Nancy Graves

Same twice

March 21 - May 11, 2024

Nancy Graves

Same twice

March 21 - May 11, 2024


“I am interested in making art out of what has been art, what in fact are the shards of art”1.

In Walter Benjamin’s iconic evocation of the angel of history in the Ninth Thesis on the Philosophy of History, a reference is made to a painting by Paul Klee named Angelus Novus, which he interprets as the angel who moves into the future while staring at the heaps of debris of the past, “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.”2 In the Fifth Thesis, Benjamin evokes the past as “an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again”, and in the Sixth Thesis, he elaborates that “to articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.”3

The paintings by Nancy Graves and her artistic pronouncements indicate a similar concern with the remnants of the past and the way images of it constitute documents of a civilization that need to be recognized by the present moment. The same principle applies to the remnants of her art – what she calls the shards of art – and the art of past civilizations, which she meticulously collected in the form of photographic documentation, archival material, and research drawings. There are many boxes in the Nancy Graves Foundation and archives that testify to her habit of selecting images and articles of prehistoric art, particularly rupestrian symbolic geometric designs from various parts of the world, and there are as many, if not more, documents relative to images derived from scientific observations of space—planets, the moon, and the earth—as they appear to satellites, telescopes, and other measuring machines, of which Graves was a keen observer and a skilled user for poetic purposes.

 The practice of ‘visual quotation’—whether of found images or of her work, which generates a process of self-referentiality—points to a methodological constant in her work, that of repetition and variability 4. Another constant is the adoption of the map image as a conceptual tool that allows her to combine abstraction and figuration in one stratified, palimpsestic image. Regarding the visual references in these map-based paintings, Graves specifies that: “They’re not somebody else’s image; they’re made by machines. […] They’re made out of the collectivization of the culture. […] They belong to all of us. […] They’re made by computers. […] By systems that we set up; they’re not of the things themselves. […] It’s an abstraction, to begin with.”5 This impersonal and non-subjective quality of the referential material, the fact that they lack a human perspective is certainly very familiar to us in the age of portable GPS, Google Maps, and ever-more sophisticated images that digital telescopes are transmitting from beyond our solar system, in their quest to document the history of the universe; but it must have felt uncannily singular at the time Nancy Graves painted these pictures—all similarly devoid of a horizon, all based on a combination of geometric patterns recalling geographical coordinates and color-forms evoking archaic symbolism and technological renditions of the terrain. They were eerily prescient in their hybridized aesthetics, of our age of A.I. and machine-generated images. Graves was fascinated by images that the human eye could not possibly see on its own: “You can’t see three hundred miles in space. It’s a machine that has a lens that can record, so that in itself is kind of marvelous.”6

In her fascination with technology and information data, Graves expresses a sense of wonder that is the common trait between philosophy, poetry, art, and science, a shared sensibility that predates the specialization of the modern era. They are all driven by a quest toward the ‘new’—a creation of new worlds. This is also the meaning and purpose of art according to Gilles Deleuze, a philosopher who theorized a concept of repetition “as a creative activity of transformation6, which is particularly apt to characterize Nancy Graves’s work. Emblematic in this sense is the painting that gives the title to this exhibition, Same Twice (1975-76). A double painting that could be named a diptych, if not for the asymmetry that distinguishes it from traditional two-panel paintings. Here the two canvases are joined at one side, with the left part larger than the right part. What appears at first glance as an exuberant composition of abstract gestural marks and geometric shapes painted in vivid colors reveals on a closer look a play of similes replicated at different scales in both canvases. We see, for example, a series of rectangular images at the bottom-right of each canvas, painted in yellow and green, which turns out to be the same sequence of satellite images, likely depicting weather patterns; similar swatches derived from satellite images appear on different areas of the right-side canvas, which correspond to less defined and more gestural motifs on the left-side canvas. In particular, the loosely drawn rectangle with orange marks in the middle, located on the left edge of the left panel, intersected by a sharp diagonal line, finds a counterpart in the more precisely defined rectangle on the left edge of the right panel, in which motifs derived from magnetic data on satellite images are rendered in a range of orange, red and black hues—including the static noise on some of the small swatches. The scale changes, as if the right-side canvas showed details of the left-side companion—but appears smaller at the same time, thus thwarting expectations that associate zooming in for details with enlarged images of the observed area. It is possible to pinpoint many of these visual references to actual photographic material Graves collected from magazines and books. The vertical color swatches on the left panel refer to the color scale used in the photography of artworks. In Graves’s own words, It has to do with its placement in terms of the composition, and it’s another kind of measurement.” 8

