YOU FIGURE IT OUT: "Untitled Beeswax" by Bruce Nauman: Untitled, 1967, is beeswax over plaster with rope, from the Daros Collection, Switzerland.
YOU FIGURE IT OUT: "Untitled Beeswax" by Bruce Nauman: Untitled, 1967, is beeswax over plaster with rope, from the Daros Collection, Switzerland. (BRUCE NAUMAN/ARTIST RIGHTS SOCIETY )
I STOOD IN FRONT of a large-screen television for about three minutes and watched artist Bruce Nauman press his feet and hands against a stark white wall. I could have been there for another 57 minutes, as his work "Wall-Floor Positions" is an hour long — but three minutes was enough.

After attending the press preview of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive's exhibit, "A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman and the 1960s," which opened to the public Wednesday , I walked away confused.

Nauman — whose wide body of work includes sculpture, photography, neon, video, drawing and performance — is considered one of the most influential artists out there. Hence the quote from museum curator Constance M. Lewallen that I scribbled down as she led an informal tour of the Nauman exhibition, held in four of the museum's galleries:

"Nauman is one of the most important living artists, period," Lewallen says.

Then why, I wondered, could I not understand the import of much of what I was seeing in the gallery?

It bothered me all weekend.

In 1966, art dealer Nicholas Wilder had the same impressions of Nauman's early work as I did. According to the show's beautiful catalogue, Wilder had seen a sculpture Nauman made at a friend's house.

"He didn't have it quite down, I thought," Wilder says in a 1988 interview about Nauman. "Well, I was wrong. I wasn't getting it. But I got home and I couldn't forget it."

And neither can I forget what I saw at "A Rose Has No Teeth." A combination of video, sculpture, photography and neon, the exhibit made me giggle at times — and question Nauman's sanity at others. Above all, it made me want to learn more about Nauman and his work to figure out why he is so important to artists and art historians.

Nauman was in the Bay Area in the mid-1960s, studying art as a graduate student at the University of California, Davis, and later as a working artist in a small storefront studio in San Francisco's Mission district.

The pieces at the Berkeley Art Museum are some of his first, and considered the work that has defined his entire career.

Nauman's art has been described by other artists as raw and quirky, absurd and stark. Some of it, like the story behind the "Slant Step," is just silly.

According to the catalogue, Nauman and his friends found a strange piece of handmade furniture in a salvage shop that looked sort of like a footstool, but it was angled in such a way that no one could actually stand on it.

Nauman eventually purchased the stool and kept it in his studio at Davis. There, he showed the stool to other artist friends who were equally interested in this small, green piece of furniture that seemed to have no logical function. It became a sort of fetish for the artists — and a muse.

In September 1966, Nauman and several other artists participated in "The Slant Step Show," an exhibit dedicated to works inspired by the stepstool.

"In a way, ("The Slant Step Show") sort of typified the attitudes of the artists in that group," Lewallen says.

Much of the work in the Berkeley show is the stuff that makes MFA students drool and a regular Joe roll his eyes. It includes a 60-minute video of the artist holding a fluorescent tube in various positions ("Manipulating a Fluorescent Tube," 1969) and a 4-minute video of the artist pulling on his thigh ("Thighing," 1967).

THEY CALL ME BRUCE: Bruce Nauman in the doorway of his San Francisco studio. The 1966 portrait is contemporaneous with the works in the exhibition and
THEY CALL ME BRUCE: Bruce Nauman in the doorway of his San Francisco studio. The 1966 portrait is contemporaneous with the works in the exhibition and included in the show catalogue but is not featured in the exhibit itself. (JACK FULTON)

There is a plaster ear attached to a rope ("Westerman's Ear," 1967/68) and a neon sculpture of the left half of his body spread out every 10 inches ("Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at Ten-inch Intervals," 1966).

The fact is, weird or not, Nauman was doing things that no one else was doing at the time, like using video as a medium for art and using his body as sculpture material.

To the pedestrian viewer, the video work may seem strange and self-indulgent. For how long can you watch a man in a small room do odd things like paint himself different colors ("Art Make-Up," 1967) or dance around a square ("Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square," 1967/68)?

"Nauman tried to make films that really didn't look like art," Lewallen says. Like the one of his friends fishing ("Fishing for Asian Carp," 1966) or another of him turning a regular-size envelope into a legal-size one with scissors and tape ("Legal Size," 1966), they were filmed to question "established conventions of measurement, judgment, and classification," according to essayist Robert R. Riley.

Although thoroughly confused by most of the video work, I was oddly transfixed by it, too. What was Nauman trying to say when he applied paint to his face and torso in front of a video camera, and why did those images stay in my mind?

Perhaps it is because I struggled so much to understand them. I want to think Nauman is important. I want to be affected by "one of the most influential artists" of my time. But the fact is, I ended up feeling sort of dumb.

Still, there were gems.

Nauman's sound sculpture, "Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of This Room," included in the Berkeley show as it was created in 1968, is one of them. As visitors enters a small room they are assaulted with Nauman's voice hissing and growling these commands. The piece was included in a 2005 exhibition of Nauman's sound work at the Tate Modern in England.

"Nauman's work is difficult in certain ways and it purposefully keeps you off balance," Lewallen says.

From the "Eleven Color Photographs" series of 1966-'67/1970, Nauman's photography has an almost timeless quality, as if the pictures could have been taken yesterday rather than 40 years ago. They are interesting as they explore "the relationship between words and images in visual and verbal puns," Lewallen writes.

In one photograph, "Eating My Words," Nauman is literally eating words (made out of dough), and in another, "Waxing Hot," someone is waxing the letter 'O' in a figure of the word "HOT." The photos, with their vivid colors and clever puns, are attractive and fun.

One of Nauman's most famous works, the neon piece "The True Artist Helps the World By Revealing Mystic Truths," was also created during this period and is included in the show. It, too, is vivid and colorful.

Finally, on the floor in one gallery sits Nauman's piece "Dark." It's a conceptual piece, a two-ton slab of metal with the word "dark" written on the bottom so you never see it. There's nothing you can do to change that, either. I liked the concept of "Dark," and that it is an unconventional type of work I had never seen before.

The show itself is named after a piece Nauman made of the Ludwig Wittgenstien quote, in which Wittgenstien took the phrase "The law has no teeth" through a series of logical permutations until he arrived at that final, absurd quote.

A fan of Wittgenstien and an artist who believes outdoor sculpture is never a match for nature, Nauman created the "A Rose Has No Teeth" lead plaque in 1966, intending to have it nailed to a tree with the tree bark growing over it. "A Rose Has No Teeth," was also Nauman's first word piece and the first of several works he intended to have displayed outdoors.

"A Rose Has No Teeth" was never permanently affixed to a tree and therefore never destroyed by nature as Nauman intended. I wondered how the tree would look now, 40 years later, if the plaque had been attached.

In the end, the Berkeley show gave me something to think about — as I did for days after I saw it — even if I didn't understand all of what I was seeing.

The exhibit runs through April 15 and will then travel to Texas and Florida. To learn more about Nauman and "A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s" visit http://www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/.

You can reach features writer Laura Casey at (925)416-4860 or by e-mail at lcasey@angnewspapers.com.