In a bold stroke promising to burnish its international profile, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and its proposal for an exhibition on American artist Bruce Nauman have been selected to represent the United States at the 53d Venice Biennale.
The Nauman show, chosen from 11 submissions to the State Department, will open in June 2009 in the U.S. Pavilion of the famed Biennale, whose International Art Exhibition is one of the most important art gatherings in the world.
"It's a wonderful thing to be able to express your belief in an artist and express it on an international stage," Art Museum director Anne d'Harnoncourt said. "You don't often get an opportunity like this one."
In fact, the Art Museum last curated a show at the Biennale two decades ago, with a Jasper Johns exhibition - its only other time representing the nation in the Italian city.
"The museum has curated shows that have traveled the world, but Venice - it's like the Oscars. It all happens there," said Thora Jacobson, a Philadelphia art veteran now planning the contemporary-art event Philagrafika.
Nauman, 66, said he had "sort of mixed feelings" about the show.
"It's very much an honor to be invited, but on the other hand it involves a lot of older work, and it's hard to deal with that - having to rethink it, how to reinstall it," he said. "Even though that's supposed to be the curator's job, you can't avoid taking part. But I do enjoy Venice - and that's the good part."
Nauman, who was born in Fort Wayne, Ind., and raised in Milwaukee, steered a career path that took him first to California and then New Mexico.
He has no particular ties to Philadelphia, but a number of events have coalesced around the museum's choice to present his work.
After trying for years, the museum recently bought the artist's proof for The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, a seminal 1967 piece that appropriated the usually commercial medium of neon as a vehicle for the wordplay that would figure strongly in much of his work.
Nauman's work has been seen often at the Biennale, and in 1999 he won the festival's Golden Lion award. One of his chief proponents has been Robert Storr, the 2007 director of the Biennale, whom the Art Museum engaged in 2005 as consulting curator of modern and contemporary art.
The fusing of these factors was not part of any master plan, d'Harnoncourt said. "It was not a strategy. Coincidence is one word, but I guess I'd go more for serendipity."
"We really feel deeply that Nauman is one of the most important artists of the 20th century," said Carlos Basualdo, the museum's curator of contemporary art, who will curate the show with modern-art chief Michael Taylor. The Johns show was "a great moment for the museum and Philadelphia, and it's thrilling after that time to be back in Venice.
D'Harnoncourt said Nauman's work related closely to many aspects of the museum's collection.
"He's somebody whose work somehow reverberates in the museum, because I don't think he was himself directly influenced by Duchamp." (The Art Museum says it houses the most comprehensive Duchamp collection in the world.) "But he was affected by Duchamp's idea of art as the life of the mind."
In terms of media, Nauman is a jack-of-all-trades, having worked in neon, film, video, photography, sculpture, drawing and sound. His inquiries frequently involve wordplay - using text in the art, or crafting titles that open up avenues of thought.
Nauman describes his place in art this way:
"I think that it's not knowing what's coming or what art is supposed to be or how you're supposed to go about being an artist that keeps it interesting. It's going into the studio and finding out what seems to be available or not. It's almost, in a sense, a philosophical kind of quest, but on the other hand the reason I became an artist was because I like to make things. Sometimes they help each other out, and sometimes they get in each other's way."
He is especially noted for taking ordinary objects and, by placing them in a different context, urging viewers to think about them in a different way - a very Duchampian ideal.
"He's the perfect post-Duchamp artist," said Taylor, the modern-art curator. "He a conceptual artist, but he escapes these categories we like to put artists in."
"It's a terrific choice," said Storr, the 2007 Biennale director and dean of the Yale University School of Art. "This is the perfect time for him, and it's something he's never done. In the past, he has been kind of shy about being a featured player in these exhibitions."
"I think it's very adventurous and risky, of course," said John Perreault, an art critic who has followed Nauman's work for four decades. "I may be alone in this, but I feel his early work is brilliant up until the early '70s, and then I think there is a real gap. The mapping piece of 2002 where he videotaped his studio - that was brilliant. But in between there are a lot of pieces about clowns and screaming at the camera and pieces that involve torture in one way or another."
Which Nauman works and how many of them make it into the show remain to be seen. "It would be wonderful to have new work, but it's too early to say," Basualdo said.
Said Taylor: "One of the things we're exploring is trying to find these themes that have interested him from the beginning, and one of them is fountains, which has been a recurring theme in his work to this day. With Venice being a city built on water, we thought it was a great theme to explore."
Nauman was taken with the Art Museum's approach to organizing the show. "The main thing about the proposal I liked is having works installed in various parts of the city," he said. "It wouldn't appear like a selected-works show or a retrospective so much as coming upon things in a different context. So it's a little different way of looking at the work, and I like that."
A published catalog is planned. The museum hopes it can bring some version of the Nauman show to the United States after Venice.
The selection comes with about $460,000 from the State Department, but more is needed. "We will be raising some money to do it, and exactly how much more is not clear until we see the final shape," d'Harnoncourt said. Costs can run as high as $1 million.
The Venice show was for years supported by a partnership of the Rockefeller Foundation and Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts, but that ended in 2003.
Critical appraisal of the Biennale has ebbed and flowed since its start in 1895, with particular derision because it generally does not represent the most progressive ideas in contemporary art. But there is no disputing its visibility: In in 2007, it attracted 319,332 visitors and 5,691 journalists from around the world.
The presence of Nauman promises to reintroduce some splash in 2009.
Said art critic Perreault:
"It'll be very controversial. It's not going to be ignored, that's for sure."
Go to http://go.philly.com/nauman for interviews, photos, video and more on artist Bruce Nauman.EndText