Clown Torture

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Bruce Nauman
American, born 1941

Clown Torture, 1987

Four channel video, sound (two projections, four monitors): 60 min. loop
Tape I/Reel A: "Clown Taking a Shit" (color and sound – 60 minutes)

Tape II/Reel B: "Clown With a Goldfish," "Clown With Water Bucket"
Reel C: "Pete and Repeat"
Reel D: "No, No, No, No (Walter)" (color and sound – 60 minutes)

Tape III
Reel C: "Pete and Repeat"
Reel D: "No, No, No, No (Walter)"
Reel B: "Clown With Goldfish," "Clown With Water Bucket" (color and sound – 60 minutes)

Tape IV
Reel D: "No, No, No, No (Walter)"
Reel B: “"Clown With a Goldfish," "Clown With Water Bucket"
Reel C: "Pete and Repeat" (color and sound – 60 minutes)
Watson F. Blair Prize, Wilson L. Mead and Twentieth-Century Purchase funds; through prior gift of Joseph Winterbotham; gift of Lannan Foundation, 1997.162

© 2014 Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Bruce Nauman’s wildly influential work explores the poetics of confusion, anxiety, boredom, entrapment, and failure. Although Nauman is a prolific artist who has worked in a wide range of media, video has played a pivotal role in his artistic development. Many of his most important early works grew out of his involvement with experimental film and video in the 1960s. After 1973, however, these media became conspicuously absent from his work. Nauman returned to video in 1985 with renewed enthusiasm. Clown Torture, one of the artist’s most spectacular achievements to date, marked a major new direction and prefigured his recent, more complex environments involving monitors, projections, and other sculptural elements.

Installed in an enclosed, darkened space, Clown Torture consists of two rectangular pedestals, each supporting two pairs of stacked color monitors (one turned upside down, one turned on its side); two large, color-video projections on facing walls; and sound from all six video displays. The monitors play four narrative sequences in perpetual loops, each chronicling an absurd misadventure of a clown, who is played to brilliant effect by the actor Walter Stevens. According to the artist, distinctions may be made among the clown protagonists; one is the “Emmett Kelly dumb clown; one is the old French Baroque clown; one is a sort of traditional polka-dot, red-haired, oversized show clown; and one is a jester.” In “No, No, No, No (Walter),” the clown incessantly screams “No!” while jumping, kicking, or lying down; in “Clown with Goldfish,” he struggles to balance a fish bowl on the ceiling with the handle of a broom; in “Clown with Water Bucket,” he repeatedly opens a door that is booby-trapped with a bucket of water, which falls on his head; and finally, in “Pete and Repeat,” he succumbs to the terror of a seemingly inescapable nursery rhyme: “Pete and Repeat are sitting on a fence. Pete falls off. Who’s left? Repeat.” Of his work, Nauman has said, “From the beginning I was trying to see if I could make art that . . . was just there all at once. Like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat. Or better, like getting hit in the back of the head. You never see it coming; it just knocks you down. . . . The kind of intensity that doesn’t give you any trace of whether you’re going to like it or not.” Clown Torture functions in very much this way: as an assault on viewers’ aural and visual perception. One of Nauman’s most spectacular achievements in video installation, it marked a major new direction and prefigured his recent, more complex environments involving monitors, projections, and other sculptural elements.

— Entry, Film, Video, New Media, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 35 (1), pp. 18–21.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, "Richard Artschwager, Bruce Nauman, Frank Stella," May 16–June 6, 1987 (ill.).

Los Angeles, Museum of Contemporary Art, "Bruce Nauman: Drawings," organized by the Kunstmuseum, Basel, February 9–April 11, 1988.

Madrid, shown by Donald Young Gallery at ARCO, February 1989.

New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, "Image World," November 8, 1989–February 18, 1990, p. 164 (ill.).

Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, 'Enerigeen," April 8–July 29, 1990, pp. 58–65 (ill.).

Basel, Switzerland, Museum für Gegenwartskunst, "Bruce Nauman: Sculptures and Installations 1985–1990," ed. Jörg Zutter, text by Franz Mayer and Jörg Zutter, September 23–December 10, 1990; traveled to Frankfurt, Städtische Galerie im Städelschen Kunstinstitut, May 30–August 25, 1991; Lausanne, Switzerland, Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, October 5, 1991–January 5, 1992, cat. 6 (cover ill).

Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, "Bruce Nauman," November 30, 1993–February 21, 1994; traveled to Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, cat. general ed., Joan Simon, April 10–June 19, 1994, pl. 59, fig. 365; Los Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art, July 17–September 25, 1994; Washington D.C., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, November 3, 1994–January 29, 1995; New York, The Museum of Modern Art, March 1–May 23, 1995; Zurich, Kunsthaus, July 13–October 8, 1995, cat. 59 (color ill.).

Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, "Being & Time: The Emergence of Video Projection," September 21–December 1, 1996, cat. organized by Marc Mayer; traveled to Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Cranbrook Art Museum, January 24–March 29, 1997; Portland, Oregon, Portland Art Museum, May 24–July 27, 1997; Houston, Texas, Contemporary Arts Museum, August 16–October 5, 1997; Santa Fe, New Mexico, SITE Santa Fe, November 1, 1997–January 25, 1998, pp. 50–55 (ill.).

