Bruce Nauman

Enforced Perspective: Allegory and Symbolism


Bruce Nauman born 1941
Unconfirmed, 36 parts, each: 102 x 356 x 356 mm
ARTIST ROOMS Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d'Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008

Not on display


This work consists of thirty-six rhomboid-shaped steel slabs displayed on the floor in eight groupings: six sets of five and two sets of three. Although each slab weighs 105 kg, the two parallel sloping sides of each one slant at different angles to the others, ensuring that the slabs all vary slightly in shape. The pieces in the groupings of three are arranged corner to corner in a diagonal line while the groupings of five are made by placing four slabs around a central slab, sometimes edge to edge to create a cross shape, sometimes corner to corner to create a checkerboard pattern. The groups are equally spaced and always arranged so that the overall composition is as geometrically ordered as each group, although each set may be arranged in slightly different configurations when shown in different spaces. The slabs, which are brown with corrosion and have paint-spattered surfaces, rest on felt pads, which are not visible to the viewer. Nauman has stipulated that this piece must not be displayed behind barriers in order to encourage viewers to walk among the slabs.

Enforced Perspective: Allegory and Symbolism was made by Bruce Nauman in 1975. Each slab was ‘torch cut’ from a larger steel block, a process that involves using a flame to heat the part of the metal to be cut. A blast of oxygen is then applied, which reacts with the metal, causing a further heating process that allows the metal to melt away from the cutting line. This process results in the slightly imperfect finish seen in the slabs: for instance, parallel lines appear on their surfaces that may be left over from the cutting process.

Nauman made a pencil study for this work, also in the ARTIST ROOMS collection (Untitled (Drawing for Enforced Perspective) 1975, Tate AR00578), which shows Nauman’s process as he explored potential patterns and designed the configurations for the blocks. These designs suggest that although the various arrangements for this sculpture are changeable, they are not completely open-ended and are subject to a set of rules defined by the artist. According to critic Coosje van Bruggen, for this and other similar sculptures made in the mid-1970s, such as Consummate Mask of Rock 1975 (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco) and White Breathing 1975 (private collection), ‘the proportions of the room were used to determine the placement’ of the constituent parts (Coosje van Bruggen, Bruce Nauman, New York 1988, p.195). Van Bruggen adds that ‘these installations were built upon analogies to mathematics. However, the logical systems once again began to surface through the making of analogies between one system and another, through cheating along the way, and through mixing up the systems’ (van Bruggen 1988, p.195). Having studied mathematics as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, Nauman frequently employs a systematic yet playful approach to his work, as is seen here. In this work Nauman uses a branch of mathematics known as combinatorics to allow him to work out the number of possible configurations within the structure of the sculpture.

The title of the work is a pun on the phrase ‘forced perspective’, which Nauman used as a title for other works he made in 1975: Forced Perspective I (Städtisches Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach) and Forced Perspective II (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York). The term refers to the practice of using optical illusion to alter one’s perception of the scale and distance of objects. In his Forced Perspective works Nauman employed such optical illusions, using sculptural blocks of different sizes in order to distort the viewer’s sense of space. By using the title Enforced Perspective for the current work Nauman suggests, conversely, that the rules of perspective are set in stone, to be rigidly imposed. The steel slabs laid out across the floor serve as perspectival markers for the space in which they are displayed, as the ones closest to the viewer appear larger than those furthest away. However, the addition of the words Allegory and Symbolism to the title suggests further layers of meaning for the steel rhomboids beyond providing physical demarcations of space. While an allegory is a tale with a moral, symbolism refers to a form representing an abstract concept, allowing these steel slabs perhaps to be read as stand-ins for people or places and the relationships between them.

Further reading
Joan Simon, Neal Benezra, Kathy Halbreich and others, Bruce Nauman, exhibition catalogue, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 1994, reproduced p.266.
Robert C. Morgan (ed.), Bruce Nauman, Baltimore and London 2002, pp.262–9.

Ariana Musiol
The University of Edinburgh
April 2013

The University of Edinburgh is a research partner of ARTIST ROOMS.

Online caption

Between 1975 and 1976, Nauman produced a series of sculptural installations consisting of carved stone and metal slabs placed around the floors of large rooms. In 'Enforced Perspective' steel rhomboids form a geometric design, creating the illusion of subtle shifts in the gallery floor as the viewer moves about them. Although the overall pattern that the visitor encounters appears relatively simple, the grouping of the thirty-six slabs has many possible arrangements. By creating a sculptural field that could be altered, this installation allowed Nauman to test the effects of different spaces on his audience’s behaviour.