Skip to main content

Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens

June 7–November 22, 2009

*Location: Venice, ItalyRecipient of the Golden Lion Award for Best National Participation at the 53rd International Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia A multifaceted, multi-site exhibition examining and highlighting the central themes of a leading American artist's extraordinary forty-year career, Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens will represent the United States in the 53rd International Art Exhibition—La Biennale di Venezia—popularly known as the Venice Biennale. Composed of three interrelated components on view at three separate locations throughout Venice, Italy, Topological Gardens will present Nauman's work in the U.S. Pavilion at the Giardini della Biennale (a park with twenty-nine international pavilions that serves as official center of the Biennale) and on the premises of two of the city's most highly esteemed academic institutions—the Università Iuav di Venezia at Tolentini and the Exhibition Spaces at Università Ca' Foscari. Bruce Nauman is widely regarded as one of the most innovative American artists of our time, an artist who pioneered and remains at the forefront of exploring language and the body through revelatory and rigorously conceived and realized individual artworks, installations, and performance. Nauman investigates and purposefully challenges the traditional dichotomies between the body and mind, sight and sound, memory and contemporaneity, offering insights into the paradoxical nature of the human condition. One early, seminal work recently acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign), 1967, employs to fascinating effect a number of elements characteristic of Nauman's singular approach. A spiraling sign that spells out its slogan in neon cursive lettering, Nauman's Window or Wall Sign proposes—at once idealistically and self-consciously—that the role of the artist is to bring to light critical truths to society. By including a range of Nauman's work in neon, video, installation, performance, and sculpture—from iconic selections to rarely or never-before-seen works, including the debut of a groundbreaking sound installation—Topological Gardens will encourage visitors to chart connections among various locations in Venice and to shape and direct their own experience of Nauman's provocative art. This exhibition is structured around the idea of topology—the mathematical investigation of how geometric figures remain fixed amid changing spatial conditions—and resonates with the artist's own exploration of the boundaries between private and public. Carlos Basualdo, the Museum's Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Curator of Contemporary Art, and Michael Taylor, its Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art, were selected by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the United States Department of State to organize the U.S. presentation at the 53rd Venice Biennale. Mr. Basualdo and Mr. Taylor submitted their proposal for Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens, on behalf of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to the Federal Advisory Committee on International Exhibitions in 2007.

, two of Nauman's sound installations from the Biennale will be presented at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Days in the main Museum building's Gisela and Dennis Alter Gallery (176) and Giorni in the Perelman Building's Exhibition Gallery, each filling these large spaces. Bruce Nauman: Days and Giorni in Philadelphia marks the first time in seven years that Nauman is showing new major installations in the United States.

Bruce Nauman

<i>Bruce Nauman</i>, Copyright 2007. 
Photo: Sidney B. Felsen.

Bruce Nauman, Copyright 2007. Photo: Sidney B. Felsen.

Bruce Nauman, A Brief History

Bruce Nauman was born in 1941 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. During his undergraduate schooling at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Nauman initially studied mathematics and physics before changing his focus to studio art under the tutelage of Italo Scanga, among others. Nauman then pursued an M.F.A. the University of California, Davis, where faculty artists such as Wayne Thiebaud, William T. Wiley, and Robert Arneson supported his growing desire to investigate art making beyond his earlier abstract paintings. There he experimented with casting objects in fiberglass and polyester resin, leaving their surfaces unrefined to reflect the casting process. While at Davis, Nauman also staged his first two performances, utilizing a fluorescent tube as an extension of his body as he performed mundane actions, which he would later record on video. After graduate school, Nauman occupied a storefront studio in San Francisco where he focused on the act and process of making art by photographing visual puns and daily actions. An old neon beer sign in this former grocery store served as inspiration for Nauman's celebrated neon, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths (Window or Wall Sign) (1967). At once genuine and ironic, this statement initiated a tongue-in-cheek discourse concerning the role of the artist in society that persists through much of Nauman's work. The Philadelphia Museum of Art recently acquired this iconic work for its permanent collection. Nauman later moved to Wiley's studio in Mill Valley, California where he made various films of himself walking around the space while altering his bodily movement. He began to garner critical attention in 1966 with his first solo show at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles, as well as his inclusion in Lucy R. Lippard's Eccentric Abstraction group exhibition in New York. Nauman's solo debut in New York at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1968 was soon followed by a one-man exhibition at the Konrad Fischer Gallerie in Düsseldorf, Germany. In 1972–73, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art co-organized the first major survey of his work, Bruce Nauman: Works from 1965–1972, an exhibition that traveled to Italy, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, and other venues within the United States.

