I realized that this stuff has been around a long time, and it’s passed through this odd transition. Before it was in the earth, it was floating as a molecule in outer space—it was part of somebody’s star, or part of somebody’s exploding planet.
Through sculptures assembled from discarded materials and graphite drawings that assume the appearance of liquid metal, Nancy Rubins transforms quotidian objects into artworks that exceed the sums of their parts. She explores the precariousness and limits of natural forces through large-format pieces with formidable psychological and physical presence. Working with salvaged commercial and industrial materials since the late 1970s, Rubins frequently combines features of assemblage and monumental sculpture to create dynamic works that are at once familiar and otherworldly.
Rubins has been preoccupied with achieving seemingly impossible production feats throughout much of her artistic career, bridging the worlds of engineering and art. In 1974 she completed a BFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and then moved to the West Coast to study at the University of California at Davis, where she received an MFA two years later. Around this time, she began collecting used appliances—from hair dryers to electric shavers, toaster ovens to televisions—which she included in large, semiflexible wall-like sculptures. Initially sourcing her materials from garbage dumps and thrift stores, Rubins mined not only the vast quantities of objects at her disposal, but also the history of each salvaged item.
From her early-1980s accumulations of domestic devices, which she assembled into gigantic tornado- or tidal-wave-shaped forms, Rubins’s practice evolved in the 1990s to include immense clusters of sizeable objects, such as boats, mattresses, or the deconstructed parts of enormously complex, manufactured machinery like airplanes and trailers. Rubins amasses these components into biological or arboreal growth patterns that often cantilever over pedestrian traffic below. As she does so, she continues to focus on the formal qualities of the salvaged objects.
The act of drawing is integral to Rubins’s practice, both in her vast body of densely rendered works on paper and in her use of stainless-steel wire in her sculptures, which creates linear yet three-dimensional forms of “drawing in space.” In the mid-1970s, Rubins began producing drawings of increasingly concentrated compositions, covering the entire surface of the paper with graphite to create shiny metallic surfaces that have endless depth of space as well as textured traces of the artist’s hand. While some iterations of these drawings comprise multiple large sheets of paper that are layered and affixed to a wall, others are volumetric, three-dimensional undulations that exploit the sculptural potential of the medium.
Rubins’s work has grown in scale over the course of her career, resulting in a body of sculptures that have been installed in prominent public locations. These include Big Pleasure Point (2006), a structure composed of more than sixty kayaks, canoes, and other small watercraft, which arched over the plaza at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2006. In 2013 Rubins began producing rhizomatic large-format assemblages comprising cast-aluminum playground animals bound together with cables. By the latter 2010s, this technique evolved to include the use of other materials, such as cast-iron, brass, and bronze animal sculptures. Following the life cycle of her chosen materials, Rubins hones the formal qualities of these discrete components. Held together by stainless-steel wiring in tension, these monumental aggregations appear to be suspended in a moment of temporary stasis and evoke the possibility of ever-changing plasticity. As a kind of palimpsest, Rubins’s work reminds viewers that what appears to be solid and static is in fact in a constant state of change.
Works for New Space, Stainless Steel, Aluminum, Monochrome I & II
July 16–September 3, 2010
Nancy Rubins: Exploring Form
Join Nancy Rubins at her California studio as she speaks about her working process and the abiding interests in space, depth, and the residues of time that have informed her sculptures and drawings.
Behind the Art
Nancy Rubins: Drawing in Graphite
Filmed during the installation of Nancy Rubins’s latest exhibition, Diversifolia, this video provides a rare look at one of the artist’s large-scale, graphite drawings.
Work in Progress
In the summer of 2017, Laura Fried took a trip to Nancy Rubins’s awe-inspiring studio in Topanga Canyon, CA. In this essay, she recounts her visit, detailing Rubins’s latest sculptures and the history of the studio.
Show Me the Signs
November 10–30, 2020
Show Me the Signs is an online benefit auction hosted by Artfizz to support the families of Black women killed by the police. Over 100 artists have created pieces in the form of protest signs for the auction, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the African American Policy Forum’s #SayHerName Mothers Network. Work by Louise Bonnet, Piero Golia, Meleko Mokgosi, Nathaniel Mary Quinn, and Nancy Rubins is included. To register to bid, visit artfizz.com.
Nathaniel Mary Quinn, Breonna Taylor, 2020 © Nathaniel Mary Quinn
Nancy Rubins’s Monochrome II (2010–18) has been permanently installed in the North Forest of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. In this video Rubins speaks about her thought process around the work, which is composed of recycled aluminum canoes and small boats, anchored around a steel armature.
Nancy Rubins, Monochrome II, 2010–18, installation view, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansa © Nancy Rubins
Nancy Rubins and art historian and critic Tyler Green were filmed live for an episode of the award-winning Modern Art Notes Podcast, hosted by Green. The pair discuss Rubins’s work in the exhibition Gray Matters at the Wexner Center for the Arts at the Ohio State University, Columbus.
Still of Nancy Rubins in conversation with Tyler Green
The Foundation of the Museum
May 19, 2019–January 20, 2020
Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, Los Angeles
To mark the museum’s fortieth anniversary, this exhibition presents a selected topography of artworks that speak to the diversity of MOCA’s collecting over the past four decades. With special emphasis on works associated with the museum’s remarkable history of exhibitions, The Foundation of the Museum: MOCA’s Collection shows the institution’s holdings as shaped by a changing landscape of developments in contemporary art and curatorial focus, as well by as the social and cultural backdrops that inform them. Work by Chris Burden, Mike Kelley, Bruce Nauman, Albert Oehlen, Nancy Rubins, and Ed Ruscha is included.
Chris Burden, Exposing the Foundation of the Museum, 1986 © 2019 Chris Burden/Licensed by the Chris Burden Estate and Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Squidds and Nunns
Nancy Rubins in
May 17–September 15, 2019
The sixth edition of the Amsterdam Sculpture Biennial presents more than sixty figurative sculptures and spatial installations. Work by Nancy Rubins is included.
Nancy Rubins, Agrifauna Delicata I, 2017 © Nancy Rubins
Paper into Sculpture
October 14, 2017–February 4, 2018
Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas
This exhibition plays on tensions between commonly held understandings of sculpture and what paper can and cannot do, pushed to its physical limits. Treating paper as a material with a palpable three-dimensional presence rather than as a mere support for mark making, artists in this show use processes ranging from tearing, crumpling, and cutting to scattering, binding, and adhering to create sculptural works that take a variety of forms and suggest a range of expressive and conceptual implications. Work by Nancy Rubins and Franz West is included.
Nancy Rubins, Drawing, 2005 © Nancy Rubins
May 20–July 30, 2017
Wexner Center for the Arts, The Ohio State University, Columbus
This multifaceted survey features the work of thirty-seven contemporary women artists who have explored the practice of creating en grisaille—in shades of gray. The works on display reveal the truly vibrant and variegated spectrum of black, white, and gray. Work by Nancy Rubins and Rachel Whiteread is included.
Nancy Rubins, Drawing, 2005 © Nancy Rubins