Bruce Nauman’s 1973 lithograph Clear vision exclaims its own title. With slightly italicised capital letters and dark ink on white paper, the text in this work is explicit; it appears to speak with imperative urgency: CLEAR VISION. However, and despite its claims to clarity, the work is based on a number of contradictions. The words are written in reverse, and the lettering smudged, reducing legibility. Just as the text’s apparent three-dimensionality[i] suggests that each letter is either carved into the surface of the page or raised above it, the words move between states of shouting and whispering, advancing and retreating.
Searching for meaning:
Without any context (a complete sentence, for example) the two words flicker between a description: [you have] clear vision, and a command: clear [your] vision. When read as a description, the work contradicts itself: vision, here, is not clear, it is clouded by dark ink, written backwards, letters becoming less legible as we move through the statement. As a command, however, it makes sense: clear your vision, focus, pay attention.
In an interview with printmaker Christopher Cordes, Nauman relayed his interest in the potentiality of ambiguity in language:
“I am really interested in the different ways that language functions. That is something I think a lot about, which also raises a lot of questions about how the brain and the mind work. […] It’s difficult to see what the functioning edges of language are. […] Roland Barthes has written about the pleasure that is derived from reading when what is known rubs up against what is unknown, or when correct grammar rubs up against non-grammar. In other words, if one context is different from the context that was given to you by the writer, two different kinds of things you understand rub against each other. When language begins to break down a little bit, it becomes exciting and communicates in nearly the simplest way that it can function: you are forced to be aware of the sounds and the poetic parts of words. If you deal with only what is known, you’ll have redundancy; on the other hand, if you deal only with the unknown, you cannot communicate at all. There is always some combination of the two, and it is how they touch each other that makes communication interesting. Too much of one or the other is either unintelligible or boring, but the tension of being almost too far in either direction is very interesting to think about. I think art forms in general are most interesting when they function in the same way.“[ii]
In Clear vision, Nauman creates a friction point between the words and their formal clarity, mimicking the ambiguity he appreciates in language. It is in the space between comprehension and non-comprehension, between legibility and illegibility, that the functionality of Nauman’s work really performs. At that point, where we partially recognise but don’t fully understand, we must actually do what the artwork is describing: we clear our vision. We flip the image in our head, so it becomes readable. We mentally tidy-up and piece together the text, pulling it from the murky ink, endowing the words with meaning we know for them, from our experience of language in the world.
The influence of Wittgenstien:
The idea that language is defined and formed by its use became prominent in mid-20th century literary theory and, as the reference to French semiologist and literary theorist Roland Barthes in Nauman’s quote above demonstrates, his work actively draws on the work of many theorists with an interest in language and language games.[iii] He is especially drawn to the work of the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstien.[iv] In Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, published in 1953, he states that “the meaning of a word is its use in the language”.[v] Rather than the then-conventional idea that language is denotative, that it is made up of a series of pre-defined symbols (signifiers) which point to external subject matter (the signified), Wittgenstein asserts that the meaning of words and phrases is connotative, that is built up through their continual and varied use.[vi] In essence, the meaning of language is never clear or absolute. This idea is both visually and functionally apparent in the text in Clear vision.
Like someone taking apart an object to see how its mechanisms function, we can see evidence of Nauman tinkering with language in Clear vision. As art critic John Yau states “Like Wittgenstein, Nauman does not use language so much as explore it.”[vii] There is a playfulness to the ambiguous way Nauman uses text in his work.
“To every rule, I also try to find the opposite, to reverse it”[viii]
Nauman toys with both the text and the printing process by reversing the words in Clear vision. In the print we read the words backwards, but they were written correctly on the lithography stone, reminding us of the inherent reversal of the printing process used to create the image.[ix] As such, the work physically embodies what it represents on the picture plane: it flickers between readable and unreadable. Or as Nauman said in his interview with Cordes:
“I like the way front/back interplay confuses the information. Not knowing what you’re supposed to look at keeps you at a distance from the art”.[x]
This sense of confusion or displacement was recently explored in great depth by art historian Jennifer L. Roberts. Roberts expands on the idea that reversal is inherent in “virtually all printed matter”,[xi] and that some artists deliberately bring this element to the fore in their printed works. She examines the work of a number of artists, including Nauman, who, by using reversed text in their work, evoke perceived senses of “relationality, estrangement, displacement […] powers of reversal [which] run, whether as latent or actual agency, through every print and every printmaking process.”[xii] How do the states of “relationality”, “estrangement” and “displacement” figure in Clear vision?
We can perceive a sense of distorted relationality when viewing the print because the picture plane, carrying the reversed text, creates a sense of being on the other side – as if we are reading the words from behind – virtually altering our physical relationship to the picture plane. This idea is taken a step further, as Roberts describes how this front-back reversal can allow us to imagine “the presence of another person, viewing it from the other side, creating a dialogic milieu around [the print], which serves as a kind of mediating surface for a social relationship.”[xiii] From this perspective Clear vision creates a spatial relationality between ourselves and the imagined other side of the printed text as well as a social bond between us and an imagined viewer on the ‘other side’ of the print, a relationship that hinges around language itself.
In reversing the words ‘clear vision’, Nauman estranges us from the familiar functionality of language, making us realise “how thoroughly our experience of language – the supposedly stable space of sharing and communication – depends upon our specific spatial orientation.”[xiv] We suddenly find ourselves on the ‘wrong’ side of the words. This sense of spatial displacement, even if imagined rather than literal, is perceived in a felt way rather than described through visual illusion within the work. This strategy of displacement grants us the freedom to move between perspectives in other contexts – the implication of dislodging us from our conventional position can of course be extended to our social realities.
