Nancy Rubins is a sculptor who assembles mass-produced metal materials, found objects, and industrial refuse and transforms them into sculptures that are orchestrated abstractions. Her massive creations embrace fluidity but can seem precarious and frightening. Her precise engineering balances the individual parts of her sculptures, which she secures with tensile wires and cables, held together by a complex rigging system. From sprawling sculptures to large-scale graphite drawings, Rubins suggests a continuum between chaos and the coolness of modernism.
Rubens was born in Texas and raised in Ohio, Tennessee, and Connecticut. When she was a child, she toured the Statue of Liberty and was interested in “the seams and structures on the inside.” In 1974, she received her B.F.A. from the Maryland Institute College of Art. She did not care for figurative art but did like working with clay. She moved to the West Coast to study at the University of California, Davis where she received her M.F.A. in 1976. During this time she collected used appliances, which she often included in large wall-like sculptures. Living in San Francisco, she experienced her first earthquake and was inspired by the nature and flexibility of concrete. Her ceiling “could behave like water – like a liquid – and still remain intact.”
In the late 1970s she layered together concrete with small electronic appliances. She was constructing DIY stone walls with detritus. Seemingly solid, the sculptures would waver but would never crack. Her first solo show in San Francisco featured a 45-foot-long, 14-foot-tall, 1-foot-wide structure of hair dryers, window fans, and toasters embedded in hardened cement.
While teaching at UCLA in 1982, she met artist Chris Burden, whom she would marry. They moved to Topanga Canyon in 1984 where they lived in a tent for four years, showering on the university’s campus. They bought contiguous land and added a home, studio buildings, and oak groves.
Her sculptures are bouquet-like arrangements comprised of clusters of similar objects – defunct appliances, airplane parts, cast-off hulls of boats, carousel creatures, junked mobile homes, and metal decorations,.
The independent elements of her sculptures are held together by a web of tensile cables and T-bars like a suspension bridge. Her cables accentuate the arcs, swoops, and the movement of each work. She clumps her varied objects together and cantilevers them into space where they seem to explode in all directions combining a dramatic mass with a sense of buoyancy. Rubins knows that some of her works will collapse and change shape since they are made from past-their-prime materials.
Rubins’s 1995 “MoMA and Airplane Parts” was reconstituted at Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain 2002/2003 and then visited Forte Belvedere in 2003. Finally it was reconfigured for the main space of SculptureCenter in Long Island City, Queens, New York. In 2001, Rubins made another massive, sculpture from salvaged steel airplane parts. This work anchored the plaza space of Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art. It has been relocated to MOCA’s Gaffe (Geffin) Contemporary satellite space in Little Tokyo. In 2006, she installed at Lincoln Center a work “Big Pleasure Point” made from discarded aluminum and fiberglass boats.
Rubins has also used a wide range of animal forms – giraffes, tortoises, crocodiles, wolves, and hogs – cast in iron, bronze, brass, and aluminum, all unpainted metals with each having its own hue. While these sculptures were originally made for gardens, she treats them as abstracted components. Tortoise shells become a foundation from which silvered hogs emerge, and antlers give way to the curls of crocodile tails in her 2017 “Agrifolia Major.”
In 1995, Rubins had her first show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. In 2013, she received the Distinguished Women in the Arts Award from Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Her institutional exhibitions were shown in San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art; Miami Art Museum, New York’s Sculpture Center, and New York’s Lincoln Center, among others.
Rubins’s large-scale sculptures are on permanent display at Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art, New York’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery, University Paris Diderot, and University of Texas at Austin, and others. Her recent sculpture “Table and Airplane Parts” is installed permanently at Gare de Leuglay, France.