Richard Nonas: As Light Through Fog
April 28 through July 15, 2022
By ERIK LA PRADE, May 2022
Richard Nonas, who was born in NYC in 1936 and died in May 2021 at the age of 85, was a sculptor whose work is often labeled as “Minimalist” or "Post-Minimalist." His early works fell into a chronological period beginning around 1968-70, when this label was used to define works by certain artists then working in what became known as a “Minimalist” style. Certainly, Nonas began making sculpture just after such Minimalist artists as Donald Judd, Carl Andre, etc., who strongly influenced many of their contemporaries. But Nonas developed his particular style of sculpture coming from a different direction. A closer look at his work and its evolution, in conjunction with his many statements about his artistic goals, suggests that the “Minimalist” label does not adequately describe or explain what Nonas was attempting to do with his sculptural pieces. The influences which propelled him into the field of sculpture and defined the forms he created, came from outside the traditional spheres of artistic inspiration, and led him to make sculpture which functions in a non-traditional way.
Nonas spent the first part of his productive life pursuing an academic path. His initial interest was literature. But experiences that he had had during summers spent in the western U. S. and Mexico during his adolescence, prompted an interest in anthropology, which he furthered by auditing the courses of Margaret Mead and eventually entering the graduate program of anthropology at Columbia University. In the ensuing years, from about 1958-1966 Nonas worked on a number of anthropological and archeological field projects, and held positions teaching anthropology at the University of North Carolina and at Queens College, NY. His field work studying various Indian tribes in Northern Canada and Southern Arizona/Northern Mexico deeply influenced his thinking for the rest of his working life.
Ultimately, Nonas decided that the questions of cultural understanding and communication that he identified while working with the Indians, could not be adequately expressed in academic papers. He decided to leave the field of anthropology in 1966. Chance encounters that he had in the mid-sixties with a few NYC artists (Trisha Brown and her circle) provoked his interest in art as a means of communicating his ideas and led him to make his first sculptural pieces.
I was an anthropologist with no training in art. . . . I was writing a book about how I noticed that special clues, special metaphors were much more central to the way these people put their thoughts together. As we were walking on a road in the desert, it was as if we were walking through separate rooms, but there were no markers that I could see. These rooms were marked by the cactus or by the knowledge that that was the place so-and-so’s grandfather fell off his horse and broke his leg. (1)
Shortly thereafter, Nonas went to Paris where he continued to explore his sculptural ideas. When he returned to NYC in 1968, he met Mark di Suvero who lent him his studio until Nonas could move into his own studio. In 1969, Nonas
Set up his first studio on Lispenard Street and began changing his style, becoming simpler and lower to the ground. Began to use long lines. Thinks about space and place, relationship of this art to his anthropological experiences. (2)
In 1970, he built a studio on Wooster Street, and became an integral member of a group of artists in Soho, who pioneered the use of former industrial/factory loft spaces as exhibition spaces. Some of these artists- Gordon Matta-Clark, Jene Highstein, Tina Girouard, Jeffrey Lew, Suzanne Harris, and others - exhibited their art works there. The building at 112 Greene St was purchased by Jeffrey Lew and his wife, Rachel, between 1968 - 70. Nonas first showed his work in a group show at 112 Greene Street in October-December 1970. Nonas’s piece in this show was an installation called Light to Dark/Dark to Light. It consisted of a single row, about 30 feet long, of short standing planks, sawed off at slightly varying angles and heights and placed parallel to each other (3). In that same year, Nonas constructed his first large outdoor piece at Trisha Brown’s upstate NY property. Soon, he began to install and exhibit his work widely, often with members of the Greene Street group.
At this time he was also participating in performance pieces staged at 112 Greene Street. A number of dancers from The Grand Union Dance Company and The Natural History of the American Dance, performed there; musicians such as Philip Glass, Dickie Landry, Robert Prado, performed there as well; video artists such as Roger Welsh filmed and screened work there. Essentially, it was a process space where a wide range of artists could create work and exhibit it for one day or for several weeks at a time.
Nonas had a close connection with the dancers associated with 112 Greene Street:
There was a period of time in the early seventies where Trisha (Brown), Steve Paxton, Yvonne (Rainer), were working with non-dancers. There was no money to pay them, so who were they working with, their friends. Me, Gordon (Matta-Clark) and everybody else were in all these dances. Dances at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, etc. But the choreography was, Steve or Trisha would say at a certain point, “in a normal walk, walk to the center of the stage, count to ten, turn to your left and walk out.” Things like that. It was that kind of numbering, whether slow or fast in a certain direction. (4)
The choreography or “patterned behavior” of these performances became an essential element in Nonas’s later sculpture, a probable result of his involvement with these dancers. These experiences, like his experiences with the Indians of the Southwest, added important dimensions to his sculptural work.
Nonas’s sculpture itself was monumental in character, even the smaller pieces. He typically used large raw forms – heavy wood beams or chunks of cut wood; simply-cut stone or uncut boulders; large pieces of metal plate. These fairly raw pieces were arranged into powerful groups or exhibited singly or in linear designs in specific indoor or outdoor settings, carefully chosen by the artist. The pieces were generally laid out in open forms, which allowed a person to walk around a work or through a series of pieces which together, formed one sculpture.
Nonas’s works are typified by their density and weight, seeming to exert pressure on the surface of a gallery floor, or outside on the earth itself. In both the enclosed space of a room or a building, or an outdoor setting, his pieces fill the space they occupy, and seem to extend their influence over the surrounding space, rather than merely occupying the place they stand in.
