When Nauman converts tedium and punchiness into virtues, his art works. That is, it has an immediate and powerful effect on the viewer - "like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat," he hopes. In general, though, the aesthetic level is really low. Some of Nauman's working drawings were scarcely worth framing.
There's one early (1975) piece which one might class as a conventional sculpture. It consists of 16 chalk cubes placed directly on the floor in pairs. These pairs are three or four feet away from each other and form a rough circle. One of the cubes in each pair is about an inch bigger than the other. This work obviously relates to the minimal sculpture of its day, except that it's so null and feeble. Minimal sculpture declares its presence through perfect judgement of size and scale, or it is next to nothing. In these crucial respects Nauman's piece fails. He adds an irrelevant typewritten text, framed and hung on the wall.
Nauman is rather younger than the more aesthetic American minimal sculptors of the generation of Don Judd, Carl Andre and Robert Morris, whose work he admired via art magazines. He was born in 1941 in Fort Wayne, Indiana, studied art at the University of California, and in his earlier years was considered a West Coast artist, ie not a real part of the New York scene. Some of us remember that he first appeared at the Hayward in 1971 in a show called "Eleven Los Angeles Artists", when Nauman installed a narrow corridor - it wasn't really a sculpture, and that was the point - rather like the piece Live-Taped Video Corridor (1978) in the present exhibition. You had to squeeze through the corridor sideways. This gave small amounts of fun and irritation in equal measure.
Most of those LA artists of the early 1970s have long since disappeared into their native surf or whatever, while Nauman has steadily increased his worldwide appearances in museums. The Hayward exhibition comes to us from the Pompidou Centre, where it was organised. The show was seen last year at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, and this autumn will travel to Helsinki. The catalogue is of an impressive size, and the whole business has the air of a major retrospective. But with one fatal difference. We do not find an artist who grows and matures. Nauman's sculptures are dated; his neon signs of any date are merely trite. We see that Nauman has only ever made one artistic step of any consequence. That was to give up three- dimensional art for video.
I said just now that Nauman is overrated. As evidence, I quote the Hayward exhibition guide, which tells us that, when he gave up trying to be a sculptor, "Nauman pondered what an artist could reasonably do after the reductive aesthetic of minimalism
The "possible permutations of human behaviour within given parameters" turn out to be videos of Nauman or somebody else - occasionally the spectator - tip-toeing along a line, applying make-up, repeating phrases, or squeezing through an artificial corridor. As so often with video art, even the most accommodating spectator will be stunned by the banality of the artist's imagination. No doubt Nauman twigged that this was his problem. He decided it would be more effective to stun with the baseball bat he uses as a metaphor.
And he's right. Nauman is more effective when he's violent. I don't say that this is in his personal character. More likely that it's in the nature of the video medium. For more than 20 years now, we have been tortured by having to look at videos in horrible box-like temporary rooms in art galleries, and when have we ever seen a video artist with an authentic personal signature? This is why the videoists so often go in for self- portraiture. I add that video has to be figurative, or it would be tedious beyond anyone's attention span. It's always bad at human relations.
Nauman is clever in this area. He shows people shouting nothingnesses, and we're not sure whether the shouter is the artist himself. And one of his more elaborate videos is of a male/ female couple beating each other up. Attention-grabbing, but very soon you want to walk away.
Hayward, SE1 (0171 960 4242), to 6 September.Reuse content