Nancy Stevenson Graves

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Nancy Stevenson Graves

The American sculptor Nancy Stevenson Graves (1940-1995) established herself with the life-sized, realistic camel constructions she developed between 1965 and 1969. Using a multiplicity of materials and a wide range of sources, she focused her talents on filmmaking, painting, printmaking, stage designing, and watercolor as well as sculpture.

Nancy Stevenson Graves was born on December 23, 1940, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where her father worked as assistant to the director of the Berkshire Museum. Her early exposure to this institution where art, history, and science were presented under the same roof profoundly influenced her later work. She attended Vassar College, majoring in English literature and studying painting and drawing (B.A. 1961), but it was not until she entered the Yale School of Art and Architecture that the intense, competitive world of a fine arts education became available to her. She earned B.F.A. and M.F.A. degrees at Yale.

After graduation in 1964 she received a Fulbright-Hayes grant in painting to study in Paris for a year. She and fellow classmate Richard Serra were married there in the summer of 1965, and in 1966 they moved to Florence, Italy. It was in this city's natural-history museum that Graves found the work of Clemente Susina, an 18th-century anatomist. His life-sized wax models of human and animal bodies and their organs provided an impetus for Graves' first experiments with sculpture.

Beginning with small-scale animals, she soon turned to life-sized models and selected the camel for its scale and shape as well as its lack of Western art historical references. She thoroughly studied the camel: from the desert to the slaughterhouse to the natural-history museum. Between 1965 and 1969 she constructed 25 camels, no more than five of which are extant, and first exhibited some at the Graham Gallery in New York in 1968. The following year she had a solo exhibition of three new Bactrian camels (Camel VI, Camel VII and Camel VIII) at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Her increasing skill at creating these strange desert beasts was evident, and even more importantly, their striking contrast to the clean cool Minimalist art of the 1960s caused a stir in the art world. Critics and viewers were befuddled by the use of nontraditional materials and techniques, nonartistic sources, and an image alien to the traditional world of sculpture.

Having worked from the internal supports to the exterior covering in constructing her camels, Graves selected structure in the forms of bones and fossils made of inorganic materials for her next sculptural explorations. Variability of Similar Forms (1970), a work of 36 unique front and back Pleistocene camel legs made of wax over a steel armature, reflects not only her concern with the techniques of sculpture, but with the illusion of motion. Influenced by Eadweard Muybridge's photographs of animals and humans in sequential motion, she created a work in which the illusion of motion is attained by the viewer walking around the sculpture.

In 1970 Graves made the first of five films. Each one was preceded by travel and research, and though the images are "representational" the films are fundamentally abstract in their exploration of color, light, form, and surface. She considered 200 Stills at 60 Frames (8 minutes, silent) and Goulimine (8 minutes, color, sound), her earliest films about the camel, as study projects. Izy Boukir (1971, 20 minutes, color, camel sounds) also uses camels and their motion as its subject, but Graves had refined her style and produced a mature work. Her next film, Aves (1973, 23 minutes, color, sound), contrasts the dissimilar profiles and flight patterns of the graceful black frigate bird with the great pink flamingo against a blue sky. Reflections on the Moon (1974, 23 minutes, black and white, electronically synthesized sound) was filmed from a series of 200 stills (as was her first film) chosen from NASA's Lunar Orbiter collection. Graves' intent was "to overwhelm the viewer with the presence of the moon."

Just as Graves challenged the traditional materials and techniques of sculpture, she also challenged the viewer's position in observing a work. In Variability and Repetition of Variable Forms (1971) she created a work with no single viewpoint, but rather a series of informed views to be experienced in time. The viewer's experience is one of cumulative comprehension. The 38 units, each between nine feet four inches and ten feet in height, are spaced approximately three feet apart on the floor to create a complex whole from single totem-like forms. South Pacific island cultures provided the inspiration for this imagery, which Graves created by fabricating artificial replicas of beetles, berries, bones, butterflies, twigs, vines, cowerie shells, and feathers and welding them to steel shafts. These objects from nature would be used again by Graves in the 1980s as the basis for direct casting in bronze.

In 1972, because of the demands of working with assistants and time in creating her sculptures, Graves stopped and returned to painting. Like her sculptures, the paintings have multiple viewing points (from a few inches to 20 feet in a 180 degree range) which create an experience in time for the viewer. She used an array of media including oil, acrylic, encaustic, and ink and applied them in a variety of ways. A sense of depth was retained through the use of the Cubist figure-ground relationship rather than the Renaissance system of perspective. Satellite photo sources provided black and white data for her colored paintings whose pictorial themes, as indicated by their titles, covered a broad spectrum. The earliest group (1971-1973) included renderings of the surfaces of the Earth, moon, and Mars as well as undersea topography and the morphology of sea animals. The use of a pointillist technique of close-set dots on a pale ground provided a methodical basis for her imaginative reconstructions of visual information.

