TWO MEMORIAL EXHIBITIONS IN NEW YORK
Written by David Bourdon, regular contributor;
Published in Art in America (September 1996)
Two memorial exhibitions, independently organized, highlighted Nancy Graves's work in bronze, the medium in which she made her most innovative art between the early 1980s and her untimely death at age 54 last October (1995). Knoedler's show contained 13 of Graves's final sculptures, one-of-a-kind, spontaneously improvised pieces that the artist produced during the fall of 1994 and the spring of 1995. Although the sculptures represent solid achievements, most are relatively small in scale, and their patinas seem uncharacteristically restrained, consisting mainly of muted golds and weathered-looking greens.
Being an assemblagist at heart, Graves delighted in bringing together natural forms (flowers, vegetables), human-made objects (fans, chains) and art-historical imagery (fragments of Egyptian, Greek and Asian statuary). She typically constructed her open-form compositions from a large personal stockpile of "spare parts" (including leaves, sunflowers, fish and plastic bubble wrap) that had been previously cast in bronze. She often combined her bronze components with found objects made of other metals, such as iron, copper or stainless steel. Intriguingly, her last sculptures incorporate an impressive amount of kitchenware: colanders, basters, garlic presses, citrus fruit juicers, graters and slotted spoons. A colander, for instance, is juxtaposed with a couple of hands making Buddhist gestures, a flower and a few bars of musical composition (in relief) in No Common Greed IX-27-'94. A garlic press and basters are no less important than the Egyptian religious relic, the silhouetted Greek head and the couple of dozen leaves in Identity informing IX-28-'94.
The preeminent piece at Knoedler was Metaphore and Melanomy 4-15-95, a 10-foot-high bronze that recapitulates several of Graves's favorite motifs. Fragments of Greek and Egyptian statuary are played off against architectural details (an ornamental ceiling arch, a cornice with a floral design), forms from nature (a lacy leaf, a sunflower), and humanmade objects (a fan, an umbrella) the composition is bedecked here and there with purely abstract motifs (a decorative spiral, a cubistic grid and a tracery of large and small circles). The ubiquity of pierced and filigreed forms is exhilarating. Graves relished the visual intricacy of multilayered see-through traceries and grids, which collectively contribute an atmosphere of astonishing lightness and transparency.
In contrast to Knoedler's show, the Locks tribute offered a livelier survey of Graves's more typical that is, brightly colored) works from the 1980s. Being an accomplished painter as well as sculptor, Graves enlivened her bronzes with a wide and novel range of patinas and/or polyurethane paints. Rotata (1983), a predominantly red, yellow and blue bronze, suggests an array of vines twisting around a skeletal umbrella top, all perched on a linear stand festooned with a cluster of beans. Whiffle Tree (1985), a skinny vertical piece in high-keyed pinks, reds and yellows, juxtaposes a multicolored chain with a see-through globe (formed by intersecting rings); the entire piece rests in part on a coil of trompe l'oeil blue rope. Luxate (1989) is an extraordinary, if not completely resolved, piece in which arched corrugated bands, a fanlike palm leaf and other elements, all in bronze, are surmounted by a meandering copper pipe, a large rectangle of chain-link steel and a vintage, paint-peeling piece of decorative woodwork. Elsewhere, the bronze starfish and vegetal forms of insight Out (1989) find themselves alongside such found objects as a stainless: steel tractor seat, an iron chain and worn leather belts.
Graves's vivid conjunctions of disparate materials can be visually jarring, yet also seem psychically harmonious. Some of her most extraordinary works wittily combine baroque opulence, surrealistic incongruity and Abstract-expressionist swagger.
cover: Nancy Graves: Camels, Bones and Bronze
On the first floor of Tallix Foundry
in Peekskill, New York, Dick Polich travels in and out of a thicket
of sculpture. "This way to Nancy's room," he says, skirting a prone
caryatid of allegorical import and a seated figure of Chief Justice
John Marshall. Beyond some bronze casts by Isamu Noguchi and Reuben
Nakian and a titanium relief by Frank Stella lies his destination.
Reaching a wall of industrial shelving, he points out bronzed
pretzels, crayfish, pig intestines, drain spouts, wrenches, pleated
lampshades, warty gourds, lotus pods, ginger roots, scissors,
jackfruit, bulbs of fennel and a Shaker rake. Each item is preserved
in minute detail, and some have been covered with brightly colored
enamel. From this stockpile come the building blocks of Nancy
Graves' sculptures; she adds to the inventory on nearly every trip
she makes to the foundry. "Most of the time Nancy arrives loaded
down with two shopping bags full of stuff for us to cast," a worker
says. "You never know what she's going to bring in next."
Polich is the president of Tallix, a busy inferno of sculptural
activity located at a bend in the Hudson River, where many prominent
American artists have their work cast in metal. The foundry is known
for its innovative approach to materials and patinas, and this
readiness to experiment not only attracted Graves but helped trigger
a dazzling new phase in her art. For the past eight years she has
cast found objects and specimens of plant and marine life directly
into bronze, combined the diverse items on site by welding and then
patinated, painted or enameled the surfaces with a rich variety of
colors. The resulting works - floating and often whimsical
assemblages plucked from an exotic Constructivist garden - occupy a
unique place in contemporary sculpture. Picasso bronzed the flotsam
and jetsam of everyday life and painted them in bold colors, and
Julio Gonzalez and David Smith pioneered in welded open-form
sculpture. Their discoveries informs hers, as does the work of
Alexander Calder and Alberto Giacometti. Yet she has extended as
well as synthesized their ideas through her materials, techniques
and elaborate organic conceits. Graves; spontaneous, one-of-a-kind
fabrications prohibit preparatory models and multiple editions.
Their style is slyly baroque: the sculptures fuse realism, spatial
illusion and ornament and blur the boundaries between paintings and
sculpture to arrive at a totality.