Bruce Nauman - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, November 15, 2018 | Phillips

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  • Video

    Bruce Nauman | ‘Masturbating Man’

    Watch Bruce Nauman’s ‘Masturbating Man’ on view at 450 Park Avenue. This neon work, created in 1985, is more playful and abstract than the title suggests, epitomizing Nauman’s ability to explore the depths of the human condition in a way that is both approachable and cerebral.

  • Provenance

    Galerie Konrad Fischer, Dusseldorf
    Collection Selma and Jos Vandermolen, Ghent
    Konrad Fischer Galerie, Dusseldorf
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    Dusseldorf, Galerie Konrad Fischer, New Neons, September 14 - October 17, 1985
    Athens, Jean Bernier, Bruce Nauman, February 24 - March 22, 1986
    Antwerp, Galerie Ronny Van de Velde, The Future of the Object! A Selection of American Art; Minimalism and After, May 20 - July 28, 1990, pp. 16, 31, 47, 174 (illustrated, p. 175; erroneously orientated)

  • Literature

    Neal Benezra, et. al., Bruce Nauman, exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1994, no. 342, p. 297 (illustrated)
    Peter Plagens, Bruce Nauman: The True Artist, London, 2014, pp. 162, 164 (illustrated, p. 172)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Executed in 1985, Bruce Nauman’s Masturbating Man is an important example from the artist’s discrete series of figurative neon works that is currently on view at Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The present work is an entrancing study of motion whose multicolored lines have been likened to those of Willem de Kooning’s late work. More playful and abstract than its title suggests, the neon blinks in fixed-color intervals like slides cycling through a projector: following the flashing cadences of the male figure’s red and green silhouette, the entire arc of movement is depicted – only to continue its choreographed cycle from the start after a precisely defined pause. Closely related to such works as Seven Figures, 1985, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and Sex and Death by Murder and Suicide, 1985, Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel, this work epitomizes Nauman’s ability to investigate the breadth of the human condition with an approach that is equally witty, cerebral and provocative. Representing the culmination of Nauman’s engagement with the medium, it is among the very last neon sculptures the artist has created to date.

    While Nauman has worked in a variety of media over the course of his five-decade long career, his experimentation with neon has resulted in some of his most iconic pieces. Although widely synonymous with Nauman’s practice, there are only around 60 neon works within his entire oeuvre to date, many of which are in public collections. The works created in 1985 represent the culmination of his engagement with the medium, which he first began exploring in the mid-1960s. Having completed his studies at the University of California, Davis, where he studied under the mentorship of Wayne Thiebaud, Nauman moved to San Francisco and set up his studio in a former grocery store. An old neon beer sign there served as inspiration for his very first word-based neon sign The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign), 1967, which deliberately mocked the seriality and literalness of Minimalism that had taken the art world by storm.

    Abandoning the medium from 1974, he gradually reengaged with neon starting in 1980 and wholly defied expectations in 1985 by introducing a body of figurative neon work. He would fabricate 17 over the course of that year, before completely ending his engagement with the medium in 1986. Nauman developed the initial idea for the present work during 1984 through a series of drawings, which culminated in the monumental work on paper Masturbating Man, 1985. Taking on life-size proportions, it features the overlapping multi-colored silhouettes of a male figure, based on cardboard templates of Nauman’s body, and meticulous notations indicating the timing between each interval. As Robert Storr observed of this blueprint for the present work, “The seemingly schematic silhouettes…recall the deft abbreviations of the sign-maker, but the touch is that of someone acutely attuned to the energetic flow of line and psychological sparks thrown by disturbance…in that flow…the polychromatic layering of these later works reverberates like the colorful tracery of [Willem] de Kooning’s last paintings – except that the elegiac eroticism of de Kooning is replaced by sexual antagonism” (Robert Storr, Bruce Nauman: Neons Sculptures Drawings, exh. cat., Van de Weghe Fine Art, New York, 2002, pp. 16-17).