In 1973 and 1974 Graves experimented with shaped canvases in order to physically shift the perimeters of painting. She used irregular, segmental panels either set together or separated. Satellite-relayed weather photographs of nimbus cloud formations provided the data for this group of paintings. Graves expanded her methods of paint application from the pointillist stippling to include fluid washes, hatched areas, and twisting brush strokes. Each member of this segmental series has a dominant color tonality as indicated by its title (Untitled#1, Green). Graves' experimentation next led to the Antarctic paintings of 1974. They were paler in tonality, smaller in size, and more heavily encrusted with paint.

In general, her painting became more expressionistic, more abstract, and carried fewer—and more general— references to the satellite photographs she had originally used as sources. Throughout the development of her ideas in painting, the critics did not favor her with the same praise they reserved for her sculpture.

She returned to sculpture in 1976 when she was commissioned by Peter Ludwig to create a bronze version of some of her earlier bone sculptures for the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany. This led Graves to the Tallix Foundry in New York where she learned the lost-wax process and a method of patinating bronze by painting it with chemicals and sealing this coating with a gas torch. The resultant sculpture was entitled Ceridwen, Out of Fossils, referring to the medieval Welsh name for the goddess of death and immortality and to Graves' prototype sculpture, Fossils, 1969-70.

Graves' practice of making preliminary drawings or diagrams for her sculptures gradually disappeared as her collaboration with Tallix developed in the late 1970s. By 1979 foundry artisans were directly casting natural objects for her and she was able to build an inventory of cast bronze forms from which she could assemble her works. This freedom to juxtapose objects at random allowed her to abandon the thematic focus of her earlier work. Graves spoke of her asymmetrical, open sculptures as "balanced by imbalance." By directly casting forms, their original shape and surface texture are retained, and with the addition of color by means of patination, fired enamel, or polyurethane paint "a second composition is imposed." Through an art of assemblage and construction, Graves was able to combine permanent forms of real, perishable objects with the found-objects and ready-mades of her culture.

The American sculptor David Smith prefigured Graves in his construction of welded, open-form sculptures and additionally influenced her with his reliance on nature for inspiration. She paid tribute to his Zig series (1961-1963) with her 1983 sculptures Zag, Zaga, and Zeeg. With her Pendula series she recognized her debt to Alexander Calder for lessons in balance, structure, and the use of moving parts.

After returning to sculpture, Graves continued to paint and worked to bring the two together based on the strengths of each medium. Her use of color on her sculptures drew from her painter's eye, while forms and lines in her paintings derived from her sculpture. She physically joined the two in works such as Raukken (1985) where painted aluminum sculptures were attached to a canvas of oil and acrylic. Suggestions of forms from nature appear in the colorful canvas and the colors of the sculptures reflect those of the painting. In addition, Graves added shadow on the painting and a three-dimensional element to what was basically two-dimensional. She continued to challenge the traditional, accepted norms of the media in which she worked.

Collaboration with the choreographer and dancer Trisha Brown in 1985 gave Graves a different experience. In designing the set and costumes for Lateral Pass she learned about the artistic and practical aspects of dance and discovered areas of similarity and dissimilarity with sculpture and painting. Later, a critic noted the incorporation of human references previously not found in her sculptures. Graves brought continuity to her work with references to her previous work, yet allowed herself great freedom by employing a multiplicity of materials in a variety of techniques from a diversity of sources. By conjoining the worlds of natural history, archaeology, geology, meteorology, nature, topography, and art history, she presented reconstructions from her imagination that inform the viewer.

"Nancy was one of the first artists of her era to break away from the rigid formulas of minimalism and look at other aspects of contemporary culture," said Debra Balken, a Boston-based independent curator. Quoted in The Boston Globe, Balken added that Graves' introduction of decorative elements distinguished her work from that of a whole generation of artists. Even toward the end of her life, Graves had begun to experiment with poly-optics, a synthetic glass-like material, and was incorporating handblown glass into her sculptures.

M. Knoedler & Co. represented her in New York and mounted yearly exhibitions of her work beginning in 1980. She was represented by the Janie C. Lee Gallery in Houston as well. In 1985 she received the Yale Arts Award and in 1986 Vassar acknowledged her accomplishments with an exhibition and the Vassar College Distinguished Visitor Award. Solo exhibitions of her work appeared in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Buffalo, New York; Cleveland, Ohio; Fort Worth, Texas; and Aachen, Germany. Her works have also been included in numerous groups shows.

Graves died in New York on October 21, 1995, a victim of cancer. At the time of her death, she was married to Avery L. Smith.

Further Reading

The most comprehensive book on the sculpture of Nancy Graves is The Sculpture of Nancy Graves: A Catalogue Raisonné, edited by the Fort Worth Art Museum (1987) in conjunction with their exhibition of her work. Two additional exhibition catalogues of interest are Nancy Graves: A Survey 1969/1980 by Linda Cathcart (1980) and Nancy Graves: Painting, Sculpture, Drawing, 1980-85 by Debra Bricker Balken (1986). Information related to Graves' work in the years immediately preceding her death was drawn from news articles in The Boston Globe and The New York Times.

Two articles of particular significance are Avis Berman, "Nancy Graves' New Age in Bronze," Artnews (February 1986) and Lucy Lippard, "Distancing: The Films of Nancy Graves," Art in America (November/December 1975). □