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  • Video

    Bruce Nauman 'Hanging Heads # 1 (Blue Andrew, Mouth Open / Red Julie with Cap)', 1989

    “There is a captivating duality to this work- firstly the material and fabrication of the hanging heads- the wax casts taken from physical human forms have a morbid connotation. It is a process usually reserved for the deceased. ..the work though is ultimately an exploration of the human condition and how we engage with one another.” Bruce Nauman's 'Hanging Heads # 1 (Blue Andrew, Mouth Open / Red Julie with Cap)', 1989 to be offered in our Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 29 June in London.

  • Provenance

    Galerie Konrad Fischer, Düsseldorf
    Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt
    Christie’s, London, Post-War & Contemporary Art, June 2005, lot 10
    Acquired at the above sale by previous owner

  • Exhibited

    Düsseldorf, Galerie Konrad Fischer, Bruce Nauman: Heads and Bodies, 9 September-7 October 1989
    Frankfurt, Museum für Moderne Kunst, on long term loan

  • Literature

    J. Simon (ed.), Bruce Nauman, Minneapolis 1994, no. 414 (illustrated, p. 317)

  • Catalogue Essay

    Working across video, sculpture and performance, Bruce Nauman remains acutely aware of the difficulties of communication. Consistently challenging, his art measures the distance between individuals. Silence, masks and layers of mediation all coalesce to frustrate and complicate engagement. Drawing on a rich intellectual tradition that encompasses twentieth century linguistic philosophy and Absurdist theatre, he takes an uncompromising look at the difficulties of communication. These concerns find troubling expression in the present lot. Created in the late 1980s, it belongs to a body of work involving the wax casting of the human head. The resultant sculptural forms are amongst Nauman’s most affecting work; disjunctive arrangements which negotiate grotesquery, longing, and the disconnection between people.

    Separated and mute, the disembodied forms of Hanging Heads #1 (Blue Andrew, Mouth Open/Red Julie with Cap) are suspended from wires with lifeless and unsettling effect. In part they are characterised by severance and disturbance; the heads finish abruptly at the neck. Yet there are also elements of continuity and recurrence: as Neal Benezra notes, the work sees Nauman ‘returning to a traditional sculptural idiom.’ (Neal Benezra, ‘Surveying Nauman,’ Art + Performance: Bruce Nauman, Baltimore & London: John Hopkins University Press, p.136). The recursion is manifold. In the late 1960s, much of Nauman’s work comprised wax casts; the constrained torso of Henry Moore Bound to Fail (rear view) is perhaps the most celebrated instance. As he revisits this practice, he also nods in the direction of that most recurrent of classical forms – the bust. He both draws upon and subverts the sculptural practice, turning it upside down and to his own purposes.

    The most important influence on the work, however, is a more macabre form of commemoration. Discussing his wax casts in a 1988 interview, Nauman remarked ‘not long ago I read this book in which a character goes to funeral homes or morgues, and uses this moulage stuff on people and makes plaster casts – death masks – for their families. I had no idea that this was a profession. But it turns out that moulage is a very old, traditional kind of material, and was often used in this way.’ (Bruce Nauman in Joan Simon, ‘Breaking the Silence,’ Robert C. Morgan (ed.), Art + Performance: Bruce Nauman, Baltimore & London: John Hopkins University Press, p.276). In this formulation, we encounter the likely genesis of the present lot; revisiting an earlier form, Nauman chances upon a set of latent significations. Although cast from living models, the heads of Andrew and Julia undoubtedly recall death masks, a cross-cultural form produced by setting plaster or wax over the face of the deceased.

