Nature lover, art-world sensation, and a creator who couldn’t be pigeonholed to only one medium – all this could be used to perfectly describe Nancy Graves, an American post-minimalist artist. Graves shifted her focus between painting and sculpture throughout her career, intertwining her vast fascination with nature and science in both large-scale paintings and a variety of sculptural pieces. Other ways of her artistic expression include print-making and films. Although she worked in a wide range of both common and unconventional media, Graves’ body of work is unified by her interest in data and ways to translate scientific information into the unique visual statement. Another trait of Nancy Graves is that she had a reactionary stance toward both Minimalism and Pop Art, popular at that time.
Born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Nancy Graves’ early childhood years were filled with visits to the local Berkshire Museum where her father worked. While in a museum, she was surrounded by all kinds of influences, since Berkshire Museum houses natural science adjacent to a fine art. Growing up in such environment, Nancy developed interests in art, nature, and anthropology. Graves got her education from Vassar College, graduating in English Literature. Her education continued at the prestige Yale University, where she studied alongside future painters, photographers, and sculptors – Janet Fish, Brice Marden, Chuck Close and Robert Mangold, just to name a few. While she was at Yale’s MFA program, Nancy met and fell in love with minimalist sculptor Richard Serra. The couple graduated in 1964 and married in Paris the following year, while Graves was on her Fulbright Scholarship.
Camels, Graves’ best-known pieces, caused a stir in the art world when they were first exhibited at the Graham Gallery in New York in 1968. These realistic life-size sculptures made to look like taxidermy defined her personal aesthetic and became sort of a trademark at the beginning of her career. Seen as realistic illusions of nature, this project was so unusual at the time, so untypical and different from the clean cool Minimalist art of the 1960s. Critics and viewers were confused by the use of nontraditional materials and techniques. And more importantly, they stood out from the pile of minimalist and pop art as a stark contrast. The idea behind these sculptural works came from Nancy Graves’ childhood memories of the animals preserved by taxidermists in the Berkshire Museum. She managed to produce hyperrealistic sculptural effects by using different materials, among then burlap, wax, fiberglass, animal skin, wood, metal, and polyurethane. In order to appear even more realistic, each camel is painted with acrylics and oil colors. During the period of five years, Nancy produced 25 camels, no more than five of which are extant. And with each new sculpture, her replication skills became increasingly better. In 1969, Camel VI, Camel VII and Camel VIII were a part of Graves’ noted solo exhibition. She was the youngest person, and only the fifth woman, to be given the honor to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. These works were also important because they indicated Graves’ approach to art in years that followed – the interplay between the replication of nature and the formal values of abstract art.
Graves’ long-standing fascination with camels is exemplified in yet another work of art. Created in 1970, Variability of Similar Forms consists of thirty-six replicas of camel leg bones which she produced using several unconventional materials, such as Fiberglas, latex and marble dust. By placing all of the leg bones in various upright positions and arranging them in an irregular pattern, Graves created an illusion of an archaeological site yet to be discovered. As the title suggests, Nancy plays with the variability of forms, creating new connections between art and nature. Living in an era marked by an early space exploration and scientific advances, Nancy was exposed to some images that could be seen for the first time in human history. Already a science-lover, the author was impressed and captivated by the satellite images of the moon, earth, and ocean floor. These new scientific discoveries became an integral part of Graves’ artistic practice. Her admiration of the natural world resulted in large-scale expressive compositions, ranging from pointillist-like Camouflage Series to map-like canvases based on satellite images of the ocean floor and surface of the moon. Brilliantly layered and painted in luminous colors, her aerial landscapes possess great abstract quality.
Throughout the 1980s, Graves dedicated herself to yet another medium – bronze casting. She used a variety of found objects, both organic and man-made, which she assembled and welded together. If you look closely, you can discover objects like leaves, spirals, architectural elements and all sorts of mechanical parts welded onto supporting scrap metal. Poetic, whimsical and personal, Graves’ bronze cast sculptures come in all sorts of shapes and colors. She used patination – a chemical process that fuses pigments of bronze – to color her sculptures. The color palette used in these artworks is intense and vivid, ranging from hot orange to sea green, resembling a fauna of a tropical reef. With its unusual shapes and hues, it almost looks like her pieces could belong to a coral reef.