Influenced early on by philosophy and literature, Nauman's work constantly tests rational systems of language, spatial and bodily boundaries, duration, and psychology through sculpture, video installations, and constructed environments. In the late 1960s, Nauman continued to work with neon and also began to construct corridors, sometimes filming his performances within them. Larger constructed environments in the early 1970s often included video surveillance cameras and monitors that overlooked and recorded viewers as they entered them. Nauman continued to make large sculptures and installations in the 1970s and early 1980s, mapping space with masking tape or evoking physical or psychological constraints through the creation of passages and tunnels. After a ten-year hiatus, Nauman returned to his work with video in the mid-1980s with many multi-channel video installations that further explored language and his metaphorical use of labyrinths and the personae of rats and clowns. In the late 1980s he also introduced the iconography of life-sized animals cast in wax that hang suspended in carousel-like formations. The 1990s brought sculptures of human heads and hands in wax and bronze, video installations, and sustained work with neon. In the early twenty-first century, Nauman's video work, sound installations, and sculptures continue themes that have resurfaced throughout his oeuvre since the 1960s.

Museum exhibitions have continued to map Nauman's practice, and notable solo shows include Bruce Nauman, 1972–1981 held at the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo in the Netherlands and at the Staatliche Kunsthalle, Baden-Baden in West Germany in 1981; a survey organized by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis that traveled in 1993–95 to Madrid, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York; and, in 2006–07, an exhibition of his early work, A Rose Has No Teeth, that traveled to the University of California Berkeley Art Museum, Castello di Rivoli Museo d'Arte Contemporanea in Turin, Italy, and the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas. Among the prestigious group shows that have included Nauman are the Venice Biennale in 1978, 1980, 1999, and 2007, as well as several documenta exhibitions (1972, 1977, 1982, and 1992) ) in Kassel, Germany. Garnering multiple awards throughout his career for his exceptionally wide-ranging and conceptually challenging practice, Nauman has received the Wexner Prize in 1994, the Leone d'oro (The Golden Lion) along with Louise Bourgeois at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999, and the Praemium Imperiale for Visual Arts in 2004 in Japan. He holds honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees from the San Francisco Art Institute and the California Institute of the Arts. In 1979, Nauman moved to New Mexico where he continues to work and live along with his wife, the painter Susan Rothenberg.


Exhibition Locations

Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens extends beyond the U.S. Pavilion, which traditionally hosts the Biennale's U.S. representation, to two additional University exhibition spaces. Resonating with Nauman's investigations into the nature and the boundaries of public and private spaces, this expansion ensures that a more diverse audience will experience first-hand the work of one of the most accomplished living American artists. The three locations of this exhibition highlight the notion of topology as key to understanding both Nauman's work and the urban structure of Venice, enabling visitors to experience one in relation to the other while productively interrogating the idea of the "national pavilion."
U.S. Pavilion at the Giardini della Biennale
The traditional venue for United States presentations at the Venice Biennale, the U. S. Pavilion is a neoclassical building located in the Giardini della Biennale (Gardens of the Biennial), at the tip Castello district of Venice. The freestanding Jeffersonian pavilion, designed by architects William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldrich in 1930, is one of twenty-nine permanent national structures located in the Giardini. Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens will be on view at the U.S. Pavilion in the Venice Biennial's Giardini for the duration of the 53rd International Art Exhibition, from June 7 to November 22, 2009. Università Iuav di Venezia at Tolentini
The Università Iuav di Venezia program dates to 1923, when it was initiated as a special architecture course within the Accademia di Belle Arti, Venice. In 1926 it broke from the Accademia, becoming Italy's second architecture school. Founded with the goal of exploring all aspects of design, the Università Iuav di Venezia has since attracted some of the world's greatest practitioners of architecture and urban planning. Faculties of arts and design, architecture, and urban and regional planning tackle critical issues in surface and building systems, housing development, city landscape and its transformation, as well as environmental processes. In addition to ongoing collaboration with Venetian institutions, the Università Iuav di Venezia actively maintains collaborative partnerships with forty-five other international universities. Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens will be on view at the Università Iuav di Venezia from June 7 through October 18, 2009. Exhibition Spaces at Università Ca' Foscari
Università Ca' Foscari di Venezia is renowned for its exquisite Venetian Gothic architecture and its beautiful views of the Grand Canal, spanning the Rialto Bridge to the Accademia galleries. Commissioned by Doge Francesco Foscari and designed by Carlo Scarpa in 1452, the palazzo was converted into the prestigious Università Ca' Foscari in 1868. Today Ca' Foscari has nineteen academic departments, seventeen research centers, and numerous partnerships with Venetian cultural and scientific institutions. Topological Gardens will be located on the first and second floors (piano terra and primo piano) of the Ca' Foscari complex, where it will be on view from June 7 through October 18, 2009.

