Nancy Rubins, Drawing

Nancy Rubins, Drawing, 2007. Graphite on rag paper 81 x 132 x 23 inches. Purchase, Landmarks, The University of Texas at Austin, 2016. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.

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My name is Nancy Princenthal; I am a New York-based art critic and a faculty member of the School of Visual Arts. I’d like to provide a little background on Nancy Rubins’ sculpture Monochrome for Austin, commissioned by Landmarks, the public art program at the University of Texas at Austin, and also on the drawing by Rubins that has been acquired by the University. 


Rubins was born in Naples, Texas in 1952 and raised in rural Tullahoma, Tennessee; she lives and works in Los Angeles. The scale of her work, as well its often mischievous spirit, can be associated with a Californian kind of open space, and with what might be called a West Coast inclination to big, provocative gestures. Having worked early on in clay, which she favored for its tendency to slide and slump, Rubins first gained attention for towering concrete sculptures in which all manner of household appliances were embedded: fans, clocks, TVs, toasters. By the late nineteen-eighties, her constructions had reached truly colossal proportions, and included major appliances and even entire trailer homes as well as airplane parts.


Monochrome for Austin is composed of aluminum canoes, which are hoisted overhead with improbable poise. It is one of a series that followed sculptures made of brightly colored fiberglass canoes. In the Monochromes, Rubins brings to the fore the grace of the unpainted metal forms, and the way they alternately absorb and reflect light. In some conditions they evoke a dreamily underwater state; standing beneath them, we may feel suspended—like their constituent parts—in space and time. But the artist points out that some of these boats were made by the Grumman Corporation, which also manufactured many of the fighter jets whose parts she used in previous sculptures. The power, and a hint of the menace, that is evoked by military aircraft can be felt in the Landmarks sculpture, too.


All the sculptures Rubins has made since the early concrete pieces are held together by steel cables in tension, as in suspension bridges, and she likes to draw attention to these structural elements. Her work’s dramatically cantilevered components are balanced in active relationships among parts. By inviting us to follow the surprisingly improvisatory construction process, in which each canoe is bound a preceding one, Rubins engages our analytic sense as actively as she does our imagination.


The same is true of Rubins’s work on paper, with which she has been engaged for more than 25 years. Using graphite heavily applied to sturdy paper, she achieves lustrous surfaces and sweeping contours that often seem to send the drawings into flight. But their rugged forms, torn, layered and folded into fully three-dimensional wall works, are, like the sculptures, puzzled together with great ingenuity. The untitled example owned by the University, composed of several irregularly shaped, gleaming sheets, is particularly buoyant. It is a close companion to Monochrome for Austin, whose big metal forms knife through the air with defiant grace.

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Nancy Rubins, Drawing, 2007.

American, born 1952


A sculptor who salvages the unlikeliest of everyday objects, and also a draftsman who uses paper and graphite as sculptural materials, Nancy Rubins is well practiced in upending tradition. Her works that are labeled “drawings” share the physical presence and spatial dynamism of sculptures in the round. Drawing is lustrous and dark, absorbing and deflecting light in a way that complicates its contours.


Early on, Rubins explored ways of transgressing boundaries between mediums. Drawing and Sawhorse (1975) featured a large sheet of paper, thoroughly covered in graphite and draped over a sawhorse to suggest an animated form; two protruding sawhorse legs made it look vaguely bovine, as did a boxy, headlike extension of the graphite-covered paper. In Drawing (1974), a penciled sheet of paper was simply slung over a length of heavy rope as if it were laundry on a clothesline.


These and other early hybrids of sculpture and drawing introduced a way of using paper to which Rubins would return. Generally attached directly to the wall—sometimes spanning corners and occasionally also pinned to the ceiling, or allowed to spill onto the floor—these fully three-dimensional works are robust survivors of a working process that leaves them battered, gouged, and ripped; pinned and re-pinned; and, above all, covered side to side and top to bottom in furiously drawn strokes of dark, glistening graphite. The resulting rough-edged configurations, gathered into folds, resemble sheets of gleaming lead. As with the early drawings on sawhorses, these later works on paper sometimes assume a vaguely figurative aspect. Even more primordial are the associations invoked by the graphite, which lends a mineral glint to the surfaces of the drawings and a sense of seismic collision to the constituent sheets’ abutted edges.


Rubins uses pencil to engage light in a way that makes her drawings’ surfaces expand; the illusion they create is of exaggerated size, not weight. Nor do they conform to the rectangular shape of a conventional sheet of paper: they are not discrete objects—they cannot be framed; they are not, in any ordinary way, images.    

Nancy Rubins, Drawing, 2007. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.
Nancy Rubins, Drawing, 2007. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.

Location: Norman Hackerman Building (NHB), West Lobby

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