A similar process is at play in another two-paneled painting in the exhibition, Reverse (1975-76), whose vertically stacked canvases are almost specular in their represented motifs by way of a horizontal rotation, and linked by a mysterious pattern of dark sinuous lines evoking at the same time pre-historic graffiti, bathymetric lines on ocean maps, and calmes in stained glass windows. A key to the subject matter is provided by a silkscreen of the same period, National Air and Space Museum Silkscreen commissioned by the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, in 1975, which served as a model for the painting, and which maintains the same forms and color scheme but in a more legible, crisper register. In the silkscreen, one can detect “a number of images of earth, with abrupt changes in scale and orientation to underscore their origin as data from multiple infrared and weather satellites. Thus, a broad view of the Atlantic coastline of the United States from Virginia to Maine is represented by the large white form that descends diagonally from the top left, while a closer view, resembling patchwork like farmland, dominates the lower half of the print.”9 In the painting, the same composition can be clearly detected on the lower panel, and mirrored in the upper panel. Concerning her choices of certain reference images, Graves declared that “they have to adapt themselves to the selective process; art is the primary process. Very often, in painting, the material gives back something—there will be unexpected changes in the form or in the style that is imposed upon these early decisions relative to content. But the content must adapt itself to my concerns which are primarily those of creating a new way of seeing.’10

Here and in other paintings in this exhibition—and in Nancy Graves’s impressive artistic production cut short by her untimely death at age 54—the repetition of recurring forms, motifs, and visual references show again and again how the “same” can never be identical, but always a translation, both literal and metaphorical; they are visual testaments of “that little difference” that, according to Deleuze, art has the power to inject into our everyday life, appearing ever more “standardised, stereotyped and subject to an accelerated reproduction of objects of consumption.”11 Against the overload of objects and information that define our contemporary life—even more now than when these paintings were made—Nancy Graves restores our visual perception by inserting everyday life into art, and by doing it with purely painterly means, so that repetition never equals mechanical reproduction or mimesis, but always generates variations, capable of producing the ‘new’—ever becoming possible worlds, made of the endless configuration of the shards and detritus of past and present civilizations, toward a yet unseen future one.

Simonetta Moro, janvier 2024. 

© Nancy Graves Foundation, Inc / Licensed by ARS, New York, NY

“Interview with Nancy Graves”, conducted by Thomas Padon, New York City, February-June 1992. In Thomas Padon, Nancy Graves: Excavations in Print, A Catalogue Raisonné (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1996), p. 44.

Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”. In Illuminations, Trans. by Harry Zohn (Schocken Books, New York, 2007), p. 257.

Ibid., p. 255.

As declared in the Skowhegan lecture of 1979: “This has to do with variability and repetition, a theme in the earlier sculpture. It’s an image that I made earlier in wax and redid in bronze in a different way in ’78. It’s called Evolutionary Graph.” (“Nancy Graves Lecture at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture”, 1979. Transcript of recording in the Skowhegan Lecture Archive, courtesy of Christina Hunter).

Skowhegan Lecture.

Adrian Parr, “Repetition”. In Adrian Parr (ed.), The Deleuze Dictionary, revised edition (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), p. 226.

Skowhegan Lecture.
Padon, Nancy Graves: Excavations in Print, A Catalogue Raisonné, p. 18.

10 From an interview with Joan Seeman, New York, June 6, 1979, quoted by Linda L. Cathcart in Nancy Graves: A Survey, 1969/1980, Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo, New York, 1980), p. 22.

11 Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition. Trans. by Paul Patton (Continuum, London and New York, 2001), p. 293.


Artist : Nancy Graves

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