Tag Archives: Violins Violence Silence

BMA Voices: Using art to explore language

Bruce Nauman. Violins Violence Silence (Exterior Version). 1981 1982. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Leo Castelli Gallery, New  York, and Sperone Westwater Fischer Gallery, New York, BMA 1984.2. ©  Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Bruce Nauman. Violins Violence Silence (Exterior Version). 1981 1982. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, and Sperone Westwater Fischer Gallery, New York, BMA 1984.2. © Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Lauren Ross, Senior Conservation Technician

This artwork is compelling and it confuses me. I like crossword puzzles, cryptograms, brainteasers in general, etymology, and games of language manipulation. It seems obvious that playing with language is a significant part of Bruce Nauman’s artistic practice. Our Curator of Contemporary Art Kristen Hileman recently wrote:

In addition to provoking viewers to consider the aesthetic dimensions of a format associated with advertising, Nauman called attention to the idea that visual art can be a means for exploring language.

Especially in his language-based work, Bruce Nauman is SERIOUSLY funny. But he’s serious, too.

It’s easy enough to grasp the progression (spelling and rhyming) of the words in the title. How did he come to those particular words though? Which one came first? Or was it just an immediate kind of thing where the words mentally landed one after the next? I’ve wondered if you’re intended to think of the sad cliché of violins playing? It’s easy then to think of something that might really be sad. VIOLENCE and SILENCE together = what? It could be death. Is the word SILENCE intended to get you to think about the silent nature of the neon itself, flashing in the dark? Or is SILENCE to make you think about VIOLENCE being under-reported or ignored? Could it just be that Nauman heard a great piece of violin music that had a violent crescendo and then got really quiet? Or, maybe the cadence of the words has a natural incline and decline as you think them or say them. But I doubt it’s that simple.

What about the colors? The sequence of words goes like this:  VVSand then the same words, only completely backwards:

SEE
Do the specific individual colors or their transitions make you feel the ideas of the words differently? I think they must. I’m not sure it’s fair to say it, but maybe Nauman assigned the specific colors to each word for a specific conceptual reason, manipulating the gases as if using physics to harness synesthetics. Nauman studied mathematics and physics in college, so I assume his use of the noble gases is pretty well-informed. The sequencing of the words, too, is another aspect entirely that is mathematically specific.

When I moved here in 1989 as a young art student, I first saw this piece and was absolutely astounded by it. I hadn’t seen any of Nauman’s work before then, and it introduced to a whole new genre of artwork. Everything I’ve seen of his since has moved me.

Now that I’ve lived here for 25 years, the way I experience this work is slightly different. I think it’s because it’s located in Baltimore. It’s not pleasant to admit that Baltimore has a reputation for violent crime. Maybe any city where it was installed would summon up the same ideas. Yet there is an impact or echo of a city’s identity on a work of public art. Language manipulated in this way is suggestive politically. Figuring out the suggestion is part of the intellectual challenge in looking at Nauman.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

BMA Voices: Re-fabricating a beloved sculpture

Bruce Nauman. Violins Violence Silence (Exterior Version). 1981 1982. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Leo Castelli Gallery, New  York, and Sperone Westwater Fischer Gallery, New York, BMA 1984.2. ©  Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Bruce Nauman. Violins Violence Silence (Exterior Version). 1981-1982. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, and Sperone Westwater Fischer Gallery, New York, BMA 1984.2. © Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Kristen Hileman, Curator & Dept. Head of Contemporary Art

One of the BMA projects that has most inspired me is the conservation of Bruce Nauman’s large neon Violins Violence Silence (Exterior Version), 1981-1982. And interestingly, the project didn’t involve developing an exhibition or acquiring an artwork, elements often associated with a curator’s job.

Installed on the museum’s façade for over thirty years, this bold sculpture had become a signature piece for the BMA. But those decades also led to the aging of the work’s infrastructure and technology. By 2013, it was clear that a complete overhaul was needed in order for “VVS” to be operational into the future. In consultation with Nauman’s long time studio manager Juliet Myers, BMA Objects Conservator Christine Downie worked with Jacob Fishman, a highly skilled fabricator of Nauman’s neons since the 1980s, to have the sculpture removed from the building by crane and transported to Fishman’s Chicago studio. There, a template was created from the old piece so that all the neon letters could be re-made. The existing armature was stabilized, the work was re-wired, and the old transformers and timer were replaced with up-to-date models. Unlike a more traditional art object such as an oil painting, it was not important to repair and preserve the aged components of the piece. Rather the artist preferred that his sculpture be almost entirely re-fabricated so that it could best convey his idea in the vibrant and precisely sequenced manner he had originally envisioned.

