Summary of Nancy Graves
Nancy Graves worked across many media and over many years to bring back life - particularly natural life - to the "soulless" American art world of the time. In the 1960s two movements were dominant in America - Minimalism and Pop Art. Graves was bored by the pure abstraction and clean lines of Minimalism and wary of Pop Artists' obsession with popular culture and mechanic reproduction techniques. Her art completely broke away from these movements and styles by focusing predominately on the natural world, often referencing scientific modes of titling, display, and representation.
Graves became famous for two life-size naturalistic camel sculptures, which embodied her fascination with animals; her interest in museum display techniques for showing artworks, as well as her creative and humorous take on natural history in art. She worked in a huge variety of media across her career and went on to make films as well as more abstract and brightly colored Assemblage sculptures, paintings, and prints in later life, in works that drew the natural world together with anthropological or cultural human histories.
- Early in her career, Graves started using museum display methods to show her work. This relationship, between the art museum (or gallery) and the natural history museum seemed very unusual at the time. However, Graves' work has helped pave the way for contemporary artists to explore both the museum as a cultural signifier, and the contents of museums, as integral to artistic practice.
- In her later work, Graves purposely layered images and objects from 'nature' (animals, leaves) with those from 'culture' (art, ancient artifacts, architecture) to build up an image of the complex web of human existence in between the natural and built environments. This assertion that human history is equally a cultural and natural one, has become extremely important to artists, theorists, and scientists working today on climate change and cultural theory.
- Despite the huge variety in her working method, she had a rather unusual recurring theme, particularly in her earlier work, of camels! She found camels - with their long limbs and humps and big eyes and noses - emblematic of her assertion that the natural world is both very strange and very wonderful.
- Whereas many artists are famous for producing work in one medium (as painters, or sculptors, etc.) Nancy Graves constantly changed her tools and practice, each time using the medium she felt best suited an individual work. This mode of practice is familiar to artist's working in the late 2000s, however was, and is, a huge challenge to the art market and to critics who both look for collectability and reassuring sameness in artists' choice of skill and medium.
Important Art by Nancy Graves
Nancy Graves' 1969 solo exhibition at the Whitney was critically and popularly acclaimed. Her life-size mixed media CAMELS sculpture was the star of this show, capturing the imagination of visitors and critics alike. These two specimens (Kenya Dromedary and Mongolian Bactrian) were made from a mix of wood, metal, polyurethane, wax, paint, burlap and real animal skin. They have a particular handcrafted, naturalistic, and haptic feel, and were displayed in a small space, meaning the viewer would be up close and personal with the towering synthetic animals and their oddly tactile fur.
Although they are sculpted with multiple art as well as natural media, these scientifically named CAMELS might easily be mistaken for taxidermy exhibits in a natural history museum. This work brings museum display techniques into the modern art gallery to challenge the conception that art should be displayed in ways completely different and separate to artefacts, natural specimens, and scientific information. Graves was one of the first artists to work in this way, and was hugely influential on later contemporary artists, such as Mark Dion.
In original and radical departure from the factory-like commercial sleekness of Pop Art and Minimalism, which dominated the art world of 1960s New York, Graves instead returns to the resonance and wonder of our exploration and documentation of the natural world. The camel, to her, was a perfect starting point in re-awaking our wonder at natural design; "Why camels? Because camels shouldn't exist. They have flesh on their hooves, four stomachs, a dislocated jaw. Yet with all of the illogical form the camel still functions. And though they may be amusing, they are still wonderful to watch."
Mixed Media Sculpture - Collection Ludwig Forum, Aachen
In 1970, Graves travelled to Morocco to examine her muse, the camel, in the flesh. She made several films on this trip, including Izy Boukir, a 20-minute piece examining the movement of camel herds, their behavior, and interactions. The film is set to music by her friend and contemporary, Phillip Glass, and filmed in 16mm color film.
