Graves, Nancy (1940–1995)

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Graves, Nancy (1940–1995)

American sculptor, painter, and filmmaker . Born Nancy Stevenson Graves on December 23, 1940, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts; died in 1995 in New York City; one of two daughters of Walter L. Graves (an assistant director of a museum) and Mary B. Graves (a secretary and volunteer worker); attended Miss Hall's School, Pittsfield, and the Northfield School for Girls; Vassar College, B.A. in English literature, 1961; Yale University, B.F.A. and M.F.A.; married Richard Serra (a sculptor), in 1965 (divorced 1970); no children.

Was a Fulbright-Hayes fellow in France (1965); lived and worked in Florence, Italy (1966); had solo exhibitions throughout the world (1968–95); participatedin numerous group shows (1970–95); was a resident at the American Academy, Rome, Italy (1979); designed set and costumes for experimental dance Lateral Pass (1983). Work represented in numerous museums, galleries, and private collections, including Whitney Museum and Museum of Modern Art, New York City; Chicago Art Institute; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; Neue Gallerie, Cologne, West Germany; and National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

Selected works—sculptures:

Fossils (1970); Variability of Similar Forms (1970); Inside-Outside (1970); Variability and Repetition of Variable Forms (1970); Shaman (1970); Ceridwen (1969–77); Column (1979); Bathymet-Topograph (1978–79); Archeologue (1979); Aves (1979); Trace (1980); Tarot (1984). Paintings: Lion Fish in Grotto (1971); Sea Anemone (1971); Julius Caesar Quadrangle of the Moon (1971); Nearside of the Moon 20° N-S x 70° E-W (1972); Bish (1976); Yot K Series (1976); Moonwater Series (1977); Defacta (1977); Zitla (1977); Lam (1978); Calipers, Legs, Lines (1979). Films: 200 Stills at 60 Frames (1970); Goulimine (1970); Izy Boukir (1971); Aves: Magnificent Frigate Bird, Great Flamingo (1973); Reflections on the Moon (1974).

Remembered for the three life-sized Bactrian, or two-humped, camels that comprised her first major solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 1969, American artist Nancy Graves also created paleontological sculptures using bones and other parts of animals and, from 1980 until her death in 1995, produced bronze sculptures using directly cast objects. Graves was also a graphic artist, employing a variety of media and working in styles ranging from representational to abstract. She also made several short films and designed sets and costume for a dance production. It is Graves' sculpture, however, that commands the most attention and is the medium by which she made her most lasting contribution. In the introduction to the catalogue The Sculpture of Nancy Graves, Robert Hughes characterizes her work as "wonderfully inclusive; formally rigorous, it spreads a wider fan of poetic association than does any sculptor's of her generation."

Graves, who was born in 1940 and raised in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, had an early introduction to art. Her father was the assistant director of the Berkshire Museum of Art and Natural History, and both of her parents made art their hobby. An intelligent and precocious child, Graves was drawing and painting with great precision at an early age and, by the time she was 12, had decided on an artistic career. After high school, she attended Vassar College, where she majored in English while studying drawing. She then won a scholarship to Yale's School of Art and Architecture, where she earned both a B.F.A. and an M.F.A.

In 1964, Graves received a Fulbright fellowship and went to Paris. It was a period of experimentation and self-discovery for the artist that continued following her marriage to sculptor Richard Serra a year later. (They would divorce in 1970.) The couple moved to Florence, Italy, where Graves became fascinated by the 18th-century anatomist Clemente Susini, who created life-size wax models of animals and humans. She was inspired by both his naturalistic subject matter and his craftsmanship. "I felt as if I were seeing a body of my own work in the future," she said later. Although previously interested only in painting and drawing, she now tackled the problems of three-dimensional art, collaborating with her husband on a series of sculptures, then embarking on what would later be termed her neo-primitive period. Following intense anatomical studies of the Bactrian camel, Graves produced her first life-sized polyurethane sculpture of the animal, supported by a wooden framework and covered with painted animal skin.

Returning to New York in 1966, Graves presented a set of three sculptured camels at her first solo show at New York's Graham Gallery in the spring of 1968, and yet another set of three at the Whitney in 1969. The reviews were interesting and varied. One critic suggested that the camels were "an ingenious put-on" intended to mock abstract expressionism; another viewed them as a statement against the established art world. Grave's objective, as explained by Brenda Richardson in Arts magazine (April 1972), was neither mockery nor a negative statement, but merely an effort to meld "figuration and abstraction," or, in the words of Marcia Tucker , curator of the Whitney show, to establish "sustained tension … between the viewer's reaction to the 'real' subject matter and his aesthetic awareness of the camels as sculptural objects."

In her next sculptures, Graves treated the camel as "a prehistoric form from North America," as she explained in an interview for Artforum (October 1970). Using wax molded over steel rods, she created forms resembling the bones of ancient camels which she either stood upright on a wooden base, as in Variability of Similar Forms (1970), or arranged in abstract patterns on a large expanse of floor, as in a work entitled Fossils (1970). In further experiments, Graves created a series of hanging sculptures, inspired by the totems and ceremonial costumes of the North American Indians. Time magazine's Robert Hughes called them, a "poignant memorial to dying primitive cultures."

