Nancy Graves

The Shape of Time

Mitchell-Innes & Nash
Jul 26th 2021 — Aug 27th 2021

The central work of “The Shape of Time”—an online exhibition of Nancy Graves’s works-on-paper presented by Mitchell Innes & Nash—may not be any particular piece of art so much as a photograph of Graves taken in 1965. The artist sits at the Cimitero degli inglesi, or “English Graveyard,” in Florence, smiling out with squinted eyes, her hair wrapped in a bandana. She is posing with a handful of fellow recent Yale MFA grads, Chuck Close and her eventual husband, Richard Serra, among them. Though the show narrows in on works made in the latter half of her short life, it emphasizes that year as a fertile and germinating time: the wellspring of many of the motifs and styles that she would favor during the rest of her roughly four-decade-long career.

An online exhibition is particularly suited to Graves’s intricately layered works, the motifs in which, though limited in number, tend to be obscure in their origin. The presentation also entails a short video and various ephemera as it explores isolated, specific slices of her creative output next to their known sources. Produced toward the end of Graves’s life, Pure Kinetic Reason (1992) showcases not only the artist’s exquisite linework—as it carves out the shape of a serpentine sea snake—but also the depth of her references. The snake, for instance, had been culled from a Renaissance drawing and is placed beside a replica of a Pompeiian couple’s portrait. But, though the Italian influence may be strongest, Graves demonstrates learned depth as well as an incredible range across these pieces. In the same composition, a Congolese mask, a Japanese medical drawing, and a snippet of a New York Times image are also visible.

Nancy Graves, Pure Kinetic Reason, 1992. Watercolor, gouache, and charcoal on paper, 44 1/2 by 40 inches. © Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York