Following on from her 1969 sculptures, this film treads the line between viewing the camels from a scientific, natural history, documentarian gaze, and simultaneously concentrating on their extraordinarily alien, surreal presence. Graves said she wanted to "permit the animal motions to determine structure.... Through the edited sequential duration, camel morphology views with the viewer's inherent anthropomorphism. For me this film is the most successful in that the impression of these animals as primordial beings existing in barren yet awesomely beautiful surroundings far outweighs a consciousness of complicated editing and sound relationships".
Thus, Graves uses the biological form of the camels to determine the formal qualities of the film: speed, cuts, and edits, as well as Glass's original accompanying score. The film's narrative structure, multiple viewpoints, and focus on the natural world remain captivating to filmmakers and critics, and the work's complex relationship between form and content in the service of the humble camel means it remains an integral, original, and unusual piece of film history.
16mm color film
Bones and their Containers (to Martin Cassidy)
By the 1970s, Graves' sculptural output became looser and more abstract. In this 1971 piece she experiments with mimicking scientific processes of archaeological discovery, and also dissection, by breaking down the animal form even further into individual bones. This installation of seemingly beautifully preserved and scattered bones was actually handcrafted out of steel, gauze, acrylic, plaster, burlap and wax. Displayed in a naturalistic scatter pattern directly on the exhibition space floor, the installation encourages the visitor to navigate around the "bones", exploring and discovering as they go.
The work asks the viewer to engage different senses; of texture and movement as well as vision, in a shared process of scientific and natural observation. Rather than using a whole animal, now a single bone can be an entry point to unlock a feeling of the sublime artistry of nature. While Graves has often been labeled as dispassionate or objective in her art due to the way in which she uses motifs of documentation, museum display, and scientific study, in this piece we can see that she simultaneously sees every piece of nature through an artist's eye. While she sees art as scientific, science is also art. The work shows a sense of passion and wonder at the natural world we live in.
As Christina Hunter, director of the Nancy Graves Foundation, puts it "she was very interested in the ideas and the explorations that art could offer. That art could reveal and make one think about aspects of the world, aspects of psychology that had hitherto not been seen. So that art, in a way, could open people's eyes to looking way back into prehistory... art could also allow people to look way forward into the future, which is what she called outer space... science offered us ways of exploring the world that in a way were an extension of what artists were doing already.."
Steele, Gauze, acrylic, burlap, wax, plaster - Collection of the Nancy Graves Foundation
Nancy Graves' art continued to draw on themes and motifs of mapping, movement, abstraction, scientific documentation, and of course, camels. Graves became fascinated by new NASA techniques of mapping and recording moonscapes. For the 1980 print Vertigo, Graves drew on satellite maps of the moon and the sea floor, alongside her own observations of camel herd movement patterns in Morocco in the 1970s. Bright, swirling colors are layered over topographical patterns made up of detailed dots, dashes and lines to create a complex abstract piece, which clearly mixes a painterly approach with a more precise and rigid map style underneath.
As Christina Hunter puts it, Graves "sensed she was making art in the 'information age," Graves was on the brink of the age of mass information as we know it today in the world of the Internet. Her art pre-empted the way in which research and data could become democratic; the way in which scientific or natural history studies and imagery could become so easy to access and explore. By using maps published by NASA in Vertigo, Graves began in the 1980s to capitalize on the ways in which new technologies allow us to understand humanity, and the world around us. The layering of maps of moonscapes, the moon, and the patterns of camels Graves had directly observed speaks to a mystical interconnectedness of all natural things, as well as speaking to the impossibility of conceiving the vertiginous scale of NASA's maps to human eyes.
Color screenprint on Arches Cover paper - Puccino Fine Art Gallery, New York
While Graves's interests in natural history and the documentation of nature were constants throughout her career, they were not always her sole points of reference. They also came into contact with her lifelong interests in anthropology. In the mid to late 1980s, Graves began to regularly incorporate references to ancient Egypt, classical antiquity and the Renaissance into her work, most likely informed by her travels around the Mediterranean from her early 20s onwards.
