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Who: Nancy Rubins
What: Monochrome for Austin
Where: 24th and Speedway
Why: When Landmarks commissioned Monochrome for Austin, Speedway was still a paved road with vehicular traffic—though plans to turn it into a pedestrian-only thoroughfare were already in the works. Landmarks wanted to install a sculpture that would command this large open space and make an impact.
Nancy Rubins has been creating large-scale sculptures out of everyday objects for decades. She employs a team of engineers to calculate the structural components of her works; the head engineer for this project was UT alum Jamie Garza. Comprised of 70 aluminum canoes and small boats, the sculpture draws its support from a steel beam plunged deep into the earth and intertwining cables. Each boat was individually positioned by Rubins and her crew so that the work of art would cantilever over the street to respond to the shape of live oak trees along Speedway.
Does this work of art stand out from its surroundings? Can you see how it fits in with the tree canopy lining the walkway?
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.