At Philly museum, Nauman’s slices of life explore classical ideals

In his new monumental-sized video and sound installation

In his new monumental-sized video and sound installation

Marking art is often a process of breaking down life into parts, then reassembling those parts into something resembling life again — be it a body in marble, a racing horse on film, or a love affair on paper.

The artist acts as Dr. Frankenstein, stitching pieces together in the hope it will stand on its own.

In his new monumental-sized video and sound installation, Bruce Nauman slices up his own body into a noisy, awkward, warped, disjointed treatise on the human body that cannot live up to the Greek ideal.

Called “Contrapposto Studies,” is refers to a pose developed by the ancient Greeks, wherein a standing figure has a hip cocked out, with the shoulder shifted to find counterbalance. Think of the Michelangelo’s “David.” It was a revolutionary idea in the history of art.

“A contrapposto allows you to represent movement,” said Carlos Basualdo, the curator of contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “It moves from an idealized version of the human body to a naturalistic representation of the human body. A desire to show life.”

Nauman videotaped himself slowly walking through the contrapposto, from one hip to the next, much like what he did in 1968 for his “Walk With Contrapposto” (also on view at the museum). The new work divides his body into seven parts — the head, shoulders, torso, hips, thighs, knees, and feet — the classic way artists deconstruct a body in order to sculpt or draw a figure.

The ongoing care and maintenance of our bodies force us to see our  them as disparate parts for consideration by medical specialists — the podiatrist, the knee surgeon, the chiropractor, the optometrist.

Nauman is no longer the young man he was in his original 1968 video. In the new work, Nauman’s body comes together in a way not nearly as graceful as the Greeks intended.

“Not as graceful at all,” said Basualdo. “It’s about the ideal body, but the ideal body is nowhere to be seen.”

Basualdo said Nauman is such an influential artist because his work tends to be timeless — it’s about contemporary notions of body image and media, hearkening back to ancient Greek ideas of the ideal man.

The museum is presenting the debut of “Contrapposto Studies,” but does not own it. Basualdo would like to make Nauman one of the pillars of the museum’s collection, along with other groundbreaking artists, such as Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns, who have many works at the museum.

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