BY CLAIRE SELVINPlus IconMay 12, 2021 3:43pm
Richard Nonas, who is known for a sculpture practice that examines notions of place, space, and time, has died at age 85. The news was confirmed by the artist’s gallery Fergus McCaffrey, which did not provide a cause of death.
Over a career spanning six decades, Nonas became a major figure of the Post-Minimalist generation. Following a 10-year stint as an anthropologist working across North America, Nonas began working in sculpture in the mid-1960s. During that time, he developed a minimalist, abstract, and geometric style, with work from the period often making use of found wood or rusting steel in sculptures installed in the center of galleries or leaning against walls.
“I distrust sculpture that emphasizes process, duration, or growth. I trust sculpture whose making, and being, is finished immediately,” he wrote to accompany a portfolio published by Bomb magazine in 1989. “I trust the instantaneous presence of changeable things: of objects as objects in a present and immediate world—things unified precisely by their mysterious ability to instantaneously transcend their pasts—to instantaneously undermine and deny even their own parts.”
Nonas was born in New York in 1936. He studied literature and social anthropology as a young man, and traveled widely—from Canada to Arizona to Mexico—in the years following his education, which greatly impacted his artistic practice. He once said, “What I realized in Mexico was that there are physical places, spaces deeply imbued with human meaning, that can have a great deal of power over us, places that affect us in an extremely worldly way. Those places are still models for the kind of art that I want to make. But I cannot do that directly. What I can do, though, is to make objects that function as tools to force those powerful places into existence.”
In the 1970s, Nonas’s experimentations with materials and modes of presenting his sculptures reached new heights. The artist used timbers, linear beams, granite curbstones, and steel planes to create his works, which were often displayed in ways meant to disrupt conventional modes of experiencing art in institutional spaces. Nonas’s aim was to convey emotional, spiritual, or philosophical meaning by way of his talismanic objects.
Nonas also played a crucial role in the development of alternative art spaces in New York. He frequently showed at 112 Greene Street, a storied artist-run space in SoHo where artists like Gordon Matta-Clark, Richard Serra, and Trisha Brown also exhibited, and later Clocktower Gallery, which was founded by Alanna Heiss in 1972. Nonas was also included in the legendary 1971 exhibition “Under the Brooklyn Bridge,” an exhibition organized by Heiss and Matta-Clark that brought together the day’s leading avant-garde artists. That landmark presentation situated assemblages, performances, and other works by the likes of Sol LeWitt, Keith Sonnier, and Dennis Oppenheim near the base of the iconic bridge.
In recent years, Nonas’s work has figured in shows at the Art Institute of Chicago, MoMA PS1 in New York, MASS MoCA, the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis, and other institutions. An Art in America review of Nonas’s 2014 exhibition with Fergus McCaffrey, which featured 50 works spanning his career, described the ways in which “his work partakes in the sensuousness not of the high-tech but of the organic: the furrows of unfinished wood, the flush of gently rusted steel.”
“Sculpture—the object I make—is the way I define my own existent reality, the reality I try to communicate to you,” Nonas once said of his practice. “It is how I grasp the contradictions of my world, find its submerged edges, and discover the forces that hold it together at the same moment that they rip it apart. Sculpture is how I attempt to open the world for us both to see.”