Some people say that Bruce Nauman is the most influential American artist since Andy Warhol, but when Nauman arrived at art school way back in 1964, he had almost no idea where he was headed. Fresh from being a math and science student back in Wisconsin, the tall, laconic young Nauman painted the most mundane of subjects: landscapes. "I thought art was just something I'd learn how to do, and then I would just do it," he says. He'd landed almost by chance at the University of California, Davis, home to the most rebellious, irreverent artist-teachers around. (One of them, ceramist Robert Arneson, would have his officially commissioned monument to assassinated San Francisco Mayor George Moscone rejected in 1981 because it depicted the Twinkies from the assassin's "Twinkies defense" right there on its pedestal.) The faculty gave Nauman an empty room in a temporary building and told him simply to go to work. "I knew then," he says, "that I'd have to start out every day and figure out what art was going to be."
From then on, with each and every work he's made, Nauman has started back at square one, as if neither he nor anyone else had created any previous art to refer to. One time he cast a part of a female body, from fingertip up the arm to the lips, and called the resulting wall sculpture From Hand to Mouth (1967). Another time, he made Green Light Corridor (1971): two high free-standing walls, illuminated from above with bilious fluorescent light, and placed less than two feet apart to test viewers' tolerance of claustrophobia. (Back in the day, Nauman's corridor was impossible to transport in one piece. So a collector instead paid about $10,000 for a license to rebuild it—at his own expense.) On big public projects, such as filling the enormous Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern museum in London in 2004, he's used sound, including a menacing recorded voice saying, "Get out of this room, get out of my mind." For the Venice Biennale, where Nauman, 67, is the official U.S. representative this year, he has wrapped the top of the modest, banklike American pavilion with words such as lust and prudence, denoting various vices and virtues blinking on and off in a rainbow frieze of neon.
Today, there's hardly a tyro's installation or video or ad hoc sculpture that can't be traced back to something Nauman made in the 1960s or '70s. What separates Nauman from his hundreds of imitators is his deep-down, plain old hand-to-paper artistic talent, which shows up in one form or another in most everything he does. Nauman draws constantly, from loose diagrams through precise linear renderings to big, expressionist architectural fantasies. But he probably could not have become this influential if he hadn't entered the art world from left field and always remained a bit of an outsider. When he moved from the Bay Area to L.A.'s bigger, more energetic art world in 1969, he set up shop not down by Venice Beach, where all the boho--glamorous "L.A. look" artists were, but in the relative backwater of Pasadena. Still, he was given a retrospective at the L.A. County Museum of Art at age 31—where his father, an engineer, said to him, "You know, you ought to have labels that explain what these things are all about." Then, after he'd become an international art star by showing with such hot galleries as Leo Castelli in New York and Konrad Fischer in Germany, he opted not for Manhattan but New Mexico. "My feeling was I would not go to another city—there was no point in Seattle or Houston or Dallas or something like that," he said once. "And so we decided to come here."
Nowadays, Nauman lives with his wife, the painter Susan Rothenberg, on a working horse ranch 25 miles outside Santa Fe, in Galisteo. ("I've got to go out and feed this old mule," he says one day before leaving for the Biennale, his black cowboy hat propped on his head. "She only has a few teeth left, so I have to keep her in a special pen where the horses won't come and eat the feed.") Nauman's love of private time in the studio—which is frequently burdened with artist's block caused by trying to redefine art, ex nihilo, every day—prompted him to lay down some conditions concerning his participation in Venice. (It's been rumored with every Biennale over the last 10 that Nauman has turned down the invitation.) First, he told the American curators that he wasn't going to fill the pavilion with a slew of new art. Second, he said that the major new work he'd do had to be another chance-taking piece, installed outside the cluster of pavilions in the Giardini, to which the official national artists usually confine themselves. He wants to reach out into the city of Venice and capture an audience beyond the black-clad, Ermenegildo Zegna–suited tribes who usually show up in droves for the Biennale—though given the state of the economy, they'll likely be fewer in number this year (or at least dressed down a little).
So the U.S. Pavilion will feature the Vices and Virtues neon, plus an austere "themed retrospective" of just 15 key pieces from 40 years of Nauman's art. But the work that will have everybody talking—or, rather, listening—will be a sound piece of as yet undisclosed content. Installed in two versions (Italian and English) in two Venetian universities (the economics-intense Università Ca' Foscari and that incubator of ultramodern architecture and design, the Università Iuav di Venezia a Tolentini), both will consist of a series of flat-panel speakers suspended in midair along both sides of capacious academic rooms. The soundtrack is being kept a secret until the speakers are switched on for opening day, but we do know it is about Nauman being alone in his studio trying to figure out—you guessed it—what to do next.