Graves, Nancy Stevenson
Graves, Nancy Stevenson
(b. 23 December 1940 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts; d. 21 October 1995 in New York City), sculptor, painter, and printmaker whose art drew inspiration from such diverse sources as the natural sciences and the art of Western and non-Western cultures.
Graves, a direct descendent of Cotton Mather, was born into a well-established New England family. She was the older of two daughters of Walter L. Graves, an assistant to the director of the Berkshire Museum of Art and Natural History, and Mary Bates, a secretary. She grew up in Pitts-field and attended public school there until the age of twelve. She then attended Miss Hall’s School and the Northfield Mount Hermon School for Girls. As a child, Graves took painting classes at the Berkshire museum and spent much time exploring its fine-art and natural-history collections. By age twelve she had decided to be an artist, although her family disapproved and did not encourage her.
After graduating from the Northfield School in 1957, Graves attended Vassar College. She intended to study art, but dismayed by the program’s emphasis on art history, she changed to English literature. While at Vassar, she was awarded a fellowship to study painting at the Yale Summer School of Music and Art in Norfolk, Connecticut, which provided her with a grounding in studio skills. After she earned a B.A. degree from Vassar in 1961, she attended the School of Art and Architecture at Yale. She studied painting with Alex Katz and Jack Tworkov, and her classmates included Chuck Close, Richard Serra, and Brice Marden. Taking advantage of Yale’s extensive slide collection, Graves looked at as many as 500 to 1,000 works of art a day. She received a B.F.A. degree in 1962 from Yale and an M.F.A. degree in 1964. In 1964 she was awarded a Fulbright-Hayes Fellowship to spend a year in Paris, where she studied painting and printmaking.
In the summer of 1965 Graves married Richard Serra in Paris. (They were divorced in 1970; there were no children.) In 1966 the couple moved to Florence, Italy, where Graves pursued her interest in the study of natural history. She became fascinated by the meticulously rendered wax models of the eighteenth-century anatomist Clemente Susini, whose slightly surreal, life-size replications of splayed human figures she described as looking as if “Botticelli had been crossed with anatomy.” She also studied taxidermy and carpentry, making assemblages of live and stuffed animals juxtaposed with found objects. These investigations led to her first life-sized sculptures of camels, animals she was drawn to because she was intrigued by “the complexity of this ungainly ostrich-like form which was wonderful to draw, and because it was largely outside Western sculpture.”
Upon returning to New York City from Europe in 1966, Graves established a studio in lower Manhattan and continued working on her camel sculptures, which she fabricated out of wood, burlap, polyurethane, and animal skin. Although the sculptures were meticulously rendered, she insisted that she was more interested in exploring the metaphoric significance of the animal than its natural depiction. The camel sculptures led to her first solo exhibition, held at New York’s Graham Gallery in 1968. The exhibit brought Graves to the attention of two curators from the Whitney Museum of American Art, where she exhibited a one-woman show of her sculpture in 1969. Inspired by the motion studies of the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, she spent several years making short films focused on the perception of motion. In 1970 she traveled to Morocco, where she filmed Goulimine (1970) and Izy Boukir (1971), studies of the movements of camel herds.
During the early 1970s, a period dominated by minimalism and conceptual art, Graves stayed to her own path. She formulated a new style of sculpture influenced by Pacific Northwest Indian art. In these new works, constructions of bone and fossil elements were invested with ritualistic associations. They were exhibited at the Neue Galerie in Aachen, West Germany, in 1971. In 1972 Graves abandoned sculpture and returned to painting. The paintings in her Camouflage series were pointillistic renderings of reptiles, fish, and insects in their natural disguises. Around this time she embarked on another series of paintings based on topographic maps, charts of the ocean floor, and satellite photographs of the moon. The paintings were widely exhibited throughout the United States.
