A Rose Has Bite

5.1 / Half-Century

A Rose Has Bite

By Leigh Markopoulos September 11, 2013

Intelligent exhibition making begins with observation.

The exhibition as a medium for the presentation and consumption of art, and the question, “What makes a great exhibition?” have increasingly come under examination in recent years. An exhibition is a fleeting and ephemeral construct, residing more in time and space than in material documentation. The title often reveals very little. The catalog presents scholarship that illuminates the exhibition’s argument, as well as its content, but not its form or reception. Press coverage addresses the latter, but is for the most part relatively brief, subjective, and, as will be shown, not always entirely accurate. The curator and the institution preside over the exhibition archives, which comprise research materials and organizational files as well as documentation of the installation. But the experience of actually standing among the works and the tenor of the conversations provoked by this experience have, for the most part, evanesced, even when the exhibition in question took place as recently as six years ago. All of which is to say that coming to grips with A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s at the University of California Berkeley Art Museum (BAM/PFA), organized by the museum’s then senior curator Constance Lewallen in 2007, is no less fascinating and complex a task than that posed by reconstituting earlier exhibitions.

Nauman needs no introduction as an artist. His seminal role in contemporary art is undisputed; his contribution is recognized as much by artists and institutions as critics and collectors and is increasingly admired by the public. His career, which began before he had finished his graduate degree, encompasses countless exhibitions, monographs, and awards. As with many artists, the seeds of his particular inquiry were sown at an early stage, but prior to A Rose Has No Teeth, the fact that they were nourished by the fertile ground of Northern California—specifically at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) during his graduate education and in San Francisco immediately thereafter—received little attention. It must be heartening for aspiring art historians and curators that this five-year period of Nauman’s output, between 1964 and 1969, first came under sustained scrutiny more than forty years into his career and after much scholarship and numerous exhibitions, including a number of retrospectives (the first in 1972 and the most recent in 2003).

Intelligent exhibition making begins with observation, whether of art works that seem to evince a shared sensibility, for example, or with specialized knowledge, and it is enhanced by opportunity or privileged access. Lewallen’s exhibition mobilized the resources she had at hand, including a deep familiarity with Bay Area art history. By conducting extensive research in local archives and institutions over a three-year period, she amassed substantial written and oral documentation, the latter from numerous interviews with “Nauman’s teachers at UC Davis, fellow students, artist friends, and his students at the San Francisco Art Institute, as well as with several of the artists who became the core of the Conceptual movement in the Bay Area.”1 Her findings corroborated the understanding that Nauman established his artistic vocabulary during his early years in Northern California. Lewallen went further in distinguishing here (that is, Northern California) from there (anywhere else) by identifying a particular set of people, resources, and parameters for art making. Accordingly, her stated objective for both the exhibition and catalog was to “examine how Bruce Nauman’s time in Northern California during the late 1960s formed him as an artist and how it might have affected the art of the region.”2 In this way, Nauman’s early development was surveyed from a regional perspective, which doesn’t make the claim that Nauman’s art is in some way particularly Californian, as many understood the exhibition to assert. Instead, Lewallen emphasized that his formative years were molded by a series of encounters and experiences that irrefutably took place here.

Bruce Nauman. Cup Merging with its Saucer, 1965; unglazed ceramic and graphite; 2 x 5.5 x 6 in. Courtesy of the UC Davis Nelson Art Gallery.

