Spinnie's Orb, 2021
Aluminium, stainless steel, and stainless steel wire cable
79 x 49 x 68 inches
Slippie's Lane, 2021
Aluminium, stainless steel, and stainless steel wire cable
79 3/4 x 52 1/4 x 92 3/4 inches
Diversifolia, #3, 2017
21 x 14 x 19 inches
Drawing (D), 2019
Graphite pencil on paper
38 1/2 x 33 1/8 x 5 inches
Drawing (C), 2019
Graphite pencil on paper
85 x 68 3/4 x 8 inches
I realized that this stuff has been around a long time, and it’s passed through this odd transition. Before it was in the earth, it was floating as a molecule in outer space—it was part of somebody’s star, or part of somebody’s exploding planet.
Through sculptures assembled from discarded materials and graphite drawings that assume the appearance of liquid metal, Nancy Rubins transforms quotidian objects into artworks that exceed the sums of their parts. She explores the precariousness and limits of natural forces through large-format pieces with formidable psychological and physical presence. Working with salvaged commercial and industrial materials since the late 1970s, Rubins frequently combines features of assemblage and monumental sculpture to create dynamic works that are at once familiar and otherworldly.
Rubins has been preoccupied with achieving seemingly impossible production feats throughout much of her artistic career, bridging the worlds of engineering and art. In 1974 she completed a BFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and then moved to the West Coast to study at the University of California at Davis, where she received an MFA two years later. Around this time, she began collecting used appliances—from hair dryers to electric shavers, toaster ovens to televisions—which she included in large, semiflexible wall-like sculptures. Initially sourcing her materials from garbage dumps and thrift stores, Rubins mined not only the vast quantities of objects at her disposal, but also the history of each salvaged item.
From her early-1980s accumulations of domestic devices, which she assembled into gigantic tornado- or tidal-wave-shaped forms, Rubins’s practice evolved in the 1990s to include immense clusters of sizeable objects, such as boats, mattresses, or the deconstructed parts of enormously complex, manufactured machinery like airplanes and trailers. Rubins amasses these components into biological or arboreal growth patterns that often cantilever over pedestrian traffic below. As she does so, she continues to focus on the formal qualities of the salvaged objects.
The act of drawing is integral to Rubins’s practice, both in her vast body of densely rendered works on paper and in her use of stainless-steel wire in her sculptures, which creates linear yet three-dimensional forms of “drawing in space.” In the mid-1970s, Rubins began producing drawings of increasingly concentrated compositions, covering the entire surface of the paper with graphite to create shiny metallic surfaces that have endless depth of space as well as textured traces of the artist’s hand. While some iterations of these drawings comprise multiple large sheets of paper that are layered and affixed to a wall, others are volumetric, three-dimensional undulations that exploit the sculptural potential of the medium.
Rubins’s work has grown in scale over the course of her career, resulting in a body of sculptures that have been installed in prominent public locations. These include Big Pleasure Point (2006), a structure composed of more than sixty kayaks, canoes, and other small watercraft, which arched over the plaza at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2006. In 2013 Rubins began producing rhizomatic large-format assemblages comprising cast-aluminum playground animals bound together with cables. By the latter 2010s, this technique evolved to include the use of other materials, such as cast-iron, brass, and bronze animal sculptures. Following the life cycle of her chosen materials, Rubins hones the formal qualities of these discrete components. Held together by stainless-steel wiring in tension, these monumental aggregations appear to be suspended in a moment of temporary stasis and evoke the possibility of ever-changing plasticity. As a kind of palimpsest, Rubins’s work reminds viewers that what appears to be solid and static is in fact in a constant state of change.
Throughout her career, Rubins has used industrial and found objects as the raw materials for her sculptures and drawings. In her most recent “Fluid Space” series, she uses fragments of ready-made cast metal animals, breaking apart the animal forms and composing the fragments into new forms that sprout from tables and stools.
Rubins’s remarkable, nearly five-decade practice is built on a series of contradictions.
Her monumental sculptures are simultaneously organic and otherworldly, fluid and static, exploding and imploding. Uniting the worlds of art and engineering, Rubins creates her works by amassing found everyday objects—mobile trailers, canoes, airplane parts, playground equipment—and assembling them into objects where time and space collide, pushing the bounds of what seems possible.
The Artists’ Legacy Foundation today announced that Nancy Rubins (b. 1952)—celebrated for her innovative sculptural practice—is the recipient of its 2021 Artist Award. The unrestricted merit award of $25,000 is given to a visual artist whose primary medium is painting or sculpture in recognition of their professional achievements. Each year, ten artists are proposed for the Award by five anonymous nominators. Like the nominators, the jury of three comprises art-world peers who make the final decision.
Usher, Jim Carrey, Bruno Mars, Marilyn Minter, and David Hockney are among the more than 100 creative stars who have made artworks in memory of Black women killed by the police. The works will appear in “Show Me the Signs,” an exhibition and auction benefiting the womens’ families.
The proceeds of the sale will go to the #SayHerName Mothers Network, run by the African American Policy Forum.
“Black women and girls do not fit the most accessible frames of anti-Black police violence, and because of that, it’s difficult to tell their stories in a way that people recognize and remember,” said #SayHerName founder Kimberlé Crenshaw in a statement. “By working with the families of slain Black women, AAPF’s #SayHerName campaign resists Black women’s invisibility by telling their stories.”
Participants were asked to make work in the spirit of solidarity and empowering love, and the results vary widely. Starting bids range from just $1—for the Haas Brothers’ cardboard sign that encourages bidders to “do more than bidding on a sign”—to up to $20,000 for works by Rashid Johnson and Nancy Rubins.
Heading up the long driveway to Nancy Rubins’s Topanga Canyon studio, I saw heaps of crumpled airplane parts and accumulations of rusted-out playground equipment before I saw the artist herself. The metal scraps piled up under persimmon trees and next to constellations of purple and chartreuse cacti. Some idled, waiting and untouched, but others had been bound together in ecstatic masses that resembled gnarled asteroids or colossal mold spores. The forms existed in that liminal, mesmerizing place between grotesque and gorgeous, primordial and futuristic.
As a student in the 1970s, Nancy Rubins made igloo-like structures out of mud, concrete and straw, a contrast to the industrial objects she became known for appropriating into large-scale sculptures. Her practice consistently reflects a fascination with found objects, which have included mobile homes, aircraft, and boats. Rubins initially scavenged for domestic appliances at charity shops around San Francisco, collecting nearly 300 television sets for one piece.
In July of 2014 the American artist Nancy Rubins opened an exhibition of sculptures at Gagosian in New York with the name “Our Friend Fluid Metal.” The naming was accurate because in an art practice now spanning over four decades, she has been able to get by with a little help from a lot of her friends, which have included small appliances, television consoles, mattresses, playground animals, airplane parts, canoes, sailboats and kayaks, various kinds of cake and dense layers of graphite. Her material friendship has allowed her to find that “little speck of territory that nobody has really looked at before,” which is how she defines “originality,” a quality she seeks out. Her practice has never been predictable, and the large-scale sculptures and drawings that have emerged from it have captivated and vexed viewers from the beginning.