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.
Rubins already had a significant reputation when she included Trailers and Hot Water Heaters, 1992, in “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s,” the controversial exhibition that marked Paul Schimmel’s debut as chief curator at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The components of her monumental sculpture—dozens of tubular water heaters and a jumble of campers and trailers—made clear that she was intimidated by neither number nor scale; she referred to mobile homes as “swollen appliances” and incorporated them as effortlessly into her large sculptures as she had toasters and vacuum cleaners into her smaller ones.
Her practice has been a carnival of objects, aggregations of things that she has combined in ways that are as surprising as they seem inevitable. Her explanation of what she does is straightforward. “It’s in the fit,” she says, “you find how certain elements work together and fit together in a way that they need to.” Her skill at this kind of fitting assemblage is unequalled among contemporary sculptors.
Hers has always been assemblage of a different order and scale. It has reached an apotheosis in the four sculptures on exhibition in “Diversifolia” at Gagosian in London from early February to mid-April 2018, her first solo show in that city. The sculptures, which are improbably beautiful, are uber-baroque—a profusion of crocodile tails, deer antlers, hog tusks and cloven hooves, all held in a delicate balance by tension wires that operate like drawn lines. (Somewhere in these works is a refinement of David Smith’s recognition that sculpture is “drawing in space.”) The animals are yet another collaboration with her metallic friends; the menagerie includes giraffes, crocodiles, wolves, tortoises, storks and zebras, cast in bronze, iron, brass or aluminum. Individually, the animals retain a sense of their original integrity, but when a group of them are conjoined they read as abstractions. Altogether, the sculptures should be overwhelmed by the quantity and weight of their materiality, but the opposite happens: they reach out and up into a turbulent and weightless airiness.
Rubins has done this before; in a work like Table & Airplane Parts, 2005, she constructed a sculpture that is as much about line as mass. (In this area she matches the liquid line that Lee Bontecou achieved in her suspended sculptures.) Rubins is aware of the rhythm created by compression and expansion in making a sculpture; in comparing the way John Chamberlain uses compression with her own practice, she says, “His work is much more pulled in and my work is going out in certain directions.”
In a sculpture like Table & Airplane Parts, she still employs compression as a structural principle, but the look of the piece is visually liberating; rather than exuding a feeling of gravity, the sculpture looks as if it could float away. She admires Alexander Calder for “a certain sense of lumbering grace.” In her own best work, Rubins approximates something closer to a certain sense of lumineering grace.
When asked how she knows a piece is finished, her response is characteristically direct and guileless. “You don’t know, but you do. I know that in my imagination the pieces could keep going and going and going.” They may do that in her imagination, but that’s also exactly what the work is doing in reality. Nancy Rubins shows no signs of not keeping going. She is infinitely inventive, and her work continues its surprising and delightful performance. Her engagement, as she says, is simply a calling.
The following interview was conducted by phone to Nancy Rubins’s studio in Topanga Canyon, California, on February 20, 2018.
Border Crossings: I’m interested in how anyone becomes an artist. Was there anything in your upbringing that would have made that a sensible choice?
Nancy Rubins: I don’t know if “sensible choice” is ever in the same sentence as choosing to be an artist. But I grew up around people who encouraged creative thinking and I always loved making things. I wasn’t a particularly good student, but my folks encouraged me to do what I was good at and that was making things and exploring ways to articulate my imagination. So, was it a sensible choice? I think art isn’t a choice; it’s a calling.
Your father was a scientist. What did he do?
He was an aerospace scientist who was doing research on the supersonic combustion engine, which is what they called it at that time. I think presently it is called the hypersonic combustion engine.
You have said that he was more interested in process than in product, and I wonder if some of that has rubbed off on you in your notion of seat-of-the-pants engineering.
It’s not always seat-of-the-pants because I often bring in proper engineers. But, yes, I do think that my dad’s curiosity to explore what was before him did rub off.
You do drawings or maquettes, don’t you?
I’ve learned how. When I was very young I had no clue why people made models. As I got older and needed to have a conversation with other people about how the sculpture would work in space, I learned the use of models. I think the first time I made one that was really useful was when I built the piece that cantilevers off the building at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego. It was originally Mrs Scripps’s house in La Jolla. My assistant and I had never really worked with these elements before, and we built a steel structure for our use and then pretended that our hands were cranes. We made the model to a certain scale—the scale I am stuck with, which is one and a half inches equal a foot—and it worked beautifully. It was also the first time that we used an actual crane. We were both rather stunned that our pretend hand crane and the way the elements were placed in the work were pretty close to what happened.
