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JULY 26 - AUGUST 27, 2021

Mitchell-Innes & Nash is pleased to present an online exhibition of works on paper by Nancy Graves (1939-1995).

Accompanying text by Christina Hunter, Executive Director of the Nancy Graves Foundation. Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of the Nancy Graves Foundation and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York.

Artist Page

 

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NANCY GRAVES

Pure Kinetic Reason

1992

Watercolor, gouache, and charcoal on paper

44 1/2 by 40 in.  113 by 101.6 cm.

(MI&N 16816)

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NANCY GRAVES

Mother Tongue

1988

Gold leaf, gouache and graphite on paper

40 by 30 in.  101.6 by 76.2 cm.

(MI&N 16815)

Inquire

NANCY GRAVES

Drained of its Margins

1992

Watercolor and gouache on paper

32 by 40 in.  81.3 by 101.6 cm.

(MI&N 16814)

Inquire

NANCY GRAVES

Pure Kinetic Reason

1992

Watercolor, gouache, and charcoal on paper

44 1/2 by 40 in.  113 by 101.6 cm.

(MI&N 16816)

NANCY GRAVES

Mother Tongue

1988

Gold leaf, gouache and graphite on paper

40 by 30 in.  101.6 by 76.2 cm.

(MI&N 16815)

NANCY GRAVES

Drained of its Margins

1992

Watercolor and gouache on paper

32 by 40 in.  81.3 by 101.6 cm.

(MI&N 16814)

Module 2

Text 1

Group photo at the Cimitero degli inglesi, Florence, 1965; (from left) Nancy Graves, Chuck Close, Richard Serra, Stephen Posen.

Collection Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc., New York

There’s a picture of Nancy Graves in the English cemetery in Florence. It is an interesting setting for a photo and made even more so, with time, by the presence of the artists pictured alongside her. From left to right, we have the painter Chuck Close, then her husband, the sculptor Richard Serra, and finally the painter Stephen Posen. This is one of those images of famous people before they became famous – before the exhibitions, the biennials, the awards and the acclaim.

The photo was taken in 1965 and all four, recent Yale MFA graduates, are in Europe on Fulbright grants. One imagines they all decided to meet up in Florence where Nancy Graves and Richard Serra had just moved. It was a prerequisite for any young artist to visit the Uffizi, the Palazzo Medici, the Pitti Palace and of course the Duomo. 

But what they were doing in the Cimitero degli inglesi? 

There is a theory that they were visiting the grave of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a 19th-century English poet who enjoyed immense popularity in the Victorian era for her love poems but whose acceptance into the canon of Victorian literature was much delayed. Browning’s work receded into oblivion after her death and It was not until the development of feminist criticism in the 1960s and 70s, that her poems became celebrated.

It is tempting to compare Browning’s story of rediscovery with Nancy Graves’s trajectory which would follow a similar path of meteoric success, disappearance and revival. Uncannily, both died aged 55 at the height of their careers.

The works on paper in this online presentation were created in the latter half of Nancy Graves’s career and life but many of their motifs refer to this time in Italy, a formative year during which she visited museums and sites of both archaeological and historical importance. Throughout her life, Graves would return to Italy, most notably in 1979 when she was awarded a residency at the American Academy in Rome, and during the years in which she produced editions with Europe’s most prestigious printer of contemporary art.

Banner 2 pure kinetic

NANCY GRAVES
Pure Kinetic Reason, 1992
Watercolor, gouache, and charcoal on paper
44 1/2 by 40 in. 113 by 101.6 cm.
 

© Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

text 3

NANCY GRAVESCamel VI (1969), in the artist's Mulberry Street studio. Photo: Richard Landry.

© Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

There’s a lot going on visually and conceptually in the layered palimpsestic composition of Pure Kinetic Reason – a style that is typical of Graves’s work from this period when she introduced representations of recognizable iconic artworks into her otherwise abstract compositions. So we’ll just highlight a few of the major motifs:

Since this is a Graves, let’s begin with the small camel that appears in the lower left quadrant of the work. Among the artist’s most well-known visual motifs, the sculptures of lifelike camels that she exhibited at the Whitney Museum in 1969 launched her career. Four years out of Yale, and not yet 30 years old, she was the youngest artist to have had a solo presentation there.

pure kinetic reason

Center: NANCY GRAVESPure Kinetic Reason (1992) / © Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Left: Clipping of the Venus of Willendorf from the artist's archive / Collection Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc., New York.

Upper right: Clipping of Japanese medical drawing of a skeletal hand, the Katai Shinsho (1774) from the artist's archive / Collection Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc., New York.