Venice Biennale

About the Venice Biennale

The International Art Exhibition—La Biennale di Venezia—is counted among the world's most prestigious and historical international art exhibitions. The United States was among the fourteen countries selected to participate at its debut on April 30, 1885, which celebrated the wedding anniversary of King Umberto and Margherita of Savoy. Since then, there have been fifty-two International Art Exhibitions in Venice. In 2009, the event will encompass more than seventy national pavilions, which are located both inside the public gardens in the eastern part of the city—known as the Giardini—as well as throughout the city of Venice. Each country chooses its own method of electing representatives to the Venice Biennial and the commissioners (organizers) of its exhibition. Representative exhibitions feature group or single-artist shows. Swedish curator Daniel Birnbaum, Rector of the Staedelschule in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, was elected Director of the Visual Arts Sector of the 53rd Venice Biennale by the Board of Directors of the Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia. Mr. Birnbaum will organize an exhibition for the quarter-mile-long Arsenale, as well as the Corderie, the Artiglierie, and the Gaggiandre. The Italian Pavilion, which houses the national Italian exhibition, will also serve as site for educational activities, with spaces for workshops, seminars, meetings, and other Biennale-related activities. La Biennale di Venezia originated in a resolution of the City Council to propel the spirited artists' gatherings at Caffè Florian on Saint Mark's Square into an art event of major importance that would boost both the cultural standing and economic life of the city. The pavilions in the Giardini, Venice's first public gardens, present exhibitions for the city and its visitors throughout the year. While based on the nineteenth-century model of international exhibitions, such as the French Exposition Universelles, the size and structure of the Biennial evolved drastically over the last century to accommodate its average attendance of some 320,000 visitors. La Biennale di Venezia also organizes biannual exhibitions of architecture, dance, music, theater, and cinema that are structured similarly to the International Art Exhibition.

Explore the Exhibition

Main Building


Bruce Nauman: Topological Gardens, the official U.S. representation at the 53rd International Art Exhibition—La Biennale di Venezia, is organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and presented in collaboration with the Università Iuav di Venezia and the Università Ca' Foscari di Venezia, with the support of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice.

Major support for the U.S. exhibition is provided by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Henry Luce Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State.

Additional funding is generously provided by Agnes Gund, Maja Oeri and Hans Bodenmann, Sperone Westwater Gallery, and many other Friends of Bruce Nauman. At Ca'Foscari, the exhibition is sponsored by FriulAdria–Crédit Agricole. The accompanying catalogue has been made possible by Isabel and Agustín Coppel.


Carlos Basualdo • The Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Curator of Contemporary Art
Michael R. Taylor • The Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art


Venice, Italy: U.S. Pavilion at the Giardini della Biennale • closes November 22, 2009; Università Iuav di Venezia at Tolentini • closes October 18, 2009; Exhibition Spaces at Università Ca' Foscari • closes October 18, 2009

Check out other exhibitions

View full calendar