American sculptor, photographer and performance artist working with video. He studied mathematics and later art with Italo Scanga (b 1932) at the University of Wisconsin (1960–64). At the University of California at Davis (1965–6) his teachers included William T. Wiley (b 1937) and Robert Arneson (b 1930). Upon graduation (MFA, 1966) he exhibited enigmatic, fibreglass sculpture. Nauman himself was already the subject of his art. Although he was a formidable draughtsman, Nauman’s neon works, films, videotapes, performances, installations, sculpted body parts and word plays at first seemed frustratingly art-less. His was an art of exploration: he used himself, his person and his witty brand of inquiry to examine the parameters of art and the role of the artist. This questioning elicited strong emotional, physical and intellectual responses, and it often resulted in objects of formal beauty. Neon Templates of the Left Half of my Body, Taken at Ten Inch Intervals (1966; priv. col., see 1972 exh. cat., no. 17) and the colour photograph Self Portrait as a Fountain (1966; New York, Whitney) show him first extracting strangely compelling neon forms from the contours of his body and, in the latter, whimsically challenging preconceived notions of the ‘fountain’.
Interested in new forms of music and literature, Nauman used the evocative power of language (in drawings, video scripts and neon installations), dismantling linguistic structure, creating puns and oxymorons, and linking contradictory words in alliterative sequences, as in Violins Violence Silence (neon tubing, 1.58×1.66×0.15 m, 1981–2; Baltimore, MD, Mus. A.). Using flashing neon signs, he stripped words and, later, actions of their conventional meanings, as in Welcome Shaking Hands (1985; see Silverthorne and others, pp. 52–3), leaving disquieting ironies and moral dilemmas.