art (a painting, sculpture, etc). From this departure point, he entirely reformed the paradigm of creative practice – what could be considered to be an artwork, and what its primary material was (which in his case was the idea – the vehicle for which, being the most appropriate physical means). Beyond creating a body of work (focused on the complexities of language) which included the first executions of bent neon text as artworks – something which has been appropriated by countless artists in the last 50 years – ascending to the ubiquity of paint, it was here that he began to to address the sculptural materiality, and performative potential, of his own body (and the legacy of its image) – effectively establishing many of the conceptual perimeters, practices, and conceits within the newly emerging field of Performance Art. Crucially, Nauman’s efforts were usually solitary (though their influence was not). Rather than embracing the fleeting temporality, and dynamics of spectator / performer, which have defined much of the history of performative practice, he approach the body as an extension of sculpture (and of language) – the documents of his efforts becoming objects, which represented an object, which in turn represented another object – each level realizing its own dimension of action and meaning. At time, the idea that a solitary action could be art, that an object could be inhabited by surrogacy, or even that a photograph (or film) might possess the same creative potential as painting and sculpture, was unprecedented. Had Nauman left us with a single work – 1966’s Self- Portrait as a Fountain – part of Photographic Suite, a series of photographs based on puns, the world would have still been forever changed. However, within the same short period – between 1966 and 1968, he created a body of work, built from such dynamics and dimension, sculpting so many new fields of creative investigation, that their influence has been unyielding since they first entered the light of day (and that doesn’t account for all the work, and subsequent effect, created in the years since).
Bruce Nauman – (Still From) Stamping in the Studio (1968)
In 1968, the artist moved briefly to New York, occupying Jasper Johns’ then vacant studio in the Hamptons, in order to build a body of work for his first solo show at Leo Castelli Gallery. As Nauman‘s actions progressed, he encouraged his gallerist to buy the new Sony Portapak video camera – freeing him from the constraints of film, with which he had begun to document his efforts. What emerged were the first works of Video Art – what few know, is that because Castelli owned the camera (which was financially out of reach to most), and represented most of vanguard of conceptual artists during that period, it was later used by nearly every pioneering video artist in the field. Nauman laid the groundwork, literally, figuratively, and practically, for almost the entire emerging discipline.
Bruce Nauman – (Still From) Playing a Note on the Violin While I Walk Around the Studio (1968)
Most artworks, made during the early years of video, are focused around some form of performative act on the part of their creator. They bridge the realms of document, autonomous film, and multidimensional object to be seen in a gallery – realized for that purpose (the performance was executed to be seen in video form, rather than live). Accepting that most were following his lead, Nauman is no exception to this. The body of works, which developed over the period leading up to his first show with Castelli, were focused on the artist in the studio, performing am number of focused actions. For the most part, they are oriented on the artist’s physicality, and that of the studio itself – Stamping in the Studio, Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square, Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square (Square Dance), Wall-Floor Positions, Walk with Contrapposto, etc, though there are notable exceptions – particularly a series presenting Nauman playing the violin – Violin Film #1 (Playing the Violin as Fast as I Can), Playing a Note on the Violin While I Walk Around the Studio, and Violin turned D.E.A.D.
Bruce Naumam – Violin turned D.E.A.D. (1968)
Nauman’s violin works have two fundamental realizations – those which manifest as films / videos, and those where he chose to isolate the audio from his filmed actions, allowing sound to exist as its own materiality – he showed the later, during roughly the same period, in Six Sound Problems at Konrad Fischer Gallery. Because Nauman’s two worlds of sound resulted from the same practice, and those works limited to the sound often referenced their source (a given film) in their titles, beyond what he hoped to elicit in the audience, it is difficult to separate the two bodies of work. Effectively, you can’t talk about his works of Sound Art, without addressing the video and film work.
In the literal sense, all of Nauman’s violin works (film, video, audio) are exactly what their titles describe – Playing the Violin as Fast as I Can, Playing a Note on the Violin While I Walk Around the Studio, Playing All Four Strings on the Violin, Playing Two Notes Very Close Together, etc. When understood within a conceptual framework, they are a great deal more – particularly when recognizing that no one had realized an artwork, with these elements and in such a framework, before. The are in fact far more singular than they first appear. Though others like George Maciunas, whose deconstructive piano works predated them by a few years, hinted at this territory – approaching a musical instrument through an action which is emphasized over an intended outcome of sounds, these, and other similar Fluxus works, were performed live, and are only distant cousins in intent. Nauman’s violin works, in addition to being seminal works of conceptual art, among the earliest gestures which utilize sound or moving image as a singular material surrogate for painting and sculpture, also helped establish the field of Sound Art. Often overshadowed by their creator’s astounding body of work during this period, when isolated, they are profoundly important with the history of art and experimental practice.
