New York

Nancy Graves

Knoedler Gallery

Nancy Graves has engineered some of the most memorable sculptural events of the past twenty years or so. In addition to such pieces as Totem, 1980, which prodded our memories of this in the Museum of Modern Art’s “‘Primitivism’” show last fall, there were the “Camels,” 1968, the Ceridwen bones on Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, 1969–77, and the thicket of Variability and Repetition of Variable Forms, 1971. Although Graves has long been recognized, perhaps she has not received her full measure of praise.

The works that have been viewed critically as the most problematic are the forays into bronze shown in 1980, which eventually segued into the current sculptures. In retrospect, however, these are exciting precisely because of their oddness: one work’s center of gravity is disconcertingly high (Trace, 1979), for instance, while others make strained allusions to fungi, fossils, and parasols. Archaeloci, 1979, operates both as the usual zoological or anatomical reference and as a synecdoche for the action of pouring: its vertebraelike section lends itself to a kind of handle formation, from which shedding skin, perhaps, spills down and away. Form seems to imply function and yet has nothing to do with utility. The works are quirky, but they have a risky energy.

Although the bronzes shown in 1982 are more specific in their organicism than the first attempts, none of them has as much of a sense of inner structure, of life form. Organicism has a sponginess to it, an allegiance to the underbelly, to secrecy; the pods, leaves, and fronds in the 1982 work are spare parts in search of an animating core. Where in the 1980 show each of the sculptures had a distinct personality of its own which made it seem complete, specific, and different from its neighbors, the later works are random, one much like the other.

This assembly line air is even stronger in the “Shadow Series,” the paintings with relief elements on view here. Metaphorically, in their confusion of teeming surface and depth, these could be the ponds from which Graves’ organisms might come. All is layered but elements persistently slip around from foreground to background. The effect is exaggerated by the fact that the aluminum and fiberglass reliefs, usually stuck onto a corner, also lose their full-bodiedness and camouflage themselves as paint. The canvases are presented as if by day and night, and when the “water” scene is dark—in Dispose and Wixt, both 1983, and Xond, 1984—the configurations turn phosphorescent. This should be the flux visible in the drop of water through the microscope, being and energy in situ, but the impression is one of confetti. Graves deserves more credit, but not for these.

Jeanne Silverthorne