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Bruce Nauman: Clown Torture

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Clown Torture chronicles the absurd misadventures of four clowns, each played by actor Walter Stevens. Artist Bruce Nauman described the protagonists as ranging from an “old French Baroque clown” to a “traditional … red-haired, oversized shoe clown.” The result is utter cacophony, an aural and visual assault. With both clown and viewer locked in an endless loop of failure and degradation, the humor soon turns to horror.

A blurry photograph of a clown with a long red wig, red nose, striped suit, and oversized shoes. It sits leaning back facing the viewer, feet raised, hands up and mouth open in an angry scream.

Still from Clown Torture, 1987


Bruce Nauman. Watson F. Blair Prize, Wilson L. Mead, and Twentieth-Century Purchase funds; through prior gift of Joseph Winterbotham; gift of Lannan Foundation. © 2024 Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Of his work in general, 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. I like that … the kind of intensity that doesn’t give you any trace of whether you’re going to like it or not.” Experimenting with film and video, printmaking, and sculpture, the artist has explored anxiety, boredom, confusion, entrapment, and failure since the beginning of his career.

Nauman created Clown Torture after returning to video in the 1980s following a 10-year break. 

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