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Oct 21, 1995
October 24, 1995, The New York Times Archives. Nancy Graves, an erudite Post-Minimalist artist who combined abstraction with an exacting naturalism, died on Saturday at New N.Y. The cause was cancer, said her husband, Avery L. Smith. A prolific artist who worked in painting, sculpture, printmaking and film, Ms. Graves first made her presence felt on the New York art scene in the late 1960's and 70's, with life-size sculptures of camels that seemed as accurate as a natural history display (down to the real skin). Closer examination, however, revealed myriad distortions of both form and surface, as well as deliberate signs of handwork, so that the ultimate effect was strangely abstract. Although idiosyncratic, the camels were representative of a widespread effort among younger artists to take Minimalism's emphasis on given facts and forms, as well as new materials, into unexpected areas. Like-minded artists included Eva Hesse, Chuck Close, Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra, to whom Ms. Graves was married from 1965 to 1970. Nancy Stevenson Graves was born in Pittsfield, Mass., on Dec. 23, 1940, and throughout her life she retained the reserve and dry humor of a quintessential New Englander. Her dual interest in art and science was encouraged by frequent visits to the Berkshire Museum, where her father worked and which had collections devoted to both art and natural history. After graduating from Vassar College as an English major in 1961, she attended Yale, where she earned bachelor's and master's of fine arts degrees from the School of Art and Architecture in 1964. Grants enabled her to spend the next two years studying in Europe, first in Paris and then in Florence, where the life-size wax studies of an 18th-century anatomist named Susini inspired her to work from natural forms. Continue reading the main story She settled on the camel as the first of these forms, and with typical thoroughness spent three months learning carpentry to be able to devise an armature. Working in Fiberglas, latex, marble dust and other unorthodox materials, Ms. Graves moved on to camel skeletons and bones, which she dispersed about the floor or hung from ceilings, and based other works on a variety of archeological and paleontological subjects, including fossils, totems and mummies. In the early 1970's, she traveled to Morocco, making several films whose repeated sequences of camel herds emphasized the mesmerizing rhythms of their movements. In 1972 Ms. Graves forsook sculpture for painting, making beautifully colored, ostensibly abstract works that were often based on a wide range of maps and charts, including those of the ocean floor and the surfaces of Mars and the moon. When she returned to sculpture in the late 1970's, she learned the lost-wax process so she could work in bronze, experimenting with unusual patinas that translated her natural forms into a palette of highly artificial hot pinks, blues and yellows. She gradually expanded her vocabulary to include not only plants, flowers, fish and occasional pieces of the human skeleton but also man-made objects like fans, colanders and tools. These disparate parts were assembled into gracefully balanced sculptures whose elegant linearity recalled the "drawing in space" sculptures of David Smith. At the end of her life, Ms. Graves was incorporating handblown glass into her sculptures and experimenting with poly-optics, a glasslike material that can be cast. Ms. Graves, whose first New York exhibition was at the Graham Gallery in 1968, has been represented by M. Knoedler & Company since 1980. She exhibited extensively in galleries in the United States and Europe and is represented in museums around the world. Her most recent museum retrospective, organized by the Fort Worth Art Museum, traveled to the Brooklyn Museum in 1987. An exhibition of new hand-painted prints closed on Saturday at the Betsy Senior Gallery in SoHo. In addition to her husband, she is survived by her mother, Mary Bates of Pittsfield; a sister, Judith G. Clarke of Worthington, Mass., and two stepsons, Barrett L. and Carter L. Smith.