    As it rallies these morbid associations, Hanging Heads #1 speaks to the concerns of waking life. Remote and insensible, the heads bespeak the difficulty of true human engagement. As Nauman himself remarks, ‘my work comes out of being frustrated about the human condition. And about how people refuse to understand other people.’ (Bruce Nauman in Joan Simon, ‘Breaking the Silence,’ Robert C. Morgan (ed.), Art + Performance: Bruce Nauman, Baltimore & London: John Hopkins University Press, p.276). This refusal or inability to communicate is at the heart of the present lot. Fixed in position by wires, the two heads do not face each other, but hang in parallel. Although they belong to the same piece, they are hopelessly separate. In other of Nauman’s works with human form, two heads are configured in rather different but no less uneasy combinations. Rinde Head/Andrew Head (Plug To Nose) (1989) sees the former press his tongue against the latter; a curiously intimate gesture, it is deeply incongruous with the faces’ solemnity. In a later work entitled Three Heads Fountain (Juliet, Andrew, Rinde) (2005), the casts are joined at the base while water pours from holes in their surface. The impression in this case is of thoughts seeping out only to dissipate; effort and exertion drains away.

    Pairs of heads occur not only in Nauman’s work with wax, but also in video and performance. Through these media, he engages with similar concerns. In 1985, for instance, he created a video installation entitled Good Boy, Bad Boy. Set atop pedestals are two television sets, playing two different videos at once. Each shows the head and shoulders of a different speaker, repeating the same one hundred phrases, although not in unison. The delivery is pedagogic in quality, and the phrases variations of a theme. The effect is of bombardment and bewilderment. Through ceaseless insistence, Nauman achieves with noise what he achieves with silence in the lot at hand. Speaking over each other, the two talking heads appear blithely unaware of the other’s presence. The composition is critical; as viewers, we are uniquely aware of their adjacency and of the paradoxical interplay between proximity and distance.

    These concerns about separation and incomprehension reveal the influence of Samuel Beckett. The playwright’s importance to Nauman is well-documented and well-evidenced; his 1968 piece Slow Angle Walk is even alternately titled Beckett Walk. Both artists share an interest in the perpetual failure of communication, and in ideas of crossed-purposes and irreconcilable differences. The heads that comprise the present lot are similar to many of Beckett’s protagonists; although in company, they remain essentially alone. Even at the level of form, Hanging Heads #1 has much in common with the dramatist’s work. Play (1963) is the most markedly similar; in this one-act piece, the three characters are sat inside urns so that in most productions only their heads are visible. As the spotlight falls on each character and they begin their reminiscences, the others remain obscured and unspeaking. It is this distance which finds silent expression in the present lot; a morbid but potent vision of separation, the two figures are as detached as the characters in Play.

    Bruce Nauman’s concerns are principally existential. The disembodied heads announce themselves as a disruption to order, prompting reconsideration of our capacity to relate to and understand one another. Rigid, uneven, and turned upside down, the initial impression is one of disorientation and shock. Hanging unresponsively, they neither relate to one another nor to the viewer. In the details of the faces we recognise the impression of a human form. Yet its humanity remains essentially evasive. The sitter has long been separated from the wax; although we sense a phantom presence, we are aware that this is merely an illusion. With unflinching concision, the work reveals a series of gulfs; one face is separated from another just as we are separated from the human forms on which the works were modelled. It is a sculpture marked by detachment and remoteness. As is characteristic of the artist, Nauman refuses to shy away from complication; boldly acknowledging the barriers to communication, he reflects on a series of enduring and endlessly vexing questions.


Ο ◆30

Hanging Heads # 1 (Blue Andrew, Mouth Open / Red Julie with Cap)

wax, wood, wire, in two parts
Julie 26 x 16 x 19.5 cm (10 1/4 x 6 1/4 x 7 5/8 in.)
Andrew 28.5 x 18 x 22 cm (11 1/4 x 7 1/8 x 8 5/8 in.)

£1,500,000 - 2,500,000 

Sold for £1,762,500

Contact Specialist
Peter Sumner
Head of Contemporary Art, London
[email protected]
+44 207 318 4063

Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London 29 June 2015 7pm