IF THERE WERE EVER AN EXHIBITION TO provoke a museum guards' strike, the Bruce Nauman retrospective at Minneapolis's Walker Art Center is it. Day after day (through June 19), those laconic, uniformed heroes, without whom no museum could display its art, will not only have to field more questions than usual from a puzzled public, but they'll have to bear up under the dissonant din of Nauman's vid-eo installations. Into one ear will come the shouts of ""No! No! No!'' from ""Clown Torture'' (1987), while into the other will ricochet the racket of ""Learned Helplessness in Rats (Rock and Roll Drummer)'' (1988). Guards could turn in their badges like Kojak being taken off a case.
The casual visitor should have an easier time of it -- only partly because two hours of modernist cacophony is endurable. The real amenity of Nauman's show (which will travel to Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York) is that it's an excellent survey of perhaps the most influential American in the international art world today. (Nauman won the $100,000 Wolf Prize for sculpture, awarded in Israel, in 1993 and is this year's Wexner Prize recipient.) Europeans in particular take to Nauman's aw-shucks Duchampism like vacationing arbitrageurs to their inner child. Nauman is enigmatically conceptual enough to tantalize the critics, but he's also facile enough to seduce big-time collectors like Count Panza and Eli Broad.Underlying all of Nauman's work is a fluency in drawing -- a ""wrist'' -- that renders his art surprisingly kind to the eye. The touch is in everything he does. It's there in his mid-1960s ""anti-form'' fiberglass sculptures and austere videotapes of him seeing how many positions he can assume with his own body and a fluorescent light fixture. And it's still around in the recent animal-cast sculptures like ""Carousel'' (1988) and the super slo-mo video disc ""Poke in the Eye/Nose/Ear'' (1994).
That doesn't mean Nauman, 52, is an easy artist to figure out. The Ft. Wayne, Ind., son of an engineer, Nauman attended the University of Wisconsin as a swimmer and science student. After being soundly beaten in several races, and discovering that using calipers and a calculator for nose-volume-measuring contests in the dorm was more interesting than physics, he switched to art. Nauman pursued graduate study with Bay Area funksters William Wiley and Robert Arneson at the University of California, Davis. The school gave him a studio cubicle and said, in effect, stay in it, kid, and make some art. With logic straight from Ockham's razor -- the philosophical rule that says limit your premises to what's absolutely necessary -- Nauman made art about hanging out in the studio figuring out what to make art about. His early work includes the wax cast of a roped torso called ""Henry Moore Bound to Fail'' (1967) and the videotape of a silly ""Slow Angle Walk'' (1968) that presaged John Cleese's fictitious minister by two years.
The '80s Nauman proceeded with the guileless imagination of a boy playing pirate on an orange-crate frigate. According to Walker director Kathy Halbreich, the wistful 1983 sculpture ""Musical Chairs: Studio Version'' -- an aluminum circle, wooden beams and three tilting chairs suspended from the ceiling -- was concocted out of refuse Nauman scavenged while wandering around Cologne to come up with something for a gallery show. Coming up with something is what Nauman does best. He takes Jasper Johns's famous dictum -- ""Take an object, do something to it, do something else to it'' -- one Nike step further: he just does it. If the work turns out to be spookily interesting (like the 1968 audiotape ""Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room,'' which growls through speakers hidden in walls) or just fun to look at (like the untitled 1967 sculpture of two crossed arms topped by an anthropomorphic knotted rope), fine. If not, Nauman goes on to something else.
These days, Nauman lives on a Galisteo, N.M., ranch with his wife, the painter Susan Rothenberg. Flintier and wiser than the kid who once photographed himself spitting out water and called it ""Self-Portrait as a Fountain,'' he's now into horse training. That seems about as far from a power position in the art world as one could get. But Nauman has always done things his own way, and relied on the good-natured conundrums in his objects to win people over. It's always worked with collectors and critics. Maybe it'll carry the day with security guards, too.