Nancy Rubins

Nancy Rubins, Monochrome for Austin, 2015
Photo by Mark Menjivar

Monochrome for Austin
2015

Stainless steel and aluminum
50 × 52 × 41
Commission, Landmarks, The University of Texas at Austin, 2015
Location: Northwest corner of 24th Street and Speedway (NHB)
GPS: TBD

Hoisting big, heavy things overhead, where they balance with improbable grace, Nancy Rubins deploys a sense of mass and scale that can be compared to a performer’s perfect timing. In fact, there is a kind of physical comedy in some of her work, particularly in the early examples. But it has always been balanced with a literal expression of gravitas: even at its most buoyant, the material and emotional heft of her sculptures—their physical drama—are commanding. The components of Rubins’s monumental works range from household appliances to airplane parts, all of which are held together by slender steel cables. As in the work she made for Landmarks, the public art program of The University of Texas at Austin, in which recycled aluminum canoes cluster at the end of a listing column, her sculptures combine surpassing delicacy and indomitable strength, a polarity that is even more striking when encountered outdoors. In the open air, the work’s fearless balancing act can be seen in relationship to the built environment, from which it draws a sense of scale and mass. Prominent among those who have challenged conventions of public art, Rubins is distinguished for work that expands the scope of sculpture in the civic realm.

Born in Naples, Texas, in 1952, and raised in rural Tullahoma, Tennessee, Rubins attended the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she completed a BFA in 1974. Although she majored in painting, she also worked a great deal in clay, and was particularly impressed by the work of Robert Arneson, a visiting artist who headed the graduate ceramics program at the University of California, Davis. Rubins entered the program at UC Davis after graduating from MICA, completing her MFA in 1976. She relished the relatively small and quiet working environment at Davis, especially “the northern California funk aesthetic, which, to me, seemed like a kind of funny and vulgar answer to Pop. I liked the earthiness and rawness of it.” Although Rubins would never produce the figurative work favored by Arneson and others associated with California Funk, she fully absorbed the group’s insubordinate spirit.

After completing her degree, Rubins stayed in Northern California for a few years, but by the late 1970s she was drawn to New York. The assemblages she made at that time—domestic appliances (fans, clocks, TVs, and toasters) embedded in walls and mushrooming towers of concrete—were shown in both commercial and nonprofit venues, including Creative Time’s “Art on the Beach” program in 1980. A teaching opportunity brought Rubins back west in 1982, when she joined the faculty at UCLA, and she has remained in southern California ever since. Her colleagues at the university included the mischievous conceptual sculptor Charles Ray; her future husband, Chris Burden, who was then known for grueling performance work; and Paul McCarthy, a master of scabrous videos and installations. These associations proved instrumental, but as at Davis, Rubins maintained a vigorous independence.

While still a student, Rubins experimented with a kind of sculptural theater, for instance by using wet clay (slip) to stick coffee cups to suspended tarps; the cups popped off as the slip dried. In another project from 1976, she used a small electric fan to create a work that involved graphite-covered paper spattered with red paint. This and other related experiments introduced a way of using paper that Rubins returned to in the 1990s, making works that are hybrids of sculpture and drawing. Porous boundaries between disciplines, and the fluidity of the mediums themselves—the tendency of wet clay to slide and slump—are qualities that appeal to Rubins. A recent exhibition of sprawling sculptures made from vintage animal-shaped playground equipment was titled Our Friend Fluid Metal (2014), because the constituent metal of the works had passed through a molten—fluid—phase. The dozens of painted ducks, elephants, turtles, and horses—once child-friendly but rendered slightly melancholy by age and vaguely menacing by their massed aggregation—are made of aluminum that in many cases was recycled from mothballed jets after World War II.

