It's been 25 years since Bruce Nauman has been given a true retrospective of his work in this country, and considering his career has lasted about 50 years now (and counting!), that means we've never seen this much of his work in one place. Or, in the case of Disappearing Acts, MoMA and MoMA PS1's blockbuster of an exhibition, which opened on Sunday, all in two places.
Unprecedented in scale, Disappearing Acts showcases some 165 of Nauman's pieces, filling both special exhibition galleries on MoMA's sixth floor and the entire building at PS1, just two subway stops away in Long Island City. It's sprawling, surprising, radical, immediately engaging, vital, relevant, deeply rewarding, all of it. There are rarely seen sculptural works, immersive sound installations, mesmerizing videos, paintings, drawings, conceptual pieces, interactive spaces, and live performances.
MoMA proper houses most of the larger works, and they removed almost all of the walls on the 6th floor so everything fits and has room to be seen (and heard). It all has a nice flow to it. The showstopper is "Model for Trench and Four Buried Passages," a series of five concentric circles which at first glance looks like a set from a retro sci-fi film, but don't miss the tiny black-and-white monitor on a shelf behind the huge sculpture—it's called Audio-Video Underground Chamber, and it shows live feed taken from inside a coffin-shaped concrete box, buried somewhere off site.
Other highlights of the Midtown show include the mobile-esque "White Anger, Red Danger, Yellow Peril, Black Death," with each color/fear represented by a different chair impaled by an I-beam; the slowly-revealing neon phrases of "One Hundred Live And Die;" and "Kassel Corridor: Elliptical Space," which from the outside looks unfinished, but hides a curved interior space that only one lucky visitor per hour can access (you have to get a key from the information desk on the fifth floor).
The audio installation "Days" takes over the entire final room of the exhibition space, and consists of fourteen speakers hanging in two rows, with each pair emitting a different voice saying the days of the week, in random, ad infinitum. It somehow simultaneously invokes the giddy possibilities of life as well as the trudging banality of our existence.
There are a couple of large pieces at MoMA PS1—most notably "Hanging Foxes," paired with equally distressing "Carousel (Stainless Steel Version)"—but the warren-like layout makes it an ideal showcase for Nauman's more intimate works, including his videos. "Clown Torture" is just kind of insane, "Green Horses" plays on the commodification of everything in America, and the haunting seven-channel video "Mapping the Studio II With Color Shift, Flip, Flop, & Flip/Flop (Fat Chance John Cage)" plays footage recorded at night in Nauman's empty studio... which turned out to not be so empty after all.
There are two interactive works at PS1, if you're ok with traversing uncomfortably tight spaces. The alarming sound installation "Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room" is also here, and feels like it could have been pulled from a contemporary horror movie. A pair of "Three Heads Fountains" give a pleasant jolt as you turn the corner into yet another gallery on the second floor, and you'll probably spend longer than you expect staring at the addictive, amusing "Contrapposto Split," a 3-D version of Nauman's iconic walking-like-a-Greek-god video series.
Disappearing Acts also serves as a swan song of sorts for outgoing PS1 Director and MoMA Chief Curator Klaus Biesenbach, who's decamping to Los Angeles to head up MoCA. Biesenbach recently recalled on his Instagram how, when he first turned his focus to PS1 ten years ago, the idea of presenting a "full building Nauman show" was a "dream project." Which has now been fulfilled, times two.
As one of Nauman's most famous pieces says: "Pay Attention Mother Fuckers."
Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts will be at MoMA through February 18, and at PS1 through February 25.