London, Hayward Gallery, "Bruce Nauman," organized by the Centre Georges Pompidou, cat. by Christine van Assche, trans. Charles Penwarden, July 16–September 6, 1998, pp. 63, 114–5, 130 (color ill.).

Bonn, Germany, Bonner Kunstverein am August-Macke-Platz, "Rewind to the Future," November- 30, 1999–January 30, 2000.

Normal, Illinois State University Galleries, "2000 Clowns," June 10-–September 10, 2000, no cat.

Germany, Deutsche Guggenheim, "Bruce Nauman: Theaters of Experience," trans. Philipp Angermeyer et al., October 31, 2003–January 18, 2004, p. 17 (color ill.).

Rio de Janeiro, Centro Cultural do Banco do Brasil, "Closed Circuit: Bruce Nauman’s Films and Vídeos, 1967–2002," curated by Nessia Leonzini and Lilian Tone, July 11–September 18, 2005.

Dublin, Ireland, Royal Hibernian Academy, "I, Not I: Samuel Beckett, Philip Guston, Bruce Nauman," cat. intro by Patrick T. Murphy, March 14-–May 1, 2006, p. 25 (color ill.).

Mississauga, the Blackwood Gallery at the University of Toronto, "18: Beckett," essays by Terry Eagleton and Séamus Kealy, November 9-–December 21, 2006, cat. 5; traveled to the Walter Phillips Gallery at the Banff Centre for the Arts, March 31–May 27, 2007.

Montréal, Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, "Elusive Signs: Bruce Nauman Works with Light," May 25–September 3, 2007, fig. 57.

Publication History

Kim Bradley, “Bruce Nauman: the Private and the Public,” Artspace 11, 3 (Summer 1987), pp. 62-–63.

Brooks Adams, “The Nauman Phenomenon,” Art and Auction 13, 5 (New York: December 1990), pp. 118–25 (no. ill.).

Christop Schenker, “Bruce Nauman: Tears of a Clown,” Flash Art 158, trans. Henry Martin (May–June 1991), p. 126.

Peter Schjeldahl, “The Trouble with Nauman,” Art in America 82, 4 (April 1994), pp. 82–90, cover (ill.).

Suzanne Muchnic, “Los Angeles: Bruce Nauman, Museum of Contemporary Art,” ARTnews 93 (October 1994), pp. 192–3 (ill.).

Kathryn Hixson, “Fear of Games/Games of Fear: Nauman: Good and Bad,” The New Art Examiner 22 (December 1994), pp. 32–5 (ill.).

Leo Castelli and Susan Brundage, Bruce Nauman: 25 Years Leo Castelli (New York: Rizzoli, 1994) (ill.).

Peter Plagens and Lane Relyea, “Head Trips,” Artforum 33, 8 (April 1995), pp. 62–9 (ill.).

Hilton Kramer, “No Clowning Around,” Arts & Antiques 18 (May 1995), pp. 105–6 (ill.).

Isabelle Graw, “Just Being Doesn’t Amount to Anything (Some Themes in Bruce Nauman’s Work),” October 74 (Fall 1995), p. 135.

Joan Simon, “Breaking the Silence: An Interview with Bruce Nauman,” Art in America 76.9 (September 1998), pp. 140-–49, 203.

Jeremy Strick, “Fixed and Visible: Lannan Foundation and The Art Institute of Chicago,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 25, 1 (1999), p. 6

James E. Rondeau, “Highlights of the Lannan Collection,” The Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 25, 1 (1999), pp. 62–63, 93, 101 (color ill.).

Stephanie Skestos, “Checklist of the Lannan Collection,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 25, 1 (1999), cat. 46.

Coosje van Bruggen, “An interview with Bruce Nauman,” Energies, exh. cat. (Stedelijk Museum, 1999), pp. 58–65 (ill.).

Jenny Southlynn, “The Great Colorful Other,” The Octopus (June 9–15, 2000) p.16.

Dan Craft, “2000 Clowns,” The Pantagraph (June 22, 2000), pp. 12-–13.

Johanna Drucker, “Procedures Performed and Executed,” in Bruce Nauman: Make Me Think, ed. Laurence Sillars (Tate Liverpool, 2006), p. 40 (ill.).

“Film, Video, New Media at the Art Institute of Chicago: with the Donna and Howard Stone Gift.” The Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies. 35, 1 (2009), pp.18-21.

General References:

Catherine Russell, “The Figure in the Monitor: Beckett, Lacan, and Video,” Cinema Journal 28, 4 (Summer 1989), pp. 20–37.

Joseph Simas, “Letter from Belgium & France,” Arts Magazine 64 (November 1989), pp. 113–4.

Jörg Zutter, “Alienation of the Self, Command of the Other: In the work of Bruce Nauman,” Parkett 27, trans. David Britt (1991) pp. 157–58 (fig.).

John Miller, “Three Statements on the Recent Reception of Bruce Nauman,” October 74 (Fall 1995), pp. 123–28.

Coosje van Bruggen, Bruce Nauman (New York: Rizzoli, 1998), pp. 24, 102 (ill.).

Bruce Nauman, Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words; Writings and Interviews, ed. Janet Kraynak (MIT Press: 2002), pp. 335–38, 374.

Ownership History

Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, by 1987. Donald Young Gallery, Chicago, by 1988. Private Collection, Madrid, by 1989. Sold, Donald Young Gallery, to Lannan Foundation, Los Angeles, 1990; fractionally sold and given to the Art Institute, 1997.