Modern & Contemporary Art

Nancy Graves: Science, Nature and Dance

Nancy Graves

NEW YORK, NY -- The work of Nancy Graves (1939-1995) has always been idiosyncratic to its time. Although Graves was successful even early on – the youngest person, and only the fifth woman, to have a solo exhibition (in 1969) at the Whitney Museum – her work never fit into the prevailing trends of the time. Fearlessly combining mediums and aggressively exploring new materials, Graves was classified as a Post-Minimalist, which really says more about what her work is not and seems far too limiting a label in any case. Eschewing both Minimalism as well as Pop, the two major movements of the 1970s and 80s, Graves created abstract paintings and sculpture that took their cues from elements of science and nature, showcasing sometimes recognizable forms, but stripped of any context.

“I think that science is the most significant aspect of our time, and far more so than art. Art, if it will endure on some level – does inspire wonder. The scientific discoveries with which we are bombarded surely do that too, and I think that art in some way has to acknowledge this.” – Nancy Graves, 1979.

Graves sourced much of her imagery from science and nature publications as well as her major artistic influences: David Smith, Alexander Calder and Henri Matisse. Created in 1979, Vertigo is a fantastic representation of Graves’ paintings of this period. Having received a post-graduate Fulbright scholarship to study Matisse’s work, Graves would go on to emulate both the high-key colors as well as the relationship of his abstracted forms. Vertigo showcases that influence here, as the bold red-orange curves mimic an outline of the figures in Matisse’s 1910 masterpiece Dance. Meanwhile, the large circles at left, resting among smaller patches of pointillist dots, are reminiscent of a constellation. Dance is a key theme of this work and Shift, a closely-related work of this same era.

Vertigo was subsequently recreated as a print, employed as a fundraiser release for Graves’ close friend Trisha Brown’s dance company. Vertigo is an encapsulation, in a sense, of Graves’ unique approach: large, bold gestures that are not representational forms, as much as we may wish they were. Graves provides no narrative, nor an identifiable picture plane. What elements are in the foreground? In the background? Graves was intent on exploring perception, on the time we need to look at a work in order to truly see it. She provides no singular focal point. As with many of Graves’ works, Vertigo requires attention and focus, to look and look again, to approach from other angles and viewpoints.

Throughout her career, Nancy Graves would continue to build a visual vocabulary in which she would repeat abstracted and representational forms in works across mediums, from sculptures to paintings, even delving into film. Busy and bright, Graves’ sculptures challenged even the notions of balance, often precarious and top-heavy. Even in the lack of a narrative, there is always drama – hot colors and sweeping, grand gestures, balanced with intricate patterns and brief breathing areas of negative space. Graves sadly passed away in 1995, far too young at 55. She left behind a body of work strangely beautiful and mysterious, much like those elements of nature and the cosmos which she often replicated.

Important Paintings

A highlights of the Important Paintings auction on September 17, 2020 is Vertigo, 1979, from the Property of an Elegant Lady.

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Portrait of specialist Angelo Madrigale
SVP/Director of Paintings / Director of Contemporary Art
Modern & Contemporary Art
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