It has no plaque, no hint of significance or worth.
It is a rusty hunk of steel, measuring 4 feet by 4 feet by 4 inches, weighing more than two tons. It is as absurd as it is profound, a true masterpiece.
It is defined by one word: “Dark.”
A conceptual sculpture by the artist Bruce Nauman, “Dark” was acquired by Southwestern College in 1968 for $1,900. Nauman created it in a small National City steel factory and wrote the word “Dark” beneath it with a yellow permanent-pigment steel marker.
Today the piece rests outside in the gallery courtyard, atop wooden boards, two inches off the ground. Nauman, now 73, is one of the world’s most influential living artists.
“It’s just a steel plate with the word ‘Dark’ written on the bottom,” Nauman explained to Avalanche magazine editor Willoughby Sharp in 1970. “I don’t know how good it is, but it seemed to be a germinal piece to me.”
In 1989 Nauman mentioned the importance of “Dark” in an interview with Christopher Cordes for a catalogue raisonné: “The feelings I had about that piece and the way it functioned for me were important for a long time. I was able to make a statement in it that let things out of me that I hadn’t been able to get out before.”
Few have ever actually seen the word “Dark,” so most can only try to comprehend the piece conceptually.
Get it? Most people do not.
“Nauman is the guy who makes you feel incredibly upset and existentially nervous,” wrote Andrew Soloman for the New York Times in 1995. “You can recognize a Nauman by the way it makes you want to go home.”
In a career spanning more than a half-century, Nauman has crafted sculptures from metal, latex rubber and translucent fiberglass. He has shot films, videos and photos of himself pretending to be a fountain (“Self Portrait as a Fountain,” 1967). He has drawn, produced sound pieces and written poetry. He has utilized neon lights in his most vibrant and aesthetically pleasing works (“Sex and Death/Double ‘69,’’’ 1985). He became widely known in late 1960s and early ‘70s for performances in which he used his body as an expressive instrument (“Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square,” 1967). One of his most famous installations is a chair hanging from a ceiling (“South America Triangle,” 1981). He has not painted since 1964.
In the spring of 1968, SWC held its sixth annual Purchase Award Show. It would be the last. A screening committee consisting of four art instructors — Bob Matheny, John Baldessari, John Clark and Dick Robinson — selected pieces for the show from a pool of applicants. One juror, Dr. Kurt von Meier, an art critic and assistant professor from UCLA, selected the winner.
Nauman, then a tenacious 26-year-old artist from the Bay Area by way of Wisconsin, entered his steel sculpture “Dark.” Odd yet thoughtful, his piece won and the college agreed to pay him $1,900 with funds from the Associated Student Organization. ($1,900 in 1968 is roughly $13,000 in 2015.)
Then came the complaints.
Students, faculty and community members expressed outrage. San Diego Evening Tribune published a letter to the editor by local sculptor Frank Morgan who described the piece as “unmitigated trash.” Letters to the editor of this newspaper (then called The Athapascan) argued for and against the purchase.
“It’s just a slab of steel,” wrote D.S. Baird from the English department. “This particular phase of art today is a homosexual joke… Nauman’s piece of ridicule may imply some kind of social criticism and Kurt von Meier may think he knows what it is, but that does not make it a piece of art.”
Other complaints scrutinized every conceivable aspect of the piece: “Steel is only $26.50 per ton,” “It looks like any other block of steel,” “The intent of the artist is not apparent,” “It’s fooling people to buy junk,” “It’s an expensive pigeon perch,” the letters read.
Baldessari, who later became a world-famous artist himself, wrote a letter to the editor defending the purchase, addressing 18 individual complaints. One by one.
“If art is only to be judged by cost, the materials for a Rembrandt are only $25,” he wrote. Responding to the claim that it looked like other steel blocks, he wrote: “A lot of books look alike, too.” In response to the claim about the artist’s intent, he wrote: “The intent, I believe, is to make people think about what really is art.”
Was the piece fooling people to buy junk? Baldessari said no.
“Life is too short to go around fooling people,” his letter explained. “Art is long, and time will prove the value or non-value of the piece.”
(Nauman’s sculpture “Henry Moore Bound to Fail,” 1967, sold for $9.9 million at Christie’s in May 2001.)
Von Meier, who declared the piece a winner, wrote a formidable essay on “Dark” in defense of his decision. It was also published in the campus newspaper. His critique of “Dark” is possibly the most elegant and compelling case in favor of the sculpture ever writ.
“The word ‘DARK’ is inscribed on the underside — buried,” his essay read. “What more apt poetic image could there be for expressing the fundamental role of any educational institution: To bury the darkness of all forms of ignorance, prejudice and stupidity.
“On the side facing upward there is light. It is not spelled out. Very often truth does not appear spelled out — in the same ways falseness and ignorance very often do.”