In this screenprint from 1984, Graves took inspiration from artifacts she had seen at The Jewish Museum. The bird figure in the bottom cover is from an early Byzantine mosaic floor tile, and a Roman terracotta head inspires the head diagonally opposite. These more figurative elements are overlaid with abstract lines and shapes, suggestive of organic forms (frogs, fig seeds) and classical nudes. Graves said that she used this layering effect to "simulate the layers of human history". The resulting image takes an anthropological gaze at the way in which humans have existed on earth and responded to the world around them for thousands of years, and continue to do so. The 'Anthropocene' is the current geological age, defined as the period in which human activity has been the dominant influence on the natural world. The literal layering of human and natural influence in this work speaks to the codependence and friction between people and their natural world as one that is part of both anthropological and natural histories.
Screenprint on paper - The Jewish Museum, New York
Towards the end of her career, Nancy Graves worked most prominently with cast metal sculptures.
About these works, she said, "The larger meaning is that information of tremendous range and depth and cross-cultural ramifications is available instantly to all of us (today)." This comment about the democratization and overloading of information shows these sculptures are important early documents of the digital age.
This piece, made in 1990, is made of brass, aluminum, bronze, polychrome patina and paint. It is made of welded casts of different natural objects; a fragment of a human face, a crab, foliage, mixed with more rigid synthetic geometric shapes and a metal grille. These fragmented parts are coated in brightly colored paint.
This piece shows us that Graves was experimenting with media and techniques right up until her death. She continued the push herself as an artist to try casting in different, and often difficult metals, glass, and wax.
This playful sculpture questions the presence of the human between the natural world and the modern man-made world. The human fragment literally balances between these component parts of the human experience on earth; natural, and technological. The fantastical and fractured result is full of wonder at the human place in this world and again documents a fragile balancing act between art, humanity, and the natural world. Graves said; "We are born and we die. By understanding our interrelatedness to the chain gang of life, meaning comes".
Aluminium, bronze, brass, polychrome patina, and paint - Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Missouri
Biography of Nancy Graves
Childhood and Education
Graves was born to an upper- middle class, quintessentially New England family in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1939. By the age of twelve, she was confident that she wanted to be an artist. Childhood visits to the Berkshire Museum, where her father worked as an assistant to the director, fed this ambition. The young Graves was fascinated by the combination of natural history and fine art displayed in the museum, and the crossover of anthropology, nature and art captured her imagination for decades to come.
Education and Early Training
Growing into a woman of no-nonsense attitude, dry humor and American chic, Graves went on to excel academically and artistically, first at Vassar College, then Yale during the 1950s. She rubbed shoulders with feminist art historian Linda Nochlin while at Vassar College, and at Yale worked alongside artists including Chuck Close, Janet Fish, Brice Marsden, and future husband Richard Serra.
After graduating from Yale with Bachelors and Masters Degrees in Fine Art from the school of Art and Architecture in 1964, Graves won the a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship which allowed her to go on to study painting first in Paris, then Florence, where encounters with the work of 18th century anatomist Susini further encouraged her focus on natural forms. In Paris, she shared an apartment off the Boulevard Raspail with then boyfriend Richard Serra; they had a last-minute wedding in 1965 after their Swiss landlady threatened to evict them when she discovered they were unmarried and 'living in sin'. During this time, both Graves and Serra threw a lot of their early work into the Arno River because it was too expensive for them to store or ship home. Graves' sense of tenacity was such that whilst in Florence, she was hit by a car, but was back in the studio working two hours later.
After their return to America in 1966, Graves (and Serra) were thrown into a mix of young, glamorous avant-garde artists, largely made up of their extraordinary year group at Yale, who began to challenge the Pop and Minimal art, which had enveloped the New York art scene. Meeting at countercultural spots based in Soho, like downtown restaurant and bar Max's Kansas City, these artists wanted to "rough up" the smooth and soulless face of these popular American movements.
