Nancy Rubins, Monochrome for Austin

Nancy Rubins, Monochrome for Austin, 2015. Stainless steel and aluminum, 600 × 642 × 492 inches. Commission, Landmarks, The University of Texas at Austin. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.

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audio transcript

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, Monochrome for Austin, 2015.

American, born 1952

Balancing with improbable grace, Monochrome for Austin boasts seventy recycled aluminum canoes and small boats clustered at the end of a listing column. It deploys a sense of mass and scale that can be compared to a performer’s perfect timing, a characteristic that is ever-present in the work of artist Nancy Rubins. Her sculptures combine surpassing delicacy and indomitable strength, a polarity that is even more striking when encountered outdoors.

While still a student in the early 1970s, Rubins experimented with sculpture by using wet clay to stick coffee cups to suspended tarps; the cups popped off as the clay dried. In another project, a hybrid of sculpture and drawing, she used a small electric fan to create a work that involved graphite-covered paper spattered with red paint. More recently, an exhibition of sprawling sculptures made from vintage animal-shaped playground equipment was titled Our Friend Fluid Metal (2014), referencing the molten phase of the constituent metal. Porous boundaries between disciplines and the fluidity of the mediums themselves are qualities that appeal to Rubins.

By the late 1980s, Rubins’ constructions had reached colossal proportions. She added trailer homes, water heaters, and mattresses to the materials tethered together, and later, fighter jet wings and fuselages. By the mid-1990s, Rubins had begun to assemble brightly colored fiberglass canoes and kayaks into oversized bouquets that flower overhead with exuberance. The Monochrome series, which began in 2010, brings to the fore the grace of the unpainted metal forms. Examples from the series can be found at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York; Gateway Park at the Navy Pier in Chicago, Illinois; and l’Université Paris Diderot in Paris, France.

The vessels evoke a different kind of movement and life than Rubins’ earlier work. In contrast to the thundering flight of retired military aircraft, canoes glide gently through the water, suggesting a kind of simple solitude. Swirling on currents of air, the canoes in Monochrome for Austin are removed from their associated landscape and combined in a visually precarious mass, giving the impression that they are suspended in time and space.

Nancy Rubins, Monochrome for Austin, 2015. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.
Nancy Rubins, Monochrome for Austin, 2015. Photo by Paul Bardagjy.

Location: Northwest corner of 24th Street and Speedway (NHB)

GPS: 30.287462, -97.737132