In 1968, a year of mounting opposition to the Vietnam War, a young Bruce Nauman laid waste to a work of contemporary art. His antagonism was unleashed on Various Small Fires (1964) by Ed Ruscha, a booklet of fifteen black-and-white photos of harmless, domestic-scaled flames. After ripping out and igniting each page, Nauman photographed and rebound the charred remnants to form a new text, Burning Small Fires. Here Ruscha's volume supplies the fodder for its own assault, as Nauman cannibalizes a work of Conceptual art to expose its limitations and blind spots. For although it has never been read as such, Nauman's book was a timely project: both an explicit dialogue with the work of a peer and an implicit response to the events of the day. While Ruscha's static images treat burning as “absolutely neutral”—an “introverted” and “meaningless” subject—Nauman restores the sense of ritual power that fire then held in the culture of protest. This essay measures the distance in tone and technique between the original work and its destructive double, as an early-1960s aesthetic of relentless banality gave way to more volatile forces.

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