Lower right: Clipping of elephant drawing taken from the New York Times (date unknown) from the artist's archive / Collection Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc., New York.

 

The reverberation of different points of view due to the proximity of cultures that were formerly distant from each other is what we have crashing down on us daily: the clash of economics, social collisions, the clash of history. This is implied in the work through a visual layering.

- NANCY GRAVES

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NANCY GRAVESPure Kinetic Reason (1992), detail (from left) of "Dancing Samandar" sculpture; portrait of a man and his wife from Pompeii; and a drawing of an elephant from the New York Times.

© Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Continuing clockwise, we note a coiled sea snake rendered in neon tones, taken from a Renaissance drawing, superimposed on an image of a 12th-century Indian bronze sculpture of a dancing saint. Then, to the right, a double portrait of a man and his wife from Pompeii, lead the eye to the upper right quadrant, where Graves has drawn a Congolese mask from the Luba people, a prized work in the collection of the Seattle Art Museum where she may have seen it during one of her many trips out west to the Walla Walla Foundry in Washington State where she was casting her bronzes at this time.

image 4

NANCY GRAVESPure Kinetic Reason (1992), detail of kifwebe striated female mask

© Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Interestingly, this is a female mask –known as kifwebe – worn during ceremonial dances celebrating the new moon, rebirth and procreation, connecting this world with the spirit world. Themes of the afterlife, of fertility and rebirth, and symbols of eternity recur in these late works by Nancy Graves.

A large upside-down elephant in a vibrant blue wash fills the bottom half of the composition.

text 5 (Venus of Willendorf)

NANCY GRAVESPure Kinetic Reason (1992), detail of the Venus of Willendorf

© Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The largest motif in this work is paradoxically also the easiest to miss. Centered in the composition, in transparent gray watercolor, Nancy Graves has placed a three-quarter view of the paleolithic sculpture of female fertility known as the Venus of Willendorf. Undoubtedly, Graves saw this figurine – one of the oldest and perhaps most famous of its kind – on one of her visits to the Natural History Museum in Vienna. Remarkably, her representations of these cultural icons are based on widely published photographs of them, and not on sketches she might have made during her museum visits and international travels.

The overlapping or palimpsestic schema of these drawings is paralleled in the complex layered compositional structure of her sculptures, such as Canoptic Legerdemain, from 1990. This ambitious wall-mounted multi-media high relief was created in an edition of seven, one of which is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Graves’s understood history not as a linear sequence of events but rather as multiple, simultaneous developments. 

mother tongue

NANCY GRAVES
Mother Tongue, 1988
Gold leaf, gouache and graphite on paper
40 by 30 in. 101.6 by 76.2 cm.
 

© Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Burial plaque

Black-and-white xerox of a marble Burial Plaque (c. 3rd-4th century, Rome) from the artist's archive / Collection Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc., New York.

The plaque is in the collection of the Jewish Museum, New York, where Graves must have first seen it.

 

Indeed, in these works such as Mother Tongue she combines such heterogenous elements as a Roman mosaic depiction of the head of Medusa with the insignia of a five-clawed dragon from Chinese imperial iconography. In addition to overlapping motifs across time and space, she also combines across genres, from art history and archaeology to the natural sciences. 

On the right side of the work, Graves has included a latin inscription taken from a Jewish burial plaque from Ancient Rome in the 3rd or 4th century. The plaque is currently in the collection of the Jewish Museum in New York and the inscription, accompanied by a citrus fruit and palm branches, reads:

"Aurelia Progenia set up [this stone] to Aur[elia] Quintilla, her dearest mother, who lived sixty years, five m[onths], in grateful memory." 

A black-and-white xerox of the work is pictured at right from the artist's archives. You can see how Graves's working copy has traces of paint that seem to correspond to the color of the drawing.

drained of its margins full

NANCY GRAVES
Drained of its Margins, 1992
Watercolor and gouache on paper
32 by 40 in. 81.3 by 101.6 cm.
 

© Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

text (drained of its margins)

NANCY GRAVES, Drained of its Margins (1990), detail of rhinoceros from Albrect Dürer's 1515 woodcut print

© Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

In Drained of its Margins, she overlays her drawing of Durer’s woodcut of a rhinoceros, which he based solely on a verbal description, an acupuncture chart and the skeleton of a hand from the first modern Japanese illustrated human anatomy treatise, based on an imported Dutch treatise and published in 1774 by a Japanese doctor who similarly could not read Dutch, but “translated” the text by identifying the anatomy while dissecting a cadaver. In the same image, her rendition of a famous Minoan figurine from the palace of Knossos is overlapped by a precisely rendered illustration of a mosquito, seemingly lifted off the pages of a natural history textbook. And again, you have the wonderfully striated lines of the kifwebe mask. There is a commingling of timelines and places that renders these works at once familiar and esoteric.

