January 31, 2016KR BlogBlogEnthusiams

Clowns and Art

In “Fun That’s No Fun,” the preface to Cindy Sherman’s book of 2003-2004 clown photographs, Maik Schlüter writes, “The act of fun is forever orbiting the tragedy of life.” You can see this tension, I think, in Sherman’s portraits: her clowns remind you that doom (of the Day-Glo variety) may be drawing near. Gaiety is offset by garishness; painted smiles are interrupted by false teeth. As Sherman says in an interview with Isabelle Graw (printed in the same collection), “I was more interested in those clown types where it seemed there was something skewed in their personality, something disturbed.”

Schlüter compares Sherman’s clown series to Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture (1987), a four-channel video installation I stumbled upon in Chicago in 2009. I remember being held in place by Nauman’s Reel D, “No, No, No, No (Walter),” which shows a balding clown (played by Walter Stevens) shaking his gloved hands and oversized shoes in insistent denial. (And what is he denying? Imminent torture? A clown’s responsibilities? Life itself?) About his work, Nauman has said, “From the beginning I was trying to see if I could make art that . . . was just there all at once. Like getting hit in the face with a baseball bat. Or better, like getting hit in the back of the head.” This isn’t, of course, every museum-goer’s dream. According to Calvin Tomkins, when Clown Torture was shown at the 1989 Whitney Biennial, “a shocked visitor stood outside the room for quite a while, warning people not to go in.”

In a 1995 profile of Nauman for The New York Times Magazine, Andrew Solomon compares the situation of Nauman’s audience to that of the artist’s horses. (Nauman has lived for several decades on a ranch in New Mexico, where he raises and breaks horses.) “You’ll be more useful, worth more, maybe better off,” Solomon promises, “once he’s broken you.”

Maybe. I love Clown Torture; I don’t know Nauman’s other work deeply enough to feel broken by it. But I did experience some brokenness several years ago after spending part of an afternoon with Georges Rouault’s The Clown (1907). The painting hangs in the Detroit Institute of Arts. Its central figure watches—warily, and somewhat witheringly—everyone who passes by. Later that day in the museum cafeteria I wrote about this “unbidden clown, this midlife schmuck, / this down-on-his-luck // oil-and-gouache-on-panel slob.” I could insult him, but I couldn’t shake him. Sometimes I feel he’s watching me still.

The Clown

Perhaps clowns understand too well a truth we try to put out of our minds: laughter, and all that goes with it, ends. As Schlüter writes in his essay on Sherman, “at the end of the day everyone laughs about the fact that there is nothing to laugh about.” Or as my five-year-old clown-in-training told me yesterday: “It’s OK, Dad; everything breaks. People break, also. They break when they die.”