Nancy Graves - Biography and Legacy
American Sculptor, Painter, Printmaker and Filmmaker
New York City, New York
Biography of Nancy Graves
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.