Pontificating on “light,” von Meier cited scripture (Genesis 1:3: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”), Goethe’s dying words (“More light.”) and the great Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s comments on the I Ching: “…I know that the universities have ceased to act as disseminates of light.”
Von Meier also noted that “Dark” is “solid, clean, elemental” and “certainly down to earth.”
Regardless of the juror’s testimony, a petition began circulating at SWC to nullify the purchase. Petitioners had gathered 173 signatures by early May, according to The Athapascan. But it did not work. Nauman was eventually paid in full.
Matheny, 85, then the SWC gallery director, said the college became “like a battleground.”
“Somebody decided that would be the last deal where students would pay for the art in the permanent collection,” he said. “That ended the annual Purchase Award Show.”
As time went on the controversy quelled. People forgot about the debate, forgot about “Dark.” Month, years and decades passed. The piece, like so many heavyweight champions of the past, faded into obscurity like sunlight in the dark night sky.
In late January of 1968, about three months before the Purchase Award Show, Nauman travelled to New York City for the first time. He had his first solo show at the Leo Castelli Gallery. It featured fiberglass sculptures, body molds, films, photographs and square metal slabs, among other works.
A keen-eyed young artist named Vallo Riberto attended that show. Riberto had been living in New York since the early 1960s and studying art at the Pratt Graphic Center. The show was his formal introduction to Nauman. He said he was immediately struck by one film in particular, describing it as “a spinning ball bearing shot from above.” Projected on a wall, he said, it looked like “Pong” and “was genius.”
The film, “Bouncing Two Balls between the Floor and Ceiling with Changing Rhythms” (1967), left a lasting impression on Riberto.
“I still feel that it was one of his strongest works,” he said.
Riberto left the Big Apple for the West Coast in 1989, but kept the film in mind. By the mid-1990s he was teaching art classes at SWC. A few years later he became gallery director. Then one day he was walking around the outside perimeter of the courtyard. He glanced down, not believing his eyes.
“I saw this piece of steel sitting in the mud,” he said. “It was next to a sprinkler. I saw the name… ‘Nauman.’”
It was beneath a bush, covered by overgrown shrubs, rusty and utterly neglected. The springer had watered it as frequently as the shrubs. Riberto said he reached out to Matheny who told him the story. Riberto was perplexed, reticent to ask how it got there.
“I think all through the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, till I got here, nobody made any mention of it,” he said. “It was just sort of asleep for 30 years, buried in the corner there.”
Matheny retired from SWC in 1991 and stepped down as gallery director in the 1970s. He said he had no clue how it got there either.
“It could have been negligence on my part,” he admitted, “no doubt about it.”
An SWC employee or one of several successive gallery directors may have put it there, he said.
Soon an excavation took place. Riberto said a small forklift hoisted the piece and it was moved inside the gallery courtyard.
“The bottom had deteriorated,” he said, “and it had about an inch and half of rust shells that crumbled off.”
In its new courtyard home, it sat for nearly a decade.
In 2004, Constance Lewallen, an adjunct curator at the UC Berkeley Art Museum, began research for a new project. It would be an exhibition of Nauman’s work from the 1960s.
“Maybe I’m biased,” she recently said via phone from Berkeley, “but I really think Nauman is the greatest living artist… He continues to be able make works that are innovative, unexpected and influential.”
In 2006 Lewallen sought out “Dark,” contacted Riberto and made arrangements for the piece to have its first road trip.
“They sent a truck down to pick it up,” Riberto said.
From Jan. 17 – April 15, 2007, “Dark” was exhibited at BAM in “A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s.” Beside its extended family of slabs and other works, it basked in the limelight.
Months later the piece returned to SWC, Riberto said, and it went to its old spot, outside in the gallery courtyard.
“If you aren’t aware of who Bruce Nauman is, the piece is not going to mean anything to you. It’s just a hunk of steel. But if you know who Nauman is, and you see that name, then you know.”
Riberto said he prefers that “Dark” not have a plaque. He said he likes its unassuming, quiet nature. Others, however, such as Bob Matheny, said it should be donated to a museum or at least given a plaque. That way, he said, people could appreciate it.
Riberto said he has been in contact with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) who has expressed interest in borrowing the piece for a Nauman exhibition, tentatively slated for 2016.
When the piece was resurrected in the late 1990s, Riberto said the word “Dark” had flaked off and crumbled to pieces. “Dark,” the word, had disappeared. Was “Dark,” the word, ever there?
In a statement in a 1972 catalog Nauman noted: “It’s partly the idea of ‘Given this piece of information, there’s nothing you can do about it.’ Of course, the obvious thing is establishing a place you can’t get to — you have no control over it. It’s sort of like trying to think about the universe. The difference between ‘Dark’ and the point I’ve reached now is that now I wouldn’t actually put the word on the slab. I wouldn’t need to.”