The impulse for these events was more than coincidental; Nauman himself has confirmed that his move from Wisconsin at the age of twenty-two was initially prompted by his interest in the work of the Bay Area painters Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff. What ultimately impacted his development, though, were encounters with UC Davis faculty, including William T. Wiley and Robert Arneson, and fellow students such as David Gilhooly and Stephen J. Kaltenbach. Perhaps the thought of working in relative isolation added to the appeal of the school. As Lynne Cooke notes in her review of A Rose Has No Teeth, “In the mid-1960s, the youthful faculty at UC Davis created a relaxed environment largely indifferent to the mainstream East Coast art world, [and] such tolerant obliquity proved stimulating for Nauman who has consistently preferred to challenge the center from the periphery.”3 

The exhibition took its name from a 1966 lead plaque bearing the legend “A Rose Has No Teeth,” a work that Lewallen perceived as emblematic of many strands of Nauman’s inquiry. The phrase derives directly from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations; its use illuminates Nauman’s interest in the German philosopher’s language theory. The plaque was intended to be mounted on a tree and to eventually be assimilated into its bark and trunk as the tree grew, a Romantic riposte to traditional outdoor sculpture’s attempts to improve upon nature.

On view in all three iterations of the exhibition were sculptures in a dazzling variety of media from plaster to neon, newly digitized film and video works, drawings (many of them sketches, others works in their own right), photographs, and artist books (including PICTURES OF SCULPTURE IN A ROOM, 1965–66, an early exemplar of the contemporary artist’s book, whose origin is largely credited to Ed Ruscha with the publication of Twentysix Gasoline Stations [sic] in 1963).4 Some of the one hundred twenty or so works presented in the exhibition were unearthed in local collections and displayed publicly for the first time, including Cup merging with its saucer (1965). Others were key works that hadn’t previously been recognized as products of Nauman’s graduate-school experience. All the included objects reflected the artist’s innovative understanding of studio practice, and collectively they signaled his prodigious intellect and output.

Bruce Nauman. A Rose Has No Teeth (Lead Tree Plaque), 1966; lead plaque; 7.5 x 8 x 2.25 in.

One could further construe from the exhibition that although Nauman’s formal and linguistic vocabularies were highly personal, and acknowledged as such by his immediate peers, they resonated with a broader swath of postminimalist or anti-form tendencies manifest in the works of such New York–based artists as Eva Hesse, Richard Tuttle, and Richard Serra.5 That Nauman’s work additionally evinced the specific circumstances of its making was perhaps less immediately evident to the uninitiated. Art production at UC Davis was dominated at the time by the ceramics department, which was led by Arneson. Nauman’s early experimentation with the medium under Arneson’s tutelage, coupled with his growing disenchantment with painting, led him increasingly towards sculpture. For example, the slant step, a curious readymade that Nauman acquired in Mill Valley, California, inspired a key sculpture and drawings and generated a significant level of interest among other students and faculty.

The objects included in the exhibition represent but do not articulate these histories. That interpretive work was undertaken by the exhibition materials and the catalog in which a persuasive essay by Lewallen details Nauman’s progress through the highly productive milieu of UC Davis and his emergence in the less inspiring San Francisco scene while surveying his artistic production along the way. Other texts more closely analyze his production in sculpture (Anne M. Wagner), drawings (Robert Storr), and film and video (Robert R. Riley). Nauman’s work is thus considered through the interplay of numerous forces and firmly positioned in a particular place and time.

In her review, Cooke describes how the museum’s “labyrinthine structure of intersecting concrete balconies,” informs the exhibition’s installation, which “unfolded in a series of adroit feints and sly challenges, quirky juxtapositions and provoking teases…[f]aithful to the mercurial spirit of Nauman’s eccentric practice at this critical moment.”6 (An interesting aside: BAM/PFA, which was founded in 1963, announced an architectural competition in November 1964 to design its new building. The San Francisco–based architect Mario Ciampi, along with his associates Richard L. Jorasch and Ronald E. Wagner, was selected in 1965. Construction began two years later, in 1967, and the museum opened on November 7, 1970. The exhibition thus took place in an institution that came of age at the same time and in a similar environment to Nauman himself. The coincidence seems fitting.)

