New York

Nancy Graves

Dag Hammarskjold Plaza

Nancy Graves’ latest assembly of bones occupies a low steel platform at the corner of 47th Street and 2nd Avenue. Those who, like myself, are fairly ignorant of natural history will not know whether these are dinosaur fossils or those of enduring animals, or even whether there is more than one species represented here. But the black, or at least twilit, humor of Graves’ piece is easy to recognize.

One likes to imagine that the fossils belong to dinosaurs who have traveled across millions of years of time to check upon this rather undistinguished corner of Manhattan. Their hollow eyes gaze in all directions—down the block toward the U.N. park, across the street at a row of freshly painted tenements, and back again at the drab black glass skyscraper on whose terrace the sculpture sits—for Graves’ work here includes numerous legs and vertebrae, more than one ribcage and several skulls. All these parts are jumbled together, as if strewn around the laboratory floor of some biologist who will shortly try to discern which head belongs to which body, which body to which legs. It looks as if there might be a skull for each point on the compass.

Graves is one of the many current artists who ground their work in the dimmer and more specialized corners of history, and in a museum a Graves piece may seem limited to esoteric play on bits of primitive art and anthropological theory. In a 1972 Artforum interview, she explained having consciously tried to dissociate herself from Western tradition by turning to tribal and ritual art for background. And both she and Emily Wasserman, her interviewer, seemed to agree that a knowledge of camel anatomy and Durkheim were necessary to an understanding of her art. Her work stood somewhere between the pure primitivism of various early 20th-century artists and the scientism of recent ones. At once it appeared as a fetish, in the manner of the primitive objects from which it borrowed, and as an item a scientist would investigate. Graves adopted the personae of both the shaman and the anthropologist.

In its current setting, her work is a far more literal, far more blatant gesture toward a world that is common and daily, rather than academic and mysterious—it becomes filled with contemporary meaning when placed amid contemporary buildings, signs and streets. In one sense, the collection of bones is a cackling admonition that New York, too, will someday come to this. It is also a nostalgic reminder of childhood trips to natural history museums, an angry remark on a civilization that has forgotten its origins and its animality, and a reminder of death that is more than a little shocking because it arises in such mundane and benign surroundings.

Yet all of these sober qualities of Graves’ work are overlaid with irony: after all, this is merely a clutter of bones, dead scientific curiosities that endanger nobody. Perhaps this is only to say that her sculpture’s shamanistic and scientific content emerges more clearly outdoors. But the poetic strength of her hollow-eyed skulls and gaping ribcages is much intensified when they are allowed to assault the daily world. They become quite plausible fetishes, both instilling fear and providing assurance, for the present time. It seems to me that this is what Graves has been aiming for all along.

Leo Rubinfien