Untitled is a large, square, five-colour screenprint depicting a circle of paired hands. Left and right hands are fused at the wrist with fingers pointing in opposite directions. The index finger and thumb of each right hand makes a hole into which the index finger of each left hand is inserted. The screenprint was made from a collage Nauman created using experimental variants or ‘states’ of an original etching. The etching, Untitled 1994, is based on a drawing Nauman made of his hands. He used his right hand to draw his left hand and his left to draw his right. It is one of a series of seven etchings Nauman created from drawings of his hands connecting his fingers in various permutations to create enclosed spaces between them or ‘holes’. Together with this screenprint and four lithographs, including Untitled (Tate P77803), the prints make up an eleven print series collectively titled Fingers and Holes. Nauman collaged five of the double-handed units to form a circle, in which fingers link hands like a daisy chain. This collage was photographed to make the screenprint. Those fingers not involved in making the hole or penetrating it spread out elegantly over the paper, creating a pattern through their repetition. Parallel shading lines on the left index fingers and scribbles in the left little fingers provide a contrast with the otherwise spare, clean lines of Nauman’s drawing. A symbol consisting of a circle with a horizontal line through half of it (a symbolic representation of the finger in the hole) and the back-to-front scribble ‘3 fingers’ (on the original before cropping this is ‘3 fingers, 1 hole’) is repeated five times around the circle of hands, providing another patterning element.
The screenprinting was done in two runs. For the first run, Nauman directed the printers to apply red, yellow and blue inks to the screen randomly. The inks were allowed to blend on the screen and it was used for several successive printings, each time resulting in slight differences in colour distribution. As the colours became too muddied, the screen was cleaned and fresh inks were applied. A second run using transparent grey ink was then made. As a result of this process each print is unique and Untitled is often referred to as a monoprint. Of 110 impressions, ninety prints were eventually signed by the artist. All the prints in the series Fingers and Holes were printed and published by Gemini G.E.L., Los Angeles in 1994.
The motif repeated in Untitled has its precedence in a neon work entitled Human Sexual Experience (private collection), which Nauman created in 1985, although he had apparently forgotten this earlier work at the time of making the prints (Bruce Nauman: Fingers and Holes, p.4). The title of the neon, in which two pointing left hands in blue and green poke into two hole-forming right hands in yellow and pink, makes Nauman’s intended reading of this gesture more explicit. More recently Nauman produced a sculptural version of the print, Untitled (Hand Circle) 1996 (Art Foundry Editions, Santa Fe) in bronze. The original etching was also collaged onto a version of the Untitled lithograph in the series (Tate P77803), which depicts two clowns shaking hands. It is placed over the handshake, which forms the centre of the image, subverting the gesture of friendship into one of possible hostility. Nauman has explained ‘The series was not about the holes at first and then I saw that that was going on. So I started thinking about that – about topology. Things that don’t look alike morphose one into the other. Topology is about surface: the coffee cup and the donut are the same.’ (Quoted in Bruce Nauman: Fingers and Holes, p.3.) As with much of Nauman’s work since the 1960s, apparently simple forms and gestures are used to mask and subvert a language of intricate complexity.
Coosje van Bruggen, Bruce Nauman, New York 1988
Bruce Nauman: Fingers and Holes, Los Angeles and New York 1994, pp.3-6, 14 and 17, reproduced (colour) pp.7-8
Jill Snyder, Bruce Nauman: 1985-1996: Drawings, Prints and Related Works, exhibition catalogue, Alrich Museum of Contemporary Art, 1997, pp.74-7, reproduced p.1