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Nancy Graves

American Sculptor, Painter, Printmaker and Filmmaker

Nancy Graves Photo
Movement: Post-Minimalism

Born: December 23, 1939 - Pittsfield, Massachusetts

Died: October 21, 1995 - New York City, New York

"Color is another way to confound the eye,"

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.

Key Ideas

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.
Nancy Graves Photo

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.

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