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Artist Bruce Nauman skywrites over Pasadena

September 12, 2009 |  6:00 pm

Bruce Nauman A

Down on the ground, it was a Saturday morning pretty much like any other in the Arroyo Seco's Brookside Park, a stone's throw from Pasadena's Rose Bowl. Kids were playing soccer, vendors hawked ice cream, families were heading to the Aquatics Center and dogs were out for a walk.

In the bright blue sky overhead, however, things were different. A 40-year wait was coming to an end.

A small airplane buzzed into view around 11:37 a.m., and soon it began to emit puffs of white smoke. A never-before produced sculpture by Bruce Nauman – a little-known but emerging artist when he conceived the sky-writing piece in his Raymond Avenue studio in 1969, but now one of art's premier international figures – was finally coming to fruition.

Soon the words took shape in a gentle arc overhead: LEAVE THE LAND ALONE.

The fluffy words hung in the idle air, then slowly dissipated, leaving barely a smudge. The plane circled around and rewrote the brief sentence several times. (I counted four in the first 20 minutes.) A few groundlings took pictures, having been prepared for the event: It kicks off “Installations Inside/Out,” a 20th anniversary exhibition of installation art at Pasadena's Armory Center for the Arts. But mostly it went unnoticed or else puzzled recreationers in the park.

An early environmental sculpture, the piece is kin to the Earthworks or Land Art developed mostly in the American West in the late 1960s and 1970s. Nauman helped create what one critic a decade later would call “sculpture in the expanded field.” Partly that meant sculpture would no longer be only a discreet physical object with an inside separate and distinct from its outside and isolated on a pedestal in a gallery or a park.

Bruce Nauman B In Nauman's case, in fact, sculpture would “leave the land alone.”

A master of language (and an admirer of Dada artist and punster Marcel Duchamp), he also chose a phrase that did more than merely describe the nature of new art. The aerial exhortation also recalls emerging environmentalist issues, kicked into contemporary public consciousness by the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's “The Silent Spring.”

And on July 20, 1969,  close to the moment when Nauman moved from Northern California to Pasadena, Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong opened the hatch of the lunar module Eagle and Bruce Nauman C stepped onto the surface of the moon – the first human being to leave one land and walk gingerly onto a wholly alien one. Now that's an expanded field.

As is often the case with Nauman, a profound and poetic awareness of fragile individual mortality resonates through his art's otherwise blunt statement. Take a breath between its last two words, and “leave the land – alone” describes what everyone does when they slip this mortal coil. Up in the lovely blue sky, the work is a secular eulogy.

It probably won't ever be as famous as the dramatic “Surrender Dorothy!,” those skywriting pyrotechnics over cinematic Oz penned by the Wicked Witch of the West and her flying broomstick. No matter. Standing in the late summer sun while a hawk circled silently between me and Nauman's encomium, I was more than glad to be there.

Here's a short video of the piece:

--Christopher Knight

Photos and video: Bruce Nauman, "Untitled (Leave the Land Alone)," 1969/2009; credit: Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times

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