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COVER STORY : An Artist and His Roots : Bruce Nauman has always had a talent for commanding attention between objects and the audience. Here, a critic and early colleague celebrates Nauman's human side as MOCA presents a new retrospective.

July 17, 1994|PETER PLAGENS

From 1972 until it gradually pooped out sometime in '78 or '79, there was a standing weekly artists' basketball game. We'd meet every Sunday at 10 a.m. on the Santa Monica High School outdoor courts, 4th Street and Pico. We'd play for about two hours, under the blistering sun, or through puddles left by Saturday night's rain.

Some of the guys were Westside boys: Bob Smith, Jud Fine, occasionally Doug Wheeler and very occasionally Bill Wegman. (Maybe it was just once: When one of Wegman's Weimaraners tried to join him on court during a fast break, causing a spill worthy of the Tour de France, Wheeler screamed that if Wegman's dog ever came back, his German shepherd would eat it.) And some of the participants came all the way from Pasadena: Ron Linden (who'd scoop me up on the way, at the Ventura Freeway and Laurel Canyon), Merwin Belin, Jay Willis, Richard Jackson and, usually, this one other guy.

He wore long pants more often than shorts, sometimes played in work shoes rather than sneakers, favored being a "skin" instead of a "shirt" and had a good build for the sport--a little over 6 feet tall, thin, with wide, coat-hanger shoulders from which his sinewy arms appeared to hang straight down. He also seemed to have that snaky extra vertebra at hip level that competitive swimmers often possess.

The book on Bruce Nauman, conceptual artist and weekend forward, was that he couldn't go to his left, didn't penetrate much, had a soft touch from the baseline, didn't mind the dirty work of rebounding but could get frustrated if closely guarded. (Sometimes I did that, trying to body him out of shooting range with my big ass.) Bruce was a pretty dependable shower-upper, but as the '70s gradually slouched toward the '80s, this question was heard more and more on Sunday morning: "Where's Nauman?" And the answer would come back: "Oh, Bruce? He's in Europe."

More than a decade before Nauman's avocational stint as the Happy Hairston of the SaMoHi asphalt, New York painter Frank Owen met Nauman in grad school at UC Davis. As Owen remembers it, Nauman didn't hang out much, because he'd arrived from Wisconsin already married to his first wife, Judy. (Later she changed her name to Justine Time.) He hadn't quite given up painting, but he'd already started to make his characteristic odd objects and manifest his laconic, Duchampian personality.

"Bruce wasn't a wise-ass," Owen recalls, "but he wasn't afraid to take charge of a situation and put his stamp on it. Like coming into a crit before everybody else arrived, and dumping a latex sculpture on the floor, then not showing up for the crit. When everybody else came, there was the ominous object on the floor, and people were left asking, 'Why isn't the guy here to explain himself?' The object was all the more ominous for that. Bruce had a talent for figuring out the power equation between objects and the audience."

Nauman obtained his master of fine arts degree in 1966 and went to San Francisco. He taught at the Art Institute, got a little studio in the Mission District and made art out of what Owen calls "studio messes." Then Nauman moved down to Pasadena in '69, because he could move in with his grad-school buddy Richard Jackson, who'd rented Walter Hopps' big, old wooden house on North Orange Grove Boulevard.

In those days, Pasadena was the local art world's second city within the national art world's second city. Venice was the headquarters of the recently discovered (by the art magazines) "L.A. Look" of Billy Al Bengston, Larry Bell, Craig Kauffman, DeWaine Valentine, et al. But it had become too expensive for many artists. Seekers of big, funky studio spaces at cheap rents looked elsewhere. They often landed in the Temple Street quarter near Beaudry, or Ed Ruscha's Baby Jane section of Hollywood, or Pasadena.

From 1970 to '78, painter Walter Gabrielson and I split a 3,500-square-foot loft, at the corner of Fair Oaks Avenue and Union Street in the Old Town section of Pasadena, as a day studio. I talked on the phone a couple of weeks ago to Gabrielson in his Santa Barbara storefront atelier and asked him to jog my memory. After furnishing his obligatory philosophical nugget ("It's hotter 'n sin up here, and sin gets mighty hot"), Gabrielson complied.

"Where could we go?" he said. "Downtown wasn't yet on the art map, and the Valley was too far from anything that counted. Pasadena was a nice place, with an interesting circle of decay in the middle. Once a year, you'd have that grotesquerie, the Rose Parade, when all of the wealth of Pasadena would rear its head. And then it'd be gone. The new Pasadena Museum had opened about the time we moved there, and I was surprised at the number of artists who were working around us: Don Sorenson, Shiro Ikegawa, Ben Sakoguchi, Doug Bond, Hap Tivey, Karen Carson, Peter Lodato, Scott Greiger, Helen Pashgian, Denise Gale, Nauman and even Charles White in his weird studio at the Green Hotel. For a while, it was cookin'."

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