Reviewers other than Cooke proved less sensitive and less thorough in their assessment of the exhibition, despite predominantly positive evaluations. They seemed to misunderstand the thrust of Lewallen’s argument as regional boosterism. While neither Nauman nor the works in the exhibition came under fire, apart from the occasional notation of one or two key pieces as missing, Lewallen’s argument was often dismissed or misrepresented.7 Yasmine van Pee, writing in Modern Painters, cites the museum’s promotion of the exhibition as “the first ever to focus on the years Nauman lived in the San Francisco Bay Area” as misleading, reasoning that Nauman began to “cut his ties to the Bay Area in 1968.”8 Quite how this gainsays the advertised focus of the exhibition is unclear, although one could take issue with the subtitle, Bruce Nauman in the 1960s, if one thought it particularly productive. Van Pee also castigates the “limited itinerary” of the exhibition tour, ascribing this to some sort of anti-regional snobbery instead of recognizing the significance of the other two venues and the fact that it was a coup for the museum to secure loans for fragile works for even three venues. Any tour lasting longer than a year would have been impossible on conservation grounds alone. Pamela M. Lee’s review for Artforum champions a rather literal understanding of site-specificity despite ample evidence, including Nauman’s own words, that his artistic production at the time drew on the advantages (that is, UC Davis community) as much as the limitations (its isolation) of the Bay Area.9 Lee also seemingly misinterprets the claims of the exhibition to examine primarily the conditions of Nauman’s early output and secondarily the influence of this output on the local art scene, additionally criticizing the lack of “explicit information throughout the galleries that might elaborate upon his art’s ‘California-ness.’”10 Her proposed remedy is the inclusion of works by Nauman’s peers and contemporaries, which in itself might also not so much prove California-ness as more literally chart cross-pollinations.

Did Nauman influence the local art scene? Undoubtedly.

Conversely, none of the reviews that I have read addressed what seemed to be the exhibition’s potential vulnerability, namely Lewallen’s claim to examine Nauman’s reciprocal effect on the art of the region. Did Nauman influence the local art scene? Undoubtedly. In her catalog essay, Lewallen underscores the fact that collaborations and conversations with Nauman were instrumental in the work of many, from Wiley to William Allan. Her interview subjects reveal that proponents of the upcoming Bay Area Conceptualism movement saw and were impacted by Nauman’s 1969 solo show at Reese Palley Gallery in San Francisco.11 To what extent this influence is quantifiable and incontrovertibly demonstrable in work stemming from that time, or thereafter, remains indeterminate.

Also of interest is the lack of discussion around the notion of a scholarly survey focusing almost exclusively on an established artist’s student production, particularly as the art market’s voracious consumption of barely graduated artists in the 2000s was heavily critiqued in the art press as damaging to artists. Although some of Nauman’s seminal works were made and almost all the groundwork for his career-long explorations was laid during this period, his career trajectory offers proof that the market was operating characteristically. His first solo show, at Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles (from May 10 to June 2, 1966), opened about a month before he graduated. As a direct result, the artist was offered his first New York solo presentation by Leo Castelli Gallery in 1968.12 A studio visit with the German curator Kaspar Koenig in 1965 or ’66 eventually led to an exhibition at Konrad Fischer Gallery in Düsseldorf in 1968.

In fact, Nauman was showing widely by the mid-’60s (as recounted in the catalog’s excellent chronology). He was notably included in Lucy Lippard’s Eccentric Abstraction show at Fischbach Gallery, New York, in 1966 and in Nine at Castelli organized by Robert Morris in 1968. Both exhibitions surveyed contemporary sculpture and are acknowledged as among the first to identify then-prevalent anti-form or postminimalist tendencies; Nauman’s inclusion underscores the point that these trends did not develop exclusively in New York.

