Judging Sculptor Bruce Nauman's "Dark"


Kurt was chosen to judge a commission competition at Southwestern College in the early 1960s, and selected Bruce Nauman, then at the beginning of his career,  for the award. The decision was controversial, and Kurt penned a defense of his decision for the college newspaper. The controversy continues; a link from an article in that same newspaper in 2015 can be found at the conclusion of Kurt's comments. 


The outstanding piece of sculpture in the current competitive exhibition at Southwestern College is the project by Bruce Nauman titled "Dark."

It it outstanding, first of all, in terms of its INTRINSIC QUALITY.

Of course all judgments of this kind are in part personal, and hence often difficult to defend before people whose own esthetic predisposition may represent a divergent commitment. It is per­haps good that we are not always convinced by the esthetic con­clusions reached by others--even, or especially when these others are experts in the field. Let me add only that behind my own personal convictions about the superiority of Bruce Nauman's project I am also eager to place the full resolve of my scholarly, professional, critical and his­torical background and position.

It seemed to me that "Dark" was also an excellent piece of sculpture for a college campus--and particularly for Southwestern College. Any substantial work of art can sustain several levels of inter­pretation, and can stimulate many valid (even possibly contradictory) poetic images. I would like to suggest only a few of those called to mind by "Dark."

·         The word "DARK" is inscribed on the underside--buried. What more apt poetic image could there be for expressing the fundamental role of any educational institution: To bury the darkness of all forms of ignorance, prejudice and stupidity.

·         On the side facing upward there is light. It is not spelled out. Very often truth does not appear spelled out--in the same ways that falseness and ignorance very often do.

·         The motto of the University of California is "Let there be light." Genesis I, 3: And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. Goethe's dying words were: "More light." In commenting on the I Ching, the great Swiss psycho­analyst, Carl G. Jung wrote: "I am a physician and deal with ordinary people, and therefore I know that the universities have ceased to act as disseminators of light."

·         Certainly one of the major aims of education is to stimu­late free enquiry into ideas and open controversy on issues that concern us--whether directly or as symbolised by art.

I can only hope--and have you hope with me--that Jung was somehow wrong in those sentiments. But he went on to write: "People have become weary of scientific specialization and rationalistic intellectualism. They want to hear truths which broaden rather than restrict them, which do not obscure but enlighten, which do not run off them like water, but penetrate them to the marrow."

The form of Bruce Nauman's piece is solid, clean, elemental--with little of the fussiness that can often lead works of art into a deceptive decorativeness. Stylistically, "Dark" is an important statement in the current direction of American sculptural activity, combining a formal austerity with a high degree of conceptual content--but all of which is directed toward essentially poetic expression.

"Dark" is certainly down to earth. For those whose easiest approach to contemporary art--or to art or any period, for that matter--is through economics, let them consider: This commission may be one of the best available capital investments Southwestern College could make on the current fine arts market. It has a great margin for speculative value accretion, and it is certainly a solid investment. Although some artists may feel this indelicate, it is also a bargain! For $1900 today, you can't even meet the delivery price of a VW.

Curiously enough, Bruce Nauman's conception of the piece contains many ideas closely associated with classical sculpture: not only the purity and simplicity of its form (which, after all, would be rather difficult to compare with Phidias), but also the typically classical concern with permanence: sculpture as eternal statement.

For those who may be bothered by the idea of Nauman assigning the work of actual construction (as he does note in his project state­ment), they should be reminded of the painting factory run by Peter Paul Rubens. Van Dyck was employed by Rubens to paint the faces of his large compositions, Snyders did the still life ele­ments, Jordaens helped finish off the paintings, etc. And the practice continues with sculptors such as Donald Judd. Even Rodin's bronzes were largely finished by others, such as Bourdelle.

There is always the temptation to say, "I could have done that myself." So could I--now that Nauman has shown me exactly what was to be done. Some may consider the piece unfinished: like a mere pedestal, upon which we are to place our own "real" piece of sculpture. I do not know, but I rather think that Bruce Nauman would like us to enjoy this kind of emotional, creative, even visionary relationship to his work of art.

I would like thank Southwestern College for the honor of being able to announce the award of the $1,900 competition prize and commission to Bruce Nauman.             

Kurt von Meier, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor


Curators Note:  The award and the sculpture were controversial, and still are; here's a link to a 2015 article about it's current status.