Considering the male-dominated structure of the art world in the late sixties, Graves' male contemporaries might easily have overshadowed her. Her first New York exhibition at the Graham Gallery in 1968 came and went without huge comment, however in 1969, at aged 29, Graves had her big break. She became the youngest person and only the fifth woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which largely focused on her life size sculptures Camels.
Camels made a big impact on New York art critics and audiences alike. Collector Peter Ludwig, in particular, spurred on Graves' career by buying two of the camel sculptures for his newly established museum, Neue Galerie Sameslung Ludwig, in Germany, where they were placed alongside other American art giants of the time, including Warhol and Rauschenberg. Graves' status as a sculptor was solidified alongside the greats of her generation, even once she no longer had links to Richard Serra, whom she divorced in 1970.
Throughout the 1970s, Graves went on to work in dozens of different media. She never took well-tested easy options with her work, which would have guaranteed continued success with critics, but pushed herself to accept successes and failures in many different areas. Indeed, many critics were suspicious of her initial forays into painting and the way in which she displayed different media alongside each other. In sculpture, she further dissected the figure of the camel and created "scattered bone" installations. These were sculptural arrangements of constructed feathers and bones. She also created two films, and forayed into abstract painting in this decade. Her films Goulimine and Izy Boukir (both 1970) were created on travels to Morocco, and tracked the movements of camel herds. Her paintings made use of aerial views and mapping data; of the moon, and sea floors. She was intensely interested in new technologies being implemented to examine the natural world.
Her lively intellect fed into and developed alongside her professional work. A steely force of nature, Graves travelled extensively to Morocco, Germany, Canada, India, Nepal, Kashmir, Egypt, Peru, China and Australia, read vivaciously, taught, and wrote. As her art dealer later put it, "She is not a person who likes the word no. There are no limits, no obstacles, no barriers, she takes things as far as she can push them."
In the 1980s and 90s, Graves' Soho studio and home became scattered with found objects from her travels around the world; from Chinese cooking scissors, Jackfruit from Hawaii and fresh pig guts to a cat-urine soaked houseplant and bananas, Graves collected organic objects from which she could make direct bronze casts. Her friend and collaborator Dick Pollick supposedly cast the pig guts himself in the middle of the night as he objected to the smell in the studio so much.
These sculpted casts were then combined into open, aerial, brightly painted sculptures. These toy-like pieces became some of her best-loved work. The whole process of casting, welding and coloring often took her months to finish.
Right up until her untimely death from ovarian cancer in 1995, Graves was experimenting still, beginning to incorporate blown glass into her sculptures. She was an artist whose desire to express herself in multiple forms was rare, exquisite, and innovative.
The Legacy of Nancy Graves
Graves' legacy, like that of so many female artists, has struggled with overpowering coverage of her male contemporaries. However, characteristically of Graves, this is something she had accounted for. In her last will and testament, she decreed that The Nancy Graves Establishment would be set up after her death, and go on to maintain and celebrate her work and life.
She also had far more influence on her art contemporaries than is often spoken about. Despite being largely erased from Richard Serra's biography, she in fact was a crucial and early influence on the famous sculptor's work; they shared a studio when travelling together, and she contributed work to his first one-man show at the Galleria la Salita in Rome, which encouraged him to take up sculpture over painting.
Her work stands for an important moment in modern art when the dominant Pop Art trend was challenged, and instead audiences were encouraged to think about natural history, the world around us, and our modern data-based understanding of it. Graves was ahead of her time in her understanding of the importance of democratic data, she has influenced many artists living in the current digital age, such as the map-inspired artist Julie Mehretu, and Frank Stella, Judy Pfaff, Jessica Stockholder, and Sarah Sze.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Nancy Graves
- Nancy Graves at Mitchell-Innes & Nash Exhibition Catalogue, 2015Our PickBy Christopher Lyon and Christina Hunter
- The Nancy Graves ProjectBy Brigitte Franzen and Annette Lagler
- Nancy Graves: A Survey 1969-1980, 1980By Linda L. Catheart
- The Sculpture of Nancy Graves: A Catalogue Raisonné with Essays, 1987By E. A. Carmean