Graves returned to sculpture in 1976, when she was commissioned by the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, West Germany, to create a bronze version of one of her earlier bone sculptures. This led to a major artistic breakthrough for her sculptural work. At the Tallix Foundry in Peekskill, New York, in the late seventies, Graves learned the lost-wax process and experimented with direct casting, which allowed her make molds directly from organic objects (plant and vegetable forms) and inorganic objects (household items and other found materials), greatly enlarging her vocabulary of forms. Drawing from this inventory of found and everyday objects, she assembled disparate elements into strikingly original works of sculpture, often enlivening them by applying rainbow-hued patinas and brightly colored enamel paints. The critic John Russell likened the sculptures to “three dimensional studies in vegetable evolution.” Graves maintained that her intention in her work was “to subvert what is logical, what the eye expects.”
In the 1980s Graves’s work evolved into a fusion of sculpture with painting. In her “shadow series,” she attached aluminum sculpture onto the painted canvas. For Graves this was also a period of recognition for her artistic accomplishments (one critic dubbed her “the Renaissance woman of the eighties”). In 1980 the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, held a survey of her work, which traveled internationally. In 1985 she received the New York Dance and Performance Bessie Award for the sets she designed for Trisha Brown’s Lateral Pass, and the Yale Arts Award for distinguished achievement. In 1986 she received the Vassar College Distinguished Visitor Award, and a traveling exhibit of her work was also organized by Vassar College. For the remainder of her career, Graves continued to fabricate cast-bronze sculptures, incorporating natural forms, found objects, and art-historical fragments. She also produced a substantial body of graphic work that was exhibited posthumously in a retrospective exhibition in 1996. Graves married Avery L. Smith on 15 June 1991. There were no children from this second marriage. In 1992 she received an honorary D.F.A. degree from Yale. Graves died in New York Hospital of cancer at the age of fifty-four. She is buried in Pittsfield.
Likened in appearance to a Henry James heroine, Graves was a tall, patrician woman whose determination and drive was the source of her remarkably versatile creativity and prodigious output (as Trisha Brown described her, “Nancy Graves is a verb”). She traveled extensively, visiting Europe, the Middle East, China, India, Peru, and Australia. With her works in demand by collectors (her sculptures sold upwards of $75,000 in 1986), Graves enjoyed considerable financial success as an artist, enabling her to collect sculpture by Alexander Calder and David Smith, and fine pieces of ancient and primitive art. Her work is on display in many museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and in major private collections.
In her approach to art, Nancy Graves brought intellectual rigor and an omnivorous curiosity about art, cultures, and the natural world. Her work, in its melding of diverse subject matter (from scientific sources to what she called the “shards of art”), was among the most iconoclastic and original of her generation. As the critic Thomas Padon wrote of her, Graves was “like an archeologist, [who] sifts through the layers of cultural and geological history to assemble a cache of images drawn from various disciplines, eras, and civilizations.”
An unpublished interview of Graves in her studio conducted by Paul Cumming on 18 Aug. 1972 is in the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Nancy Graves: Sculpture/Drawings/Films: 1969–1971 is the catalogue of an exhibition held at the Neue Galerie in Aachen, West Germany (1971). Nancy Graves: A Survey 1969/1980 is the catalogue of an exhibition held at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York (1980). The Fort Worth Art Museum’s The Sculpture of Nancy Graves: A Catalogue Raisonné (1987) is the most thorough overview of her work. Thomas Padon, Nancy Graves: Excavations in Print: A Catalog Raisonné (1996) is devoted to her extensive production as a printmaker. Avis Berman, “Nancy Graves’ New Age of Bronze,” ARTnews (Feb. 1986), and Cathleen McGuigan, “Forms of Fantasy,” New York Times Magazine (6 Dec. 1987), are profiles of Graves and her working methods. An obituary is in the New York Times (24 Oct. 1995). “Behind the Scenes with Nancy Graves” (1992) is a videocassette of a television program broadcast on PBS in 1992.