Bruce Nauman, One Hundred Live and Die, 1984
"One Hundred Live and Die" marries declarative ease and an uncompromising toughness. Mounted on a black, free-standing wall are 100 phrases in vivid colored block letters, arrayed in four neat columns. The words in one column — "Eat and Live," "Fear and Live," "Pay and Live" and so on — are echoed in the next ("Eat and Die," "Fear and Die," "Pay and Die"). Nauman’s inventory of options sticks for the most part with verbs (sing, suck, scream, try, lie, kiss) but evolves into colors as well ("Yellow and Live"). Some of his choices form rhyming couplets (tell/smell) or paired opposites (come/go, rise/fall). They blink on singly and in patterns, and ultimately all are illuminated.
The piece couldn’t be more clearly presented, but its meaning is neither fixed nor stable, so it has that spiral-like elusiveness. A verbal/visual chant, a recitation, a rant, it is dense with contradiction — a poem of existence constantly rewriting itself.
Nauman’s adoption of an advertising medium to express conditions other than promise and certainty is savvy, and its subversive power threads through all the neon work. John Baldessari’s early text paintings, executed by a commercial sign painter, are comparable in their wit and the way they undermine and redefine the artist’s role.