When it comes to films, Nancy Graves stays true to her conceptual principles of naturalism. She produced five films in total – 200 Stills at 60 Frames, Goulimine, Izy Boukir, Aves: Magnificent Frigate Bird, Great Flamingo, and Reflections on the Moon – all shot during the early 1970s. Two of the films share the similar theme. Filmed in Morocco, Goulimine and Izy Boukir both capture the movement of animals through the magnificent Saharan landscape, whether as a flock or an individual camel separated from the group. Similar to Eadweard Muybridge’s motion study photography, Graves skilfully captures the subtle formations in close-framed sequences. She allows her subjects – in this case, camels – to determine the structure of a particular frame by their natural motions, shifting of their legs, or the curves of their extended necks.
Nancy was diagnosed cancer in May 1995, and she lost her battle for life just a few months later. She died on October 21st, aged 55. Since her initial burst onto the international scene in 1969 with a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, Nancy Graves was featured in numerous prominent solo and collective exhibitions around the world. During the 1970s, she was a part of renowned Documenta 5 and Documenta 6. Inclusion in these exhibitions serves as an example of her great importance. Although she never quite became an author whose name is often mentioned when speaking about the art of the 70s and 80s (decades marked mostly by Pop Art), Nancy Graves’ avant-garde approach is worshiped by the ones who were curious enough to discover her work.
She is represented by Puccio Fine Art, located in New York.
Featured image: Nancy Graves next to her sculpture, in 1989 – photo copyright © Estate of Arthur Mones
All images used for illustrative purposes only
|2013||Nancy Graves: Synecdoche||Locks Gallery, Philadelphia, USA||Solo|
|2012||Spring Garden||New Gallery on Old Bailey, Hong Kong, SAR||Group|
|2011||Nancy Graves||The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Poughkeepsie, USA||Solo|
|2009||Nancy Graves: Permanent Tension||Locks Gallery, Philadelphia, USA||Solo|
|2008||Tango: Installation & Performance||The Point of Contact Gallery, Syracuse, USA||Group|
|2008||Nancy Graves: Bronze Sculpture of the 1980s||Ameringer & Yohe Fine Art, New York, USA||Solo|
|2007||Nancy Graves - The Pilchuck Series: Selected Monotypes||Leslie Sacks Fine Art, Los Angeles, USA||Solo|
|2006||Nancy Graves 1970-1980||Ameringer & Yohe Fine Art, New York, USA||Solo|
|2005||Nancy Graves: The Shining||Elusive Element, Locks Gallery, Philadelphia, USA||Solo|
|1999||The Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection of Modern Art||Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, USA||Group|
|1996||More than Minimal: Feminism and Abstraction in the Seventies||Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, USA||Group|
|1995||Nancy Graves: In Memoriam||Locks Gallery, Philadelphia, USA||Solo|
|1995||Nancy Graves: Contemporary Galleries Exhibition||National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada||Solo|
|1994||Mapping||The Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA||Group|
|1993||Lithographs Based on Geologic Maps of Lunar Orbiter and Apollo Landing Sites by Nancy Graves||Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, USA||Solo|
|1993||Grounds for Sculpture||Johnson Atelier, Hamilton, USA||Group|
|1991||Nancy Graves: Paradigm and Paradox||Locks Gallery, Philadelphia, USA||Solo|
|1991||El Sueño de Egipto: La Influencia del Arte Egipcio en el Arte Contemporáneo||Centro Cultural - Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico||Group|
|1987||Nancy Graves: A Sculpture Retrospective||Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.||Solo|
|1986||Nancy Graves||Vassar College Art Gallery, Poughkeepsie, USA||Solo|
|1984||Primitivism in Twentieth Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern||The Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA||Group|
|1984||Prints from Tyler Graphics||Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, USA||Group|
|1980||Nancy Graves: A Survey, 1969-1980||Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, USA||Solo|
|1979||The Seventies: New American Painting||The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, USA||Group|
|1979||Recent Acquisitions||The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA||Group|
|1979||Recent Acquisitions||Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, USA||Group|
|1977||Contemporary Issues: Works on Paper by Women||The Woman’s Building, Los Angeles, USA||Group|
|1977||Documenta 6||Kassel, Germany||Group|
|1973||New American Graphic Art||Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, USA||Group|
|1973||Nancy Graves||La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla, USA||Solo|
|1973||Nancy Graves||The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada||Solo|
|1972||Nancy Graves||Institute of Contemporary Art of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA||Solo|
|1972||The New American Filmmakers Series, Part III: Films by Artists||Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA||Group|
|1972||Documenta V||Neue Galerie, Kassel, Germany||Group|
|1971||Nancy Graves||The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Canada||Solo|
|1971||Nancy Graves||Neue Galerie der Stadt Aachen||Solo|
|1971||Nancy Graves||Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA||Solo|
|1969||Nancy Graves: Camels||Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA||Solo|