You do that piece in 1994 called Airplane Parts & Building, A Large Growth for San Diego, and it is a very specific kind of site-specificity because it does cantilever off the building. Does that make it different from other of your pieces that are free-standing and not tied to architecture?
I built two pieces for San Diego that related to buildings. One was Airplane Parts & Building in 1994 and then Pleasure Point in 2006. Actually, there have been a lot of pieces that have played off buildings: the piece in “Helter Skelter” with the trailers and hot-water heaters used the building as part of the armature for the sculpture, or MoMA and Plane Parts (1995) or Table & Airplane Parts(1994) that used the table like a building. So the sculptures have responded to the environment they were built in for a long time.
You have said that you never undo anything. Once you’ve made a decision, that’s the one you’re going to go with?
Occasionally I’ll change something but it is rare.
Why did you choose Maryland to do your undergraduate degree?
I spent my first two years in college in Nashville at Peabody College, which had a pretty strong art program. It was a nice, small school, but then it shifted its focus, the art program started changing and they let go some of the more interesting professors. I had heard that the school in Baltimore had a really terrific ceramic department and a good relationship with New York in that a lot of the artists who taught there were New Yorkers who would take the train in. So I transferred up there.
Did you go there because you wanted to work with clay?
Initially that is why I went there, and then I learned that Salvatore Scarpitta was teaching painting and I became a painting major so that I could work with him. My two focuses of interest were these paintings, which were actually three-dimensional things, and the clay. But I wasn’t really a ceramic artist because I didn’t fire anything. I was just using clay to make sculptures.
One of your attractions to clay as a material was generated by your interest in the physics of collapse and integrity. What was it about that notion that was so interesting to you?
I loved clay because as a material it was incredibly generous and forgiving and flexible and available and economic. Basically, it was free. If you made something that was not very good, you could throw it back into the slip bucket and use it again. So, for me, it was a wonderful tool of transience and a marvellous tool to learn by. It was a great way for me to figure out the threedimensional world but not have the problem of making more junk that needed to be thrown away.
In the history of sculpture the question of the base or the pedestal is a critical one. In your early work you solved the base problem because when your material collapsed and fell to the floor, it established your base. What emerges is an accidental aesthetic and system of problem solving.
It’s true. In those early cement wall pieces with appliances, or the Big Urn (1978), that indeed was what happened.
When did you first discover Robert Arneson and the ceramic funk tradition?
When I was at Baltimore, really interesting artists from the West Coast were brought in to give talks, including a lot of funk artists from northern California. Arneson was one of them; so was Wayne Thiebaud; Bob Hudson and Jim Shaw were a team at that time; Clayton Bailey, the ceramicist, came out and spoke to us; so did the painter Roy de Forest. It was interesting because the students of my generation went to New York and that was what I was being educated to do. I was pretty young and relatively immature even for my age and I wasn’t ready to take on New York at that point in my life. So I figured that going to graduate school in California would be a good thing to do. I’d never been there and I was curious to see what northern California had to offer. It turned out that I was lucky enough to get accepted into that program. They had a different approach to pop. I really loved the intimacy of Oldenburg’s early plaster work, and then he took the hand out of it. It was also the hand that I liked in Arneson’s work. It was an odd bridge of painting and cartoon and sculpture, and there was a real humanism to it that was interesting to me. He was a marvellous person to work with and very generous when he worked with younger students.
But you never really fired anything, did you? You and the kiln were strangers.
I fired a couple of things. I have a raku piece and I made one mug.
When I look at those tall concrete sculptures you made, I would have thought that an artist like Peter Voulkos would have made more sense to you than Arneson, especially with your idea of “trowelling up the expanded metal with your hands.” That’s more of a Voulkos gesture than an Arneson one.
I was aware of Voulkos’s work but I wasn’t really thinking of either of them at that point. I was just making my own work. I was living in a cast concrete building, and when a big earthquake went through, I saw how flexible the building was. That experience embraced huge contradictions; this rigid, static, concrete building, under the right circumstances, behaved like a wave. As a result I became fascinated by cement. I started trowelling with my hands onto this expanded metal and I trowelled it on to a plywood wall. So on one side you would see the residue of the plywood wall and on the other side you saw the momentary gestures of the hand trowelling the cement up the expanded metal. The walls were about a quarter of an inch thick, maybe three-quarters of an inch at the thickest. As you said, all the stuff would fall to the base and make the anchor, so it was slightly heavier at the bottom. I could push these things and they would waver back and forth and not crack. I really loved this odd and elegant contradiction that was embraced in the work, which was this great flexibility with a material that I had understood to be brittle and rigid.