Raw-War is Nauman's first word-image print. In 1968 he had made a drawing of the phrase RAW WAR, exploring its potential as a palindrome where words read the same in reverse order. In this drawing, WAR is written three times on three lines: in the first line only the letter R is coloured, while W and A remain transparent; on the second line the A is coloured; while on the third all three letters are coloured in. The possibility of reading WAR as RAW thus appears as the eye travels from the top right hand corner of the page to the bottom left. Nauman had been exploring what he calls 'front/back interplay' in his sculptural work with fibreglass, inverting forms and focusing on the insides of moulds. He discovered through printmaking (particularly lithography) the automatic reversal of his initial image/text, which naturally fed into the front/back interplay of works like Raw-War. This provided an important new medium for his investigation into language as a system of signs. 'I am really interested in the different ways that language functions. That is something I think a lot about, which also raises questions about how the brain and the mind work … the point where language starts to break down as a useful tool for communication is the same edge where poetry or art occurs.' (Nauman quoted in Cordes, p.25)
Shortly before making the lithograph, Nauman had produced a neon sign, Raw War, which flashes alternately RAW in red and WAR in orange. The lithograph reproduces this colour order, although in a more ambiguous manner, since the dominant word in the print RAW, which is coloured red, yields an inverted last letter 'r' if read in the normal manner, i.e. from left to right. Similarly the word WAR behind it must be read back to front, as a mirror image. Both words and the scratchings behind them disrupt normal ways of reading, although they are all recognisable as text. Nauman's skilful disruption of a simple relationship between the two words - they cannot be reduced merely to mirror-imaging - puts into question our own reading of their connection. The formal (in the form of the words) and conceptual (war as a situation of wounding, producing rawness) links between the two words are made clear. But the hierarchy of cause and effect is not. Produced during America's involvement in the Vietnam War, it could be read as a comment on the futility of that engagement.
Raw-War is one of three lithographs Nauman produced during 1971. It was made in collaboration with Cirrus Editions, Los Angeles, and co-published by Castelli Graphics and Nicholas Wilder Gallery, both of New York.
Christopher Cordes, Bruce Nauman: Prints 1970-89, New York 1989, pp.8-10, reproduced (colour) p.43, pl.7
Neal Benezra, Kathy Halbreich, Joan Simon. Bruce Nauman, exhibition catalogue, Walker Arts Centre, Minneapolis 1994, p.53