The springs on which these animals once bounced serve as content rather than structure. Although they perform a nonfunctional role, they signal Rubins’s long-standing interest in tensile strength. What has held her work together since the middle 1980s is not the brute cohesion of concrete but steel cable held in tension, as in suspension bridges. In other words, the sculptures are bound—often in dramatically cantilevered configurations—by active relationships among parts. Citing a sculptor of elegant geometric constructions and a term coined by radical designer and inventor Buckminster Fuller, Rubins stated: “I’ve often felt . . . a relationship to the work of Kenneth Snelson and Tensegrity since what I’m making is held together by tension.” Moreover, the physics that keeps these seemingly impossible concatenations of heavy objects in the air is plain to see. On another occasion, she explained, “In my work . . . you see every twist of every wire and every hole drilled into every object, and how it attaches to the stainless steel structure—or not. Although the sculptures can appear to defy gravity and, perhaps, have a sense of energy that seems to be expanding or contracting, there is a clear and transparent view of what allows them to exist.”

By the late 1980s, Rubins’s constructions had reached truly colossal proportions. For example, in Another Kind of Growth (1988), she added a trailer home to the materials strung together, and in 1992 her epic sculpture Trailers & Hot Water Heaters (1992) was included in Helter Skelter, the much talked-about exhibition organized by Paul Schimmel at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Soon fighter jet wings and fuselages were among Rubins resources as well, lending associations to power and grace, and a kind of propulsive energy that evokes J. G. Ballard’s novels of calamitous beauty and Paul Virilio’s theorization of violence and speed. These sculptures gave way in turn to others featuring bound mattresses sandwiched around squashed masses of frosted cake—materials that are thoroughly domestic and yet, in their overpowering abundance and imminent spoilage, still deeply disruptive. By the middle of the following decade, Rubins had begun to assemble brightly colored fiberglass canoes and kayaks into outsize bouquets that flower overhead with a less aggressive kind of exuberance. As the artist observed with some surprise: “The boats behave beautifully in the air.” Indeed, the impression that they are floating high above on currents of air places viewers in a dreamily underwater state: we are kept alert—the canoes are, after all, big and bold, and their balance seems a little precarious—but we are also made to feel like the boats, suspended in time and space.

Monochrome for Austin, 20145

The Monochromes series, which comprises assemblages of unpainted aluminum canoes, began in 2010. In addition to the sculpture commissioned for The University of Texas at Austin, it includes examples in Buffalo, Chicago, and Paris. By forgoing color, Rubins divorces the sculptures from painterly qualities that have caused critics to compare her work to John Chamberlain’s sculptures of compressed and cut-up auto parts, which have been linked in turn with the slashing compositions of Abstract Expressionism. In Rubins’s Monochromes, the connecting steel cables are slightly more prominent than in her previous work, forming linear networks that provide a counterpoint to the lean but substantial metal boats. In these darkly gleaming sculptures, the cantilevered, gravity-defying forms, like the playground animals in Our Friend Fluid Metal, seem a little melancholy, and a little menacing. There is also an association to warplanes, again nearly subliminal; some of the canoes were made by the Grumman Corporation, a military producer of the jet planes Rubins had used earlier. But these vessels also evoke a different kind of movement, and life: in contrast to the thundering flight of old military aircraft, canoes glide silently through the water, and speak of a kind of virtuous solitude. A single paddle is enough to guide them, and their footprints are small.

Rubins’s drawings serve as another link to the Monochromes: both bodies of work are lustrous and dark, absorbing and deflecting light in a way that complicates their contours. Knifing gracefully and a little elusively through the air, they are more inward in character than preceding sculptures. Most of the decommissioned objects in Rubins’s sculptures involve action and energy, and, as always, that energy—potent if less noisy than in some cases—is latent in the Monochromes. But it is now a little restless, like a spirit hovering between object and image, presence and memory. At once massive and ghostly, the Monochrome for Austin has something of the grandeur and authority of traditional monumental sculptures, with their invocation of ancestral figures and shared references. And it also has the wily aspect of a half-remembered but cherished personal object that successfully eludes capture.

Essay by Nancy Princenthal

Bibliographic Highlights

Finkel, Jori, “A Bouquet of Boats Blooming at Lincoln Center,” The New York Times, June 25, 2006, AR 30.

Hamer, Katy Diamond, “New York Tales . . . Nancy Rubins,” Flash Art, July 28, 2014.

“Interview, Nancy Rubins and Xandra Eden,” in Nancy Rubins: Drawing Sculptures Studies (Greensboro: Weatherspoon Art Museum; Munich and New York: Prestel, 2014), 123.

American, born 1952