Working at the perceived periphery was evidently not an impediment to Nauman’s success. It could, however, be lonely. His transition from UC Davis’s convivial, laboratory environment to the professional rivalry of San Francisco was difficult, if initially productive. Forced to examine himself, and “what I was doing there,” Nauman quite literally turned to himself—his body and his Mission storefront studio—for inspiration. Lewallen notes that the consequent shift that took place in his work “was marked by a tendency toward conceptual and process oriented works and away from his ‘form-based’ pieces.”13 His first body casts, films of simple actions, and neon sculptures date from this time. Regrettably, he felt there were few people with whom he could share these investigations, Wiley and Jim Melchert being notable exceptions. In a 1970 interview with Willoughby Sharp for Arts Magazine, Nauman confided, “I had no support structure for my art then…there was no chance to talk about my work.”14 Nauman’s alienation was exacerbated by a set of circumstances peculiar to the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) where he taught part-time. According to Lewallen, the “ultra-romantic ethos of the artist that Clyfford Still had propagated at the Art Institute when he taught there in the 1940s” deeply bothered Nauman who felt it had become “distorted and overcodified.”15 He perceived the effects of this distortion in the “anti-intellectualism and distrust of success” that characterized his fellow faculty, and he mentioned as oppressive the “the frustration and anger used on hating New York and Los Angeles…the incredible paranoia among most of the people I knew.”16 Nauman’s obliquity had become unsustainable isolation. A residency in upstate New York in 1968 provided perspective, and the opportunity to live in Los Angeles led him to relocate to that city in 1969.

Despite his fairly damning indictment, it manages to valorize the liberties extended by the fringe

The exhibition, then, makes no false claims about Nauman’s overall experience in the Bay Area. And yet, despite his fairly damning indictment, it manages to valorize the liberties extended by the fringe and, through the lens of this particular artist, to reawaken interest in the practitioners and art scene of the time. While the Bay Area, along with many other cities of note, has not been recognized as a preeminent center for artistic activity, it does seem clear that, away from the spotlights of New York and Los Angeles, a number of important and influential cultural activities have taken place here over the years. Even if the nonprofit art scene had yet to bloom during Nauman’s San Francisco residency, the region was animated by the influence and legacy of a number of movements and individuals: Bay Area Figuration (Richard Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud, Manuel Neri); Beat artists and poets (Allen Ginsberg, Wallace Berman); Jess and the King Ubu/Six Gallery scene; Funk Art (Robert Arneson, Peter Voulkos, Viola Frey); Bay Area Conceptualism (Bruce Conner, Paul Kos, Howard Fried); avant-garde performance (Anna Halprin and the San Francisco Dancers’ Worshop, Trisha Brown, San Francisco Tape Music Center), and experimental filmmaking (Cinematheque, Bruce Baillie). This activity did not go unnoticed elsewhere. For example, the Stedelijk curator Wim Beeren and the Berne Kunsthalle curator Harald Szeemann included works by Walter de Maria (a Bay Area native and 1959 UC Berkeley graduate, who had relocated to NY in 1960); Michael Heizer (a Bay Area native and 1964 SFAI graduate, who had relocated to NYC in 1966); Richard Serra (born in San Francisco in 1939 and indelibly influenced by his father’s profession and his own stint as a local shipyard worker); Stephen Kaltenbach; Wiley; and Nauman in their seminal 1969 surveys, Beeren’s Op Losse Schroeven and Szeemann’s When Attitudes Become Form.17

Bruce Nauman in his San Francisco studio, c. 1966 with The True Artist is an Amazing Luminous Fountain (Window or Wall Shade), 1966.

A number of artists who have spent time in the Bay Area have ultimately succeeded spectacularly elsewhere. Could this therefore be an argument in favor of the productive isolation of our environment? Could we see the Bay Area as an incubator for experimentation and ideas that, once developed here, can flourish elsewhere? It seems clear that SFAI and UC Davis each formed a key nexus for art discourse during Nauman’s tenure in the region. Is it fair to say that the art schools still dominate art discourse locally and provide more opportunity for conversation than local museums? It also seems clear that many local artists were engaged in broader conversations and were influential beyond their immediate environment. Has this local art history been thoroughly analyzed? Is its relative invisibility at a more international level perceived as a failure rather than an opportunity for regional exhibition making? Or can A Rose Has No Teeth be credited with inspiring a spate of local exhibitions with wider ramifications, such as In A Radical Light, God Only Knows Who the Audience Is, and the recent Jay DeFeo retrospective?18 If we accept that Nauman is a great artist and that his time in the Bay Area influenced him, and if we allow that the exhibition supports this point of view, then why not use this understanding as a starting point for the further excavation of our local art histories? These are some of the questions productively raised by Lewallen’s exhibition and indeed by her curatorial focus, which has for the past twenty years centered on artists working in the Bay Area, from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (in 2001) to Ant Farm and Paul Kos (both in 2003) and most recently to the traveling show State of Mind (from 2010 through 2013). 

