Nancy Graves was an American artist who never limited herself to a single medium or style. She was a painter, sculptor, printmaker, costume and set designer, and filmmaker. Graves, the youngest artist and fifth woman ever to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum, burst onto the art scene in 1969 with her three handmade, life-size simulated camels. It took her five years of preparation – including mastering carpentry – to produce these camel structures. Her aggressive realism was a contrast to the late 1960s sculptures of abstract, hard-edge minimalism.
Graves graduated from Vassar with a degree in English literature, but her interest in painting took her to Yale where she earned both B.F.A. and M.F.A. degrees. In 1964, she won a Fulbright grant to paint in Paris. By 1965 she was married to Yale classmate and artist Richard Serra (they were to divorce in 1970). In 1966, both artists moved to Florence for a year where Graves studied sculpture and the life-size models of human and animal forms, made by the 18th century anatomist Clemente Susini. These images helped inspire her to make three-dimensional art.
When Graves made sculptures in 1970-1971, she placed camel bones and camel skins in formats based on the totemic and shamanistic habits of early hunting societies. In 1972, when she turned to painting, her high-key, washed-out colors, dots, and scribbles were based on hard science: satellite maps of the floor of the Indian Ocean and images of the surface of the moon. When she painted sea animals, she studied the protective colorations in which they lived. When she painted the sea bed, she used bathymetric maps and built up her image with individual dots of color applied with scientific precision. To paint the near side of the moon, she included linear forms based on a map of the moon and satellite photos of the lunar surface. Computer and video interpretations of the moon also played their part in the making of her work.
In 1976-1977, Graves temporarily put sculpture aside to concentrate on two-dimensional work. In addition to her prints and drawings from this period, her paintings consisted of elegant brushwork and pale luminous surfaces, etched by delicate squiggles or vaulting lines. These gestural abstractions have their roots in the humanities and in the technology of satellite maps, lunar photographs, motion studies, fossil records, and maps of the ocean floor. Her canvases offer a fluid, more calligraphic re-interpretation of earlier pointillist lithographs. In the 1980s, Graves moved toward creating tactile, densely layered paintings.
Her reputation was mostly based on her extraordinary polychromed bronzes that consisted of a freewheeling calligraphy of lacy, plant-like, linear forms floating through space. Although her sculptures were abstract, their components consisted of recognizable objects that the artist had foraged in Manhattan. Graves used the ‘lost wax’ method of bronze casting at the Tallix Foundry in Peekskill, New York from 1979 on.
In comparison to her paintings and sculptures, Graves’s prints have received little attention. Yet in her prints can be found the sum of Graves’s artistic interests and investigations, her experimentation with materials, and her desire to break down traditional boundaries within and between artistic mediums. Her beautiful prints crisscrossed the borders between art, history, and natural science as they contained diverse images such as: Theban tomb paintings, orchids collected from Machu Picchu, images of Nefertiti, petroglyphs from Lascaux, and ground plans of ancient temples.
Yale honored Graves with the Yale Arts Award for Distinguished Artistic Achievement in 1989 and with an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts in 1992. Her work is in major museum collections throughout the world.