Another kind of mirroring occurs with this print. By severing the words ‘clear vision’ from the context of a sentence, Nauman prompts us to enact a kind of echo as we sound out the words in our minds, seeking their logic. “Clear vision…clear vision?” we repeat to ourselves, searching for an intonation in the words which, in a verbal dialogue, would provide the intention behind them. In this process we mimic the reverberative quality of spoken language.
The work propels us to actively engage in the performance of dialogue. The viewer (looking at text) becomes reader (uttering language) and thus performer (performing meaning through dialogue). We enact mentally what the work proposes linguistically. Our role changes from a traditional observer to a performer – we do part of the artwork.[xv] In this way, the work – rather than simply describing or showing something about the world – produces an active experience in the world. As art historian Janet Kraynak has written: “to find meaning, look not to [Nauman’s] words but to the space in which they are encountered and the responses they engender.”[xvi]
The provocation of Clear vision is understated but effective, we do what the text proposes before we are aware of it. We are no longer just the ‘viewer’.
“I think that you do things to find out if you believe in it in the first place, just like often you’ll say things in conversation, just to test […] the only way you find out is to do it.”[xvii]
– Ruby Rossiter, Curatorial Assistant, Kenneth Tyler Collection
[i] “Nauman treats words as if they are a graphic object consisting of letters and sounds. They are something that not only exists outside of himself but can also be seen and experienced. Within the terms proposed by his work, language is not an abstraction; it is a palpable thing.”
John Yau, “Words and Things: The Prints of Bruce Nauman”, in Bruce Nauman Prints 1970-89, ed. Christopher Cordes (Castelli Graphics: New York, Lorence Monk Gallery: New York, Donald Young Gallery; Chicago, 1989), 10.
[ii] “Talking with Bruce Nauman”, 1977-89, Christopher Cordes, in Bruce Nauman Prints 1970-89, ed. Christopher Cordes (Castelli Graphics: New York, Lorence Monk Gallery: New York, Donald Young Gallery; Chicago, 1989), 25.
[iii] “the artistic preoccupation with the problem of language in the sixties in not unique, as it represents one example of a more generalized linguistic turn experienced across disciplines during the period. While in art history there has been a tendency to homogenise “language” as an all encompassing critical term – and to focus most attention upon the structuralist or semiotic model – in linguistic theory, philosophy, and literary criticism it represents a subject of dispute, one that reached a critical crux in the late sixties.”
Janet Kraynak, “Bruce Nauman’s Words”, in Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words, ed. Janet Kraynak, (MIT Press: Massachusetts, 2002), 2.
[iv] “Nauman Interview”, 1970, Willoughby Sharp, in Arts Magazine 44 (March 1970): 22-27.
“Bruce Nauman”, 1972, Lorraine Sciarra, in Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words, ed. Janet Kraynak, (MIT Press: Massachusetts, 2002), 155-171.
“Interview with Bruce Nauman”, 1980, Michelle de Angelus, in Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words, ed. Janet Kraynak, (MIT Press: Massachusetts, 2002), 197-295.
[v] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Section 43 of Philosophical Investigations, (Macmillan: New York, 1968), as quoted by Carolyn Black, “Philosophical Investigations Remark 43 Revisited” in Mind 83, no. 332 (1974): 596–98
[vi] Janet Kraynak, “Bruce Nauman’s Words”, in Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words, ed. Janet Kraynak, (MIT Press: Massachusetts, 2002), 21.
[vii] John Yau, “Words and Things: The Prints of Bruce Nauman”, in Bruce Nauman Prints 1970-89, ed. Christopher Cordes (Castelli Graphics: New York, Lorence Monk Gallery: New York, Donald Young Gallery; Chicago, 1989), 13.
[viii] “Keep taking it apart: a conversation with Bruce Nauman”, 1986, Chris Dercon, in Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words, ed. Janet Kraynak, (MIT Press: Massachusetts, 2002), 313.
[ix] Jennifer L. Roberts, The 70th A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts: Contact: Art and the Pull of Print, Part 2: Reversal, (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2021).
[x] “Talking with Bruce Nauman”, 1977-89, Christopher Cordes, in Bruce Nauman Prints 1970-89, ed. Christopher Cordes (Castelli Graphics: New York, Lorence Monk Gallery: New York, Donald Young Gallery; Chicago, 1989), 24.
[xi] Jennifer L. Roberts, The 70th A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts: Contact: Art and the Pull of Print, Part 2: Reversal, (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2021).
[xv] In this way the viewer activates what the British semiologist J.L. Austin calls a ‘performative’ use of language, as described in his seminal text from 1955, How to do Things with Words. Janet Kraynak explains that performative utterances “perform the action referred to in the uttered statement. A common example is the declaration “I promise”, which, by its very articulation, creates a promise […] Austin’s theory thus explores the potentiality for words not merely to signify, but to do: to be operative and dynamic, bearing material consequences.”
Janet Kraynak, “Bruce Nauman’s Words”, in Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words, ed. Janet Kraynak, (MIT Press: Massachusetts, 2002), 13.
[xvi] Ibid, 36.
[xvii] “Interview with Bruce Nauman”, 1980, Michelle de Angelus, in Please Pay Attention Please: Bruce Nauman’s Words, ed. Janet Kraynak, (MIT Press: Massachusetts, 2002), 231.