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 and Eric Shiner
The pair discuss Nancy Rubins’s unique approach to sculpture, in which industrial and found objects—such as television sets, airplane parts, and carousel animals—are transformed into engineered abstractions that are at once otherworldly and familiar.
Conclusions Never Reached: Nancy Rubins in Fluid Space
Sara Softness reflects on a new series of sculptures by Nancy Rubins, Fluid Space (2019–21), “visual poems” that hint at the invisible and the unknown.
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.
Dense Bud and Agrifolia Majoris
Two sculptures by Nancy Rubins—Dense Bud (2016) and Agrifolia Majoris (2017)—are currently on public display in Chicago as part of a partnership program between the Chicago Park District and EXPO Chicago’s IN/SITU Outside program, which installs temporary public art installations along the lakefront and throughout Chicago neighborhoods.
Nancy Rubins, Dense Bud, 2016, installation view, Chicago © Nancy Rubins. Photo: Brian Guido
Thursday, September 1, 2022, 2–3pm
Art Institute of Chicago
Join Nancy Rubins and Ann Goldstein, deputy director and Dittmer Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Art Institute of Chicago, for a conversation about the artist’s exhibition Our Friend Fluid Metal. Two works from this series are presented in Chicago for the first time in an installation composed by Rubins for the Art Institute’s Bluhm Family Terrace. In these works, Rubins transforms children’s equipment from playgrounds, amusement parks, and coin-operated rides into dynamic, colorful sculptures that uncannily cantilever and bloom out of the ground.
Installation view, Nancy Rubins: Our Friend Fluid Metal, Art Institute of Chicago, September 30, 2021–September 26, 2022. Artwork © Nancy Rubins. Photo: Brian Guido
Artists’ Legacy Foundation Artist Award
Nancy Rubins has won the Artists’ Legacy Foundation (ALF) Artist Award for 2021. Since 2007, ALF has recognized and honored the accomplishments of an outstanding visual artist whose primary medium is painting or sculpture. Each year ten artists are nominated for the ALF Artist Award by five anonymous nominators selected by the board, and a jury of three peers makes the final selection. Juror Mary Ceruti, executive director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, noted that Rubins “brings an expansive and experimental approach to monumental sculptures that inspire wonder while also being genuinely grounded in our lived experience and material world.”
Nancy Rubins, Mattresses and Cakes, 1993, installation view, 45th Biennale di Venezia © Nancy Rubins
Our Friend Fluid Metal
September 30, 2021–September 26, 2022
Art Institute of Chicago
In her series Our Friend Fluid Metal, Nancy Rubins transforms children’s equipment from playgrounds, amusement parks, and coin-operated rides into dynamic, colorful sculptures that uncannily cantilever and bloom out of the ground. Weathered from use, this equipment was originally produced with metal recycled from World War II aircraft, and Rubins’s careful aggregations of these cast-off objects give them a new life. Two works from this series are presented in Chicago for the first time in an installation composed by the artist for the Art Institute’s Bluhm Family Terrace.
Installation view, Nancy Rubins: Our Friend Fluid Metal, Art Institute of Chicago, September 30, 2021–September 26, 2022. Artwork © Nancy Rubins. Photo: Tom Van Eynde
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