Bruce Nauman – Violin Film #1 (Playing the Violin as Fast as I Can) (1968)
During the second half of the 1960’s, as practices within the fields of Conceptual Art expanded, many artists pushed into sound. While it should be noted that a number of earlier Modernists – Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, Jean Dubuffet, with additional members of Dada and the Futurist movement, sometimes worked with the field – these efforts largely grew from ideas within the art world, imposed onto the territories of music and poetry. It wasn’t until the 1960’s, that Sound Art came to be defined by autonomous realizations. Conceptual Art – which grew from ideas initially posed by Henry Flynt, emphasizes idea and process over outcome. It effectively freed the artist from the constraints of aesthetics. Because ideas have no materiality, they can logically occupy the form most appropriate to them – thus, in many cases, sound. As within its visual realizations, Conceptual Art liberated the sonic realms from standing relationships and obligations to existing expectations. Sound could interesting and exciting, in whatever form, if the ideas which had spawned it, were equally so.
Bruce Nauman – Footsteps (from SMS #5) (1968)
Because of a historic affection for artist multiples, a draw toward industrial processes during the 1960’s, and the relative ease of releasing recordings – the Artist Record was born. One of the first (and most explicit) examples, was in fact a length of tape – Bruce Nauman’s Footsteps, a recording of footsteps (again, probably the isolated audio from a video or film), to be played as a loop, quite loudly for as long as you want or can stand it – released as his contribution to the SMS #5 publication. The following year, Tanglewood Press issued his Soundtrack from First Violin Film – a component of 7 Objects/69, a set of art multiples (the other participants were David Bradshaw, Eva Hesse, Stephen Kaltenbach, Alan Saret, Richard Serra, and Keith Sonnier) in a signed and limited edition of 100. For collectors of records made by fine artists (of which I am one), it is one of the great holy-grails.
The Original Pressing of Bruce Nauman’s Soundtrack from First Violin Film (1969)
Soundtrack from First Violin Film is effectively a realization in multiple form, and a furthering, of the body of work that Nauman showed with Konrad Fischer (the year prior). It is a serious of audio works, drawn from filmed actions which the artist chose to present as sound alone. This is presumably why the action we hear within Soundtrack from First Violin Film (Playing All Four Strings on the Violin), is not the same as what we hear in Violin Film #1 (Playing the Violin as Fast as I Can) – there was a film made prior to Violin Film #1, which never saw the light of day.
What is remarkable about Soundtrack from First Violin Film, which also includes Violin Problem Two (Playing Two Notes Very Close Together), Rhythmic Stamping (Four Rhythms in Preparation for Video Tape Problems), is the ordering of its hybridity. Where most sound artists used the structures of Conceptual Art to free themselves of standing relationships – generally centered on expectations of organized sound being part of the world of music, Nauman doubled the practice back on itself. Rather seeking to exploit entirely new (and thus liberated) sonic realms, he used conceptual practice to face music directly (through the use of instrument and rhythm) – striking a direct confrontation, and making something far more challenging and difficult to define. These works resemble music, challenge our expectations of it, but are not that thing. This is a crucial distinction. Nauman’s sound works are essentially a conceptual inversion of efforts by John Cage or Musique Concrète artists, which sought to utilize non-instrumental sources to create music. Nauman used instrumental sounds (or references) to make something which is not music at all – in effect, highlighting the dimensional possibilities of meaning, and the elasticity of language.
Bruce Nauman – Soundtrack from First Violin Film (2016)
A month ago, I caught wind that one of my favorite labels on the planet – Die Schachtel, was bringing Soundtrack from First Violin Film back to the world. My heart skipped with excitement and joy. It was a record which had long occupied my dreams. It turned out, it was an effort defined by the high bar which makes the label so remarkable and distinct. They were releasing a second edition – one hundred copies, signed and number by the artist, and thus to be considered an artwork / artist’s multiple, as much as the first. It is a stroke of brilliance, which I can not applaud enough. At € 750, it has the unavoidable downside of placing it out of the reach of most. For those who can afford it, it is an essential piece of art history, the development of Sound-Art, and conceptual practice as a whole. Considering this, and that it nearly impossible for anyone without a small fortune to own a piece Nauman’s work, it’s actually a steal. Whether or not you can afford it, it’s worth allowing it to occupy a place in your mind. Like its artist, it is the foundation on which so much built. Its approach and relationship to music, is unlike anything which had proceeded it, but now finds itself part of world (and approach to sound) which many accept as truth. You can pick it up from SoundOhm, where you can also listen to samples of its sounds.
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