    While recalling the distilled lines of Nauman’s abstraction, the silhouettes coalesce to become a study of movement – not unlike the 19th century photographs by Etienne-Jules Marey or Eadweard Muybridge. Nauman’s figurative neons position themselves within this tradition, yet provocatively depict actions related to violence, death and sex. The present work is a powerful example of Nauman’s ability to tackle unconventional motifs with both wit and unflinching directness. In both Masturbating Man and its related work Masturbating Woman, any trace of intimacy or privacy implied by the same action in Vito Acconci’s notorious performance Seed Bed, 1972, is lacking. As Robert Storr observed, Nauman faces, “the basic facts of life…and examined them closely – more closely, indeed than is comfortable” (Robert Storr, Bruce Nauman, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1995, p. 2).

    Private impulses and desires are transformed into spectacle as the neon hypnotically flashes in front of the viewer’s eyes like a sign advertising a bar or nightclub. Speaking of the present work, Jean-Charles Masséra observed, “Nauman’s neons do not lead anywhere…The programmed linkage of sequences and the repetition of certain bodily postures deny the event…the existence of desire” (Jean-Charles Masséra, “Dance with the Law”, Bruce Nauman, Baltimore, 2002, pp. 177-184). The human body is disembodied, its action mechanized and repeated ad infinitum without conclusion. As Ute Holl pointed out, “Neon is the epitome of modern-day advertising, offering the allure of a good life that invariably risks proving empty at its core” (Ute Holl, “Frames and Repetition: Neons as Moving Pictures”, Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018, p. 170). Nauman plays into this notion, confronting the viewer with a figure caught in a cycle of repetitive actions to the extent that it borders on the absurd and meaningless akin to Beckettian theater.

    Though at first glance Nauman’s figurative works appear to be a stark departure from his word-based neons, they are in fact a continuation of the artist’s investigation into the human condition. Indeed, his very first known neon, Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at Ten-Inch Intervals, 1966, was effectively a self-portrait in absentia, as Nauman had molded the shapes of neon tubes against his own body. His body also became the subject of his photographic and performative work, often centering on repetitive, basic tasks such as walking or pacing that tested both the artist’s and the viewer’s endurance.

    As if extending the near maddening act of repetition of his performances into neon, Nauman in the 1980s increasingly employed more complex animated movements and corresponding color schemes. As Nauman has explained of the result effect, “with the figure neons, the timing sequence is very important…the pace and repetition makes it hard to the see the figures.” Additionally pointing out the contrast between the depicted act and the “pretty” colors he uses, he emphasized, “the confusion and dichotomy of what is going on [is] important” (Bruce Nauman, quoted in Elusive Signs, Bruce Nauman Works With Light, exh. cat., Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, 2006, p. 32).

    Nauman disrupts straightforward readings in a way that expands upon his subversion of moral binaries with Seven Virtues/Seven Vices, 1983-1988, a larger body of work comprised of both neon works and granite sculptures featuring superimposed word-pairings of the seven deadly sins and virtues, such as Faith/Lust. This approach, as Robert Storr identified, conveys Nauman’s, “refusal to accept the classical mind-body split” of Western philosophy, which considers the body captive to needs and instincts: “he upends the hierarchy that supposes the human intellect to be sovereign over our baser inclinations” (Robert Storr, Bruce Nauman, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1995, p. 2).

    Nauman’s 1985 neons are remarkable for the artist’s juxtaposition of a medium dominated by commercial associations with a deeply existential theme. Ultimately, the endless repetition of flashing lights does not empty the work of meaning, but rather is aimed at transforming our experience and offering a reconsideration of all dogma. As Glenn D. Lowry put in a nutshell in his foreword to the exhibition catalogue of the current exhibition Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts, “Challenging the ways in which conventions become codified, his work erases all forms of certainty, mandating that we craft our own meanings rather than accede to more familiar rules. The lessons learned from Bruce’s penetrating intelligence become more and more necessary every day” (Glenn D. Lowry, Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2018, n.p).


Masturbating Man

neon tubing mounted on wood panel
neon 47 3/4 x 30 1/8 x 2 3/4 in. (121.3 x 76.5 x 7 cm.)
panel 86 1/2 x 39 1/2 x 12 1/2 in. (219.7 x 100.3 x 31.8 cm.)

Executed in 1985.

$2,500,000 - 3,500,000 

Sold for $2,757,500

Contact Specialist
Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Evening Sale
New York
+1 212 940 1278

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 15 November 2018