Bruce Nauman is one of a handful of contemporary artists who have shaped the current state of art. Like John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, and even Yoko Ono, the contemporary artist has gone from performance to performance to performance, from video to painting to sculpture, crossing every line of artistry to make way for new artists (many of which have had work featured on this very site). They all have their hallmarks, conceptual posts to hang their career on, where–when you see it–you know it is a Baldessari or a Ruscha or an Ono.
For Bruce Nauman, it is his works in neon light that define him. Similar to his light installation peers Dan Flavin, James Turrell, and Craig Kauffman, Bruce Nauman took his artistic concepts and filtered them through neon light to form figures and words, echoing his work in video, photography, and drawing. Many of his neon pieces use words and figures, unlike other neon/light artists who were using the medium to create and project an unwavering emotion onto a space. Nauman made his neon pieces minimalist/maximalist emotions: they painted a space pink one minute, flickered on purple another, flickered black one minute, and then combined all the colors at once. Like neon signs you see on any store front that flicker red and blue, Nauman took this idea and embedded a text, story, and emotion to it, an incomparable achievement.
One Hundred Live and Die is what many consider to be Nauman’s masterpiece. Sad and hopeful, One Hundred flickers through each possible flippant, mundane, and tragic way to live or die in a blaze of neon exuberance. Each phrase (“LAUNCH AND LIVE,” “FALL AND DIE,” “SPIT AND LIVE,” etc.) light the room with its orange, blue, white, or whatever color it may be. It paints the room and provides a surprisingly profound commentary on life, telling a story with each phrase, reiterating just how fucked up life can be (which may elicit tears, laughter, or blank stares). In the end, One Hundred resonates with all one hundred phrases lit, blindingly beautiful and a little overwhelming.
One Hundred Live and Die, like all Nauman work, play with neon and text, a physical space, and human emotion. They are absolutely beautiful and undoubtedly modern. Nauman is definitely an artist whose work you should do your damnedest to see: they are somber, they are fun, and they are inconic.