In his catalog essay for a 1980 exhibition of Jan Dibbets’s photographic work, Rudi Fuchs discusses the difference between the vernacular and the provincial:

Vernacular art is not an easy, comfortable withdrawal into the provincial. (Provincial art is always uninformed, and because of that confines itself to local anecdotes….) Vernacular art is something else completely. It draws from the very spirit of a culture; it is at the center of the culture and at the same time in sovereign command of it. It is open to all sides; it carries the culture from which it sprang instead of exploiting it, as provincial art does.19

According to these criteria, Nauman could productively be understood as a vernacular artist, and A Rose Has No Teeth as the very best sort of vernacular exhibition.

Download Willoughby Sharp, “Interview with Bruce Nauman," Avalanche. (Winter 1971).


  1. Constance M. Lewallen, “A Rose Has No Teeth,” in A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 1. Exhibition catalog.
  2. Lewallen, 1.
  3. Lynne Cooke, “Bruce Nauman: Berkeley, Turin and Houston,” Burlington Magazine 149, no. 1250 (May 2007): 357–58.
  4. The exhibition traveled additionally to the Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Turin, Italy (May 23–September 9, 2007) and the Menil Collection, Houston (October 25, 2007–January 13, 2008).
  5. On page 15 of the catalog, for example, fellow students are cited as referring to Nauman as “eccentric,” “wildly original,” and less generously as “aesthetically challenged.”
  6. Cooke, 357–58.
  7. Lewallen confirmed that a number of key works, such as Composite Photo of Two Messes on the Studio Floor (1967) in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, were refused on grounds of fragility or unavailability. In conversation with the author, May 16, 2013.
  8. Yasmine van Pee, “A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s,” Modern Painters, May 2007, 97–8.
  9. Pamela M. Lee, “A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s,” Artforum 45, no. 8 (April 2007), 266–67.
  10. Lee., 266–67.
  11. Lewallen, 94. Nauman’s Los Angeles exhibition had been seen by David Whitney (who worked at the time for Leo Castelli) and the New York dealer Richard Bellamy; both tipped off Castelli, leading to an exhibition at his gallery early in 1968 and subsequent representation.
  12. Lewallen, 94.
  13. Lewallen, 45.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Lewallen, 108.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Interestingly it was Nauman himself who in a 1968 letter to Szeemann alerted the curator to the work of Paul Cotton (at the time undertaking an MFA at Berkeley), Jim Melchert, and William Wiley (as well as William Allen and Bob Kinmont, who along with Melchert were not selected for the exhibition). The letter, which is on view as part of the restaged When Attitudes Become Form at the Fondazione Prada, Venice, demonstrates Nauman’s influence on the careers of Bay Area artists, if not necessarily their work.
  18. In a Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945–2000, UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2010. God Only Knows Who The Audience Is, California College of the Arts, Wattis Institute of Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, 2010. (Full disclosure: This exhibition was organized by students of the Graduate Program in Curatorial Practice, which I chair at California College of the Arts, San Francisco.) Jay DeFeo: A Retrospective, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2012–13, and traveling.
  19. R. H. Fuchs, “An Exertion of Mind,” Jan Dibbets (Eindhoven: Van Abbemuseum, 1980), n.p. Exhibition catalog.

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