Drained of its Margins

Center: NANCY GRAVESDrained of its Margins (1992) / © Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Upper left: Minoan snake goddess figurine from the palace of Knossos (c. 1600 BCE) / Collection Heraklion Aarchaeological Museum, Heraklion, Crete.

Lower left: Congolese (Luba) Kifwebe mask / Collection Seattle Art Museum, Seattle (Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company).

Upper right: Clipping of Japanese acupuncture chart (1774) from the artist's archive / Collection Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc., New York.

Lower right: ALBRECHT DURER, Rhinoceros (1515/c. 1620) / Collection Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Rogers Fund).

talaria

NANCY GRAVES
Talaria, 1988
Gouache and graphite on paper
30 by 30 in. 76.2 by 76.2 cm. 30 by 30 1/4 in. 76.2 by 76.8 cm.

 

© Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

CONCLUSION

FERNAND LEGER, Les Plongeurs (The Divers) (1942), installation view / Collection Museum Ludwig, Cologne

 

There is a lot to observe in these works and while it is rewarding to identify some or all of these fairly well-known images, it is particularly extraordinary to recognize Nancy Graves’ transformation of this vocabulary of existing motifs to express her unique artistic vision. These motifs are both signs and signifiers, they have both cultural and personal meaning, and within each drawing also operate purely visually through color alteration, scale variation, arrangement upside-down or sideways, overlayment, veiling and concealment. It’s also important to highlight the indexical nature, as it were, of these visual references. That is to say, most are images and objects that the artist has seen in life and refer as much to Graves’ personal history as they do to a collective one. 

And Graves was fully aware that each individual would see and read something different in her work. Some viewers will be able to recognize an obscure Roman head and others won’t. The point of these works was never a game of identification but rather a search for new ways of seeing… through both a diversity of form and of content. Throughout her practice, Graves was interested in the ways in which humanity pushes the limits of perception – not just in terms of what can be seen, thought and understood… but also the ways in which images – whether from science or art – can expand and alter how we look at things, how we think of them and how we understand them.

Talaria & Independent Energy

Far left and far right: NANCY GRAVESTalaria (1988) and Independent Energy (1988) / © Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Center: Detail of Athena and Nike fight Alkyoneus, East Frieze panel from the Pergamon Altar / Collection Pergamon Museum, Berlin.

Grid Slideshow 2

NANCY GRAVES, Drained of its Margins

NANCY GRAVES

Drained of its Margins

1992

Watercolor and gouache on paper

32 by 40 in.  81.3 by 101.6 cm.

(MI&N 16814)

 

$25,000

Inquire
NANCY GRAVES, Mother Tongue

NANCY GRAVES

Mother Tongue

1988

Gold leaf, gouache and graphite on paper

40 by 30 in.  101.6 by 76.2 cm.

(MI&N 16815)

 

$25,000

Inquire
NANCY GRAVES, Pure Kinetic Reason

NANCY GRAVES

Pure Kinetic Reason

1992

Watercolor, gouache, and charcoal on paper

44 1/2 by 40 in.  113 by 101.6 cm.

(MI&N 16816)

 

$27,500

Inquire

About the Exhibition

bio

Nancy Graves photographed with Variability and Repetition of Variable Forms (1971)

© Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 

ABOUT NANCY GRAVES

Nancy Graves (1939 – 1995) is an American artist of international renown. A prolific cross-disciplinary artist, Graves developed a sustained body of sculptures, paintings, drawings, watercolors and prints. She also produced five avant-garde films and created innovative set designs. 

Born in Pittsfield Massachusetts, Graves graduated from Vassar College in 1961. She then earned an MFA in painting at Yale University in 1964, where her classmates included Robert Mangold, Rackstraw Downes, Brice Marden, Chuck Close and Richard Serra, to whom she was married from 1964 to 1970. Five years after graduating her career was launched in 1969 when she was the youngest artist—and only the fifth woman—to be selected for a solo presentation at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Graves’s work was subsequently featured in hundreds of museum and gallery exhibitions worldwide, including several solo museum exhibitions.  

She was awarded commissions for large-scale site-specific sculptures and her work is in the permanent collections of major art museums including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. A frequent lecturer and guest artist, her work was widely documented during her lifetime. Her brilliant career and life were cut short by her untimely death from cancer at age 54.