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Richard Nonas in 2010. Photo: Jan Meissner.
Richard Nonas in 2010. Photo: Jan Meissner.

Richard Nonas (1936–2021)

Post-Minimalist sculptor Richard Nonas died in New York May 11 at the age of eighty-five. The news was announced by his gallery, Fergus McCaffrey. Trained as an anthropologist, Nonas was known for his spare modular sculptures, usually of wood, stone, or unglamorous industrial materials, often placed in natural settings, but almost invariably characterized by a unique, thoughtful relationship to their surrounds. Writing in 2018 on a work by Nonas installed outdoors, Carter Ratcliff noted that the artist did not transform the landscape “so much as inflect it with a remarkably restrained sign of his presence, which was temporary, and his intention, which is permanent.” The artist himself wrote of his work as in relation to “a world whose strongest reality is cultural ambiguity and paradox—continual and necessary shifts in meaning.”

Born in New York in 1936, Nonas studied literature and social anthropology at University of Michigan, Lafayette College, Columbia University and the University of North Carolina and then spent nearly a decade conducting field work among Native American populations in Canada, Mexico, and the American Southwest before returning to New York in the mid-1960s. While teaching anthropology part-time at Queens College, he took his dog for a walk in the park and became fascinated with pieces of wood he picked up there, discovering that they conveyed “strong and specific emotion” when pushed together. He began taking the wood home, and experimenting there; having no art background, however, he did not at first recognize that he was creating sculptures.

“A couple of months later,” he recalled, “a friend came to my apartment and said, ‘Idiot, that’s called art.’”

Nonas began working in stone and other materials, and quickly became a part of the scene at the artist-run gallery 112 Greene Street, alongside contemporaries including Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Richard Serra. He described his turn away from anthropology in a prose poem in the April 1980 issue of Artforum, as a rejection of the single prescribed viewpoint to which he felt the science necessarily adhered, saying he preferred instead the “confusion” and “ambiguity” of a sculpture practice. Nevertheless, his anthropological studies informed works ranging from the early Blocks of Wood (Light to Dark, Dark to Light), 1970, and Deadfall, 1975, to the later large-scale Single Artificer, 2016, imbuing them with an emotional power that belied their stark simplicity.

“I was an anthropologist because I was fascinated by questions; questions as questions,” he told Alex Bacon in 2013. “I very quickly realized I was not as interested in answering those questions as I was in seeing where they led. . . . The aim was to land in a place different from where you expected to land. And that’s the way I thought art should be made too.” 

Permanent installations created by Nonas include those at the Londs Konsthall, Lund, Sweden (1988); Cranbrook Art Museum, Boomfield, Michigan (1989); and Detroit Institute of Arts (1997). His work is held in the collections of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, both in New York; and Fondazione Ratti, Italy, among other institutions.

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