Among Nauman’s many influential accomplishments is broadening the subjects and forms that are considered part of art’s scope. Starting in the late 1960s, he created works that appeared like neon signs, flashing text and schematic images in vivid hues. In addition to provoking viewers to consider the aesthetic dimensions of a format associated with advertising, Nauman called attention to the idea that visual art can be a means for exploring language. Looking back to art made before the middle of the 20th century, it is difficult to think of an example made up entirely and exclusively of words the way Violins Violence Silence is. It is as if the introduction of written language into visual art threatened the integrity of both forms of expression. But by the 1960s, artists began to cultivate this creative “contamination” in response to a culture in which words and pictures were coupled almost everywhere else—newspapers, television, movies, billboards, comic books, etc.

In addition to affording an opportunity to research Nauman’s career, the conservation of the piece allowed me to interact with a remarkable group of experts and art lovers. I find the contemporary focus of my job rewarding not only for the connections I make to innovative artworks, but also because of the relationships I develop with those who make, care for, and appreciate art. The BMA’s Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art, a membership group for people passionately interested in 20th and 21st century works, marshaled its impressive forces to raise funds for and awareness of the project. Downie and Fishman’s thoughtful technical oversight and caring stewardship of Nauman’s piece was admirable, as were the gracious contributions of the dynamic and knowledgeable Myers. As a culminating celebration, acclaimed art critic Peter Plagens and distinguished curator Paul Schimmel joined Myers for an insightful panel about Nauman’s work. The dedication of this group has insured that an important contemporary sculpture will illuminate the BMA campus for years to come.

The conservation of Violins Violence Silence (Exterior Version) in 2014 was made possible through the generous support of the Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art, Stuart and Sherry Christhilf, Suzanne F. Cohen, The Cordish Family Foundation, Inc., Nancy L. Dorman and Stanley Mazaroff, Janet E. and Edward K. Dunn, Jr., Katherine M. Hardiman and The Hardiman Family Foundation, Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker, Mary and Paul Roberts, The Thalheimer-Eurich Charitable Fund, Inc., and donors to the Illuminate campaign.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

Reproduction, including downloading of ARS licensed works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Illuminating Bruce Nauman’s Career and Influence

Bruce Nauman Violins Violence Silence (Exterior Version) 1981-82   © 2014 Bruce Nauman/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Bruce Nauman. Violins Violence Silence (Exterior Version). 1981‑1982. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, and Sperone Westwater Fischer Gallery, New York, BMA 1984.2. © 2014 Bruce Nauman / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In Fall 2013, one of the BMA’s most iconic works – Bruce Nauman’s Violins Violence Silence – was removed from its place on the BMA’s East Wing. Over time, natural wear and tear had begun to take their toll on the piece, so in consultation with the Bruce Nauman studio and the BMA’s conservation and curatorial staff, the sculpture was removed from its normal location, in order that it could be refabricated with more up-to-date and durable neon technology.

Deinstalling Nauman's Violins Violence Silence November 5, 2013

Deinstalling Nauman’s Violins Violence Silence November 5, 2013

Deinstalling Nauman's Violins Violence Silence November 5, 2013

Deinstalling Nauman’s Violins Violence Silence November 5, 2013

The large piece was Nauman’s first public neon work, and it came to the BMA as a gift of the artist’s galleries, in recognition of the Museum’s pioneering 1982 exhibition Bruce Nauman: Neons – the first survey of the artist’s works in that medium. Wrapped around a corner of the BMA’s façade, the words Violins Violence Silence share letters and form a poetic string of similar sounds. The meanings of the individual words appear unrelated, suggesting that the physical structure behind verbal communication can be surprisingly arbitrary. Alternatively, read as a sequence describing cause and effect, the work relates an aggressive act against art and beauty, and the somber consequence.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the gift of Violins Violence Silence and the 100th anniversary of the Museum in 2014, the BMA’s Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art (FoMaCA) organized a series of events to raise the $120,000 needed to restore the beacon-like presence of this 20th-century masterpiece to the BMA and the city of Baltimore.

This summer, the newly refabricated Violins Violence Silence will be restored to its former home on the East Wing of the BMA. See more shots of the deinstallation on Flickr.

To mark the occasion, the BMA is tonight hosting Illuminating Bruce Nauman’s Career and Influence, a special event moderated by Curator of Contemporary Art Kristen Hileman. The lively discussion will bring together Juliet Myers, Bruce Nauman Studio Manager for the past three decades; Paul Schimmel, former Chief Curator of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and Vice President and Partner of Hauser Wirth & Schimmel gallery whose essay Pay Attention appeared in the 1994 Nauman retrospective catalog; and Peter Plagens, celebrated art critic, Newsweek Contributing Editor, and author of the new biography, Bruce Nauman: The True Artist. Plagens currently contributes to The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times among several other prominent publications.

Illuminating Bruce Nauman’s Career and Influence is on tonight, Thursday, June 12, 6 p.m. The event will be held at Notre Dame of Maryland University’s Knott Auditorium, 4701 N. Charles Street, Baltimore. Use campus entrance on Homeland Avenue for easier access to parking. Entry is $15 FoMaCA Members, $20 general admission. Free at the door for students with ID.