‘He Just Made You Pay Attention’: Watch Bruce Nauman Describe How an Old Cowboy Helped Him Become a Better Artist

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Bruce Nauman: Teachers & Artists." © Art21, Inc. 2013.

Bruce Nauman is having a New York moment. The polymathic artist is the headliner in a major retrospective opening October 21 at the Museum of Modern Art and the entirety of its Long Island City outpost, PS1. The 165 works that comprise “Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts” were amassed from international institutions and collectors, and touch on ideas wrought in every imaginable medium over the course of the artist’s 50-year career.

Although his art-world imprimatur is evident in almost every museum in the city—he has influenced artists such as Mike Kelley, Glen Ligon, and Matthew Barney—Nauman himself left the New York art scene almost 40 years ago. The Indiana-born artist relocated to New Mexico in 1979, and while his work has been included (and lauded) at art fairs and biennials over the years, this full-dress retrospective is reigniting interest in his work.

“Five Marching Men” (1985) by Bruce Nauman at the Hamburger Bahnhof museum in Berlin. Photo: LENNART PREISS/AFP/Getty Images.

In an interview for Art21’s “Extended Play” series, you won’t see a single shot of the artist actually making art, or even surrounded by it. Instead, Nauman talks about his relationship with horses, or more accurately, about the man who taught him how to interact with horses—an “old cowboy” named Ray Hunt. “He taught me to pay attention to the horses… He was a teacher that really didn’t tell you how to do much. He just made you pay attention,” Nauman says. 

It’s a lesson that the artist has come to apply directly to his own practice. That’s because, as a young artist, Nauman got the same instruction from another sage teacher—the draftsman and painter Wayne Thiebaud. “When I was in school, Wayne was teaching and I was his teaching assistant—and that’s what Wayne did,” he says. “He taught people how to pay attention.” 


Watch the full segment, which originally appeared as part of the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” television series on PBS, below. “Bruce Nauman: Disappearing Acts” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, and MoMA PS1 from October 21–February 21. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television is available now on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.

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