Camels were also the subject of three short films Graves made between 1970 and 1971, which, like the camel structures, focused on the effects of motion on the human perception of form. In the first, an eight-minute film titled 200 Stills at 60 Frames (1970), she created the illusion of movement by flashing various still images at timed intervals. Another film, Goulimine (1970), shot in Morocco, captures the movement of an entire camel herd, and the third, Izy Boukir (1971), shows camels running, drinking, and nursing their young. As in her sculptures, Graves was striving to show figuration and abstraction simultaneously. "Carefully directed shots and angles [reveal] patterns of abstraction without obviating the viewer's ability comfortably to recognize and respond to the camel itself," explained Richardson.

Even while she was sculpting and making films, Graves was also producing paintings, etchings, lithographs, and monotypes. In the paintings of this period, which included depictions of snakes, insects, and fish, she utilized a pointillist technique of dots which cause the figures and background to blend in an abstract continuum. Once again, reviewers were baffled. Some identified her brushwork as pointillism, while others called it a "distinctly controlled ascetic gesturalism." Some were disappointed in the paintings; others thought them wildly creative. In a second series of paintings, Graves expanded her vision, employing her dot method to create whole sections of ocean floor. There was an additional series of map paintings and another set based on satellite photographs of lunar topography. Her most ambitious lunar painting, entitled Nearside of the Moon 20° N-S x 70° E-W, is comprised of four panels representing different types of 20th-century mapping of the moon. Graves' map paintings were generally better received than her camouflage series. Praised for their complex composition and refined technique, they were hailed as examples of a resurgence in landscape painting. The artist also produced lithographs based on geologic maps of the Lunar Orbiter and Apollo landing sites on the moon.

In conjunction with the map paintings, Graves produced two more films: Aves: Magnificent Frigate Bird, Great Flamingo depicts the flight patterns of migratory birds; Reflections on the Moon is composed of 200 still photographs taken by the Lunar Orbiter. Like her earlier films and her paintings, they are abstract, even though the subjects are representational.

In 1977, Graves produced her first bronze piece, the result of a commission from the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, West Germany, to create a more permanent version of a camel bone piece. The resulting sculpture, Ceridwen (the medieval Welsh name for death), like the earlier work Fossils, consists of Pleistocene-period camel bones arranged to resemble an archaeological dig. (Huge in size, the piece was displayed at the Hammarskjold Plaza Sculpture Garden in New York City in the spring of 1978, before it was sent to Germany.) The sculpture was cast at the Tallix Foundry in Peekskill, New York, where Graves set up an adjunct studio and later worked with artisans there to develop a direct casting technique that allows for more detail than the older lost-wax technique. From 1980 until her death, Graves produced 200 bronze sculptures using the new technique. Expanding her repertory of cast forms, she utilized plants and fish, as well as paper or wooden objects that inspired her. "The possible inventory of forms for her art is endless," wrote Linda L. Cathcart , director of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, Texas, in the catalogue essay "Nancy Graves: Sculpture for the Eye and Mind": "She does not fight her materials; rather, she builds with them and allows the process itself to suggest new avenues. Each of her sculptures functions as an energetic abstraction, never remaining merely literal and never giving way to dead weight. She has the ability to amplify forms and to achieve for each individual one many possible readings." Toni Putnam at Tallix also created another new casting and patinating technique that allowed Graves to work in color. Quipu, a filigree depiction of an ancient Andean knotted-string counting device, was the first cast sculpture to use the new procedure, which Graves went on to utilize in a number of later works.

In her painting from 1976 on, Graves' images were even more abstract, the result of her concern with process over subject matter. In her pastels and especially in her watercolors, the lines and forms are softer and looser, often the result of stroking the watercolor on wet paper. In a later project, she became involved in semiology, the science of signs, creating a series of painting in which calligraphic lines were drawn on predominantly white canvases, each in a single stroke of the brush. The oil paintings of the late 1970s, including Defacto, Zitla, Calipers, and Lines, are composed of dense layers of brushstrokes and relate back to her earlier sculptures, employing forms from her camels and camel-bone pieces. The critics generally reacted favorably to Graves' later paintings, citing their "energy" and their "airy luminosity."

In 1983, Graves collaborated with choreographer Trisha Brown , creating the set and costumes for a work called Lateral Pass. The complex set, which had to be constructed before the piece was choreographed, consisted of "four scrims of vertically hung Styrofoam boulders (pink or green) and bent silver rods and ultraviolet tubing" which ascended and descended in a constant play of motion and color. The dancers, clad in pastel and white leotards, appeared and disappeared within the maze of the set. The piece, performed by the Judson Dance Theater in Minneapolis and New York in 1985, earned Graves a New York Dance and Performance Bessie Award in 1986.

Graves, described as energetic, articulate, and dedicated, and called by some "a Renaissance woman for the eighties," died young, succumbing to cancer at age 55. Her work is part of the permanent collection at three major museums in New York (the Metropolitan, the Whitney, and the Museum of Modern Art), and other institutions throughout the United States, Europe, and Canada. Thomas Padon's catalogue of a national touring exhibition, Nancy Graves: Excavations in Print, A Catalogue Raisonné (1996), provides an illuminating collection of the artist's prints.


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Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Graves, Nancy (1940–1995)

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