Broadly recognized as amongst the most important living American artists, Nauman’s widely influential oeuvre is distinguished by its extraordinary conceptual rigor and a disquieting facility for probing the essential binaries of life and death, pleasure and pain, beauty and perversion. Describing the fascinating yet perturbing character of the artist’s practice, scholar Robert Storr remarks, "They're night thoughts, the things that keep you awake and panicked at 3 A.M. with the gritty clarity of the irresolvable." (Robert Storr cited in Randy Kennedy, “Bruce Nauman, Art Provocateur, Returns. Are You Ready?,” The New York Times, September 8, 2016, AR1) Initiated several years before the creation of the present work, the artist’s exploration of cast animal forms in his sculptural practice represented, not only a return to work with cast objects after a hiatus of nearly two decades, but an entirely new mode of thematic inquiry into the forms and patterns which structure the natural world. The series was prompted by Nauman’s 1988 visit to a taxidermy shop in New Mexico, where he had moved almost a decade earlier; fascinated by the polyurethane foam models of deer, wolves, bears, foxes, and others which filled the space, he began to incorporate the strange and unnatural animal forms into his sculptural practice, combining the featureless molds in various unsettling permutations and arrangements. Describing the process, Nauman remarks, “I had some forms cast in metal and when they came back from the foundry they were cut in pieces, I guess because it was easier to cast them that way. The casts were around the studio for a while, and then I started putting them back together in different ways—rearranging them into new shapes that became more abstract...They are beautiful things. They are universally accepted, generic forms used by taxidermists yet they have an abstract quality that I really like.” (The artist cited in C. J. Kraynak, ed., Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words: Writings and Interviews, Cambridge, 2002, pp. 374-376) In a number of large-scale sculptures, Nauman returned to a formal device he had used in earlier works and suspended hybridized animal forms in midair, as in Three Part Large Animals from 1989, in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; more traditionally, he employed the forms as readymade maquettes, as in Animal Pyramid from 1990, the full-scale sculpture commissioned by the Des Moines Art Center. In both of these works, as in Fox Wheel, the graceful suspension of the forms enacts a sense of delicacy utterly at odds with the savagery suggested by the skinned animal forms, their eerily anatomical—even ambiguous—generality inviting associations with myths, legends, and even fairytales. Remarking upon the impetus behind the series, one scholar remarks, “Bruce had found a way of being in New Mexico with his art instead of just inside a studio building that could have been anywhere, looking outside. He’d figured out how to make [his life in New Mexico] into an image that would play in the art world. Beyond those hunters and ranchers he [now] knew.” (Joan Simon cited in Peter Plagens, The True Artist, New York, 2014, p. 212)
In their carnivalesque arrangement, the bounding forms of Fox Wheel resemble the polished creatures of a carousel, rising and falling in endless rhythm; simultaneously, the indisputable suggestion of ferocious, bestial violence casts a macabre shroud over the sculpture, the snapping hounds caught in an eternal dance macabre. Indeed, while the introduction of animal forms marked a new mode of inquiry for Nauman, an investigation of circular forms and repetition runs through the core of the artist’s oeuvre: the orbital nature of the present work echoes the looping progressions of the artist’s video pieces of the 1960s and 1970s, while the circular form recalls the shimmering neon spiral of The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign) from 1967. Even the mindless repetition of One Hundred Live and Die, a towering wall of neon writing, bears thematic similarity to the present work; scholar Eugen Blume describes, “The cascading words cast in flickering artificial light render life, with the simplicity of a counting rhyme, as inexorable trickling away of time measured out in a series of events, a permanent living and dying. Thus related to the chronology of life, both terms prove interchangeable; each living is simultaneously a dying.” (Exh. Cat., Museum fur Gegenwart, Bruce Nauman: Dream Passage, Berlin, 2010, p. 39) Likewise, each featureless, anonymous creature of Fox Wheel is both predator and prey, challenging the viewer to untangle such universally profound themes as violence from pain, man from beast, and even art from life.
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