According to Donald Kuspit, Nonas employed “four devices; the incomplete circle, the triangle, the open square, and the linear marker" (5). These shapes were typically formed by arrangements of large wooden, stone or steel units, most often by simply laying them end to end, or propping them against one another. The genesis of this type of arrangement, according to Nonas, grew out of his habit of picking up “interesting” sticks and liking the way they looked when he leaned one against the other.
Again, he often used a wall or a line of several dozen identically cut or uncut stones, spaced evenly apart in an outdoor field such as in his installation Raw Edge, at Alpes-de-Haute, Provence, France, 2012.
Smaller steel or wood sculptures might be formed in an “x”, square, triangle or unclosed circle design on the ground while irregular shapes might hang on a wall. But whether the work was on the ground or on the floor, his exhibitions were carefully laid out, essentially choreographed, so the viewer could physically move from piece to piece, around the work(s), or look at them from afar as one might see a tree line on a mountain ridge. His larger indoor pieces were often staged inside large warehouses or abandoned buildings, with the works taking up and dominating all the available space.
Space vs. Place
Through his own experiences, Nonas realized objects could and do “humanize” a “natural” space. As he put it, the introduction of human objects turns a natural space into a human place;
Nature is space. We make it a place—by names, by fences, by bounding it, by centering it. Place is symbolic space, emotional space. Place is symbolic space. Place is an appropriation of space. I want to make places. (6)
For Nonas, place was not a fixed point on a map but something that is a man-made aspect of a certain space. Nonas’ method of humanizing space was to enclose or claim a space with his work. He thought of sculpture as a tool to control a space for his viewer. His idea of sculpture was not as an object to be viewed, but as an experience to be produced by his medium; sculpture as a means, not an end. His sculpture is not something to admire for its specific form or beauty such as that found in works created by Rodin, Bernini, or even such modern artists as Richard Serra or Michael Heizer.
Nonas did admire works by both Heizer and Serra. Heizer’s work, “Double Negative,” was produced by the excavation and removal of a large section of earth, leaving the created void as the sculpture. Serra’s large, monumental works give one the experience of a monumental object as one walks around and inside the piece; one is temporarily a part of the work. But, in general, these sculptures don’t expand beyond their physical limits. Nonas’s sculptures, on the other hand, seem to extend their influence beyond their physical boundaries. While such works by Serra and Heizer provide the viewer with an experience of a monumental object, the space they occupy is of less importance than the sculpture itself, as compared to Nonas’s sculptures. His formed groups of stones, wood, and heavy pieces of steel are not inherently powerful. But their placement and arrangement in space work a powerful emotional effect on people who encounter them. For Nonas, this arrangement or manipulation of space – making it into a particular place which can affect a viewer in a certain way – became a major thrust of his interest.
In Mexico, the Indians had responded to objects in space differently than Nonas did; their “cultural apprehension” of these objects was different from Nonas’s, based on their cultural experiences. Nonas too viewed his sculptures as “markers” with particular meanings, in the way that the Mexican Indians had ascribed meanings to objects in their environment. How those meanings are interpreted, according to Nonas, depends upon the person encountering the work and how they “put their thoughts together.” As an anthropologist turned artist, Nonas found it difficult to articulate his cultural apprehension or intuitive understanding to explain his experiences(s):
Language and culture are tools to take a complicated world and make it understandable. But there are things that language can’t easily say that I feel the need to say. . . . The production of art, in my mind, thinking as an anthropologist, is a way of saying the things that can’t be said directly, or evoking the complex emotions or combinations of the named emotions that themselves don’t have names. (7)
Nonas’s sculptures act as “place markers” whether in different outdoor spaces or gallery rooms where we encounter them. He doesn’t provide us with any descriptive information about the pieces but that does not mean he is creating minimal sculptures. Rather, this is his attempt to let us experience “walking on a road in the desert” or some similar, familiar, yet inexplicable, “ambiguous,” emotional state.
Ambiguity / “Doubleness”
Nonas was not interested in the object, or sculpture, itself, so much as in what it can do to the viewer and to the space it occupies. He wanted to elicit the same state of “ambiguity” he felt walking on a road in Mexico, around an abandoned building site or through a forest clearing, unfamiliar with place and unable to recognize any cultural markers. He often spoke of how nature (space) and culture (place) were in a tension with one another – not exactly opposites, but rather two states which approached each other and met on an “edge” of meaning – an edge Nonas found mysterious, challenging and ultimately “ambiguous.” This “ambiguity” gradually became a second major preoccupation for him and was an underlying theme of many of his sculptural, and later, of his pictorial works;
Meaning is the wrong word since it is too specific. But a kind of sense of being. What it means to feel the complexity of the world, and how does one instill that immediacy, complexity and ambiguity into an object.
I want them to have an ambiguous meaning, which is the same meaning all strong art has. Including all strong books. Which is, everything is more complicated than we think it is. But that experience of everything is more complicated than we think it is, is an experience we have all had. But we’ve had it in very special moments. We’ve all had moments, each of them different for each of us, in which we suddenly realized the world is more complex than we realized in a way that sometimes scares us and in a way that sometimes thrills us. The experience I’m talking about always has to do with a change in our perception. It has to do with two things, equally. That which is open to being perceived and the perceiver, which in that moment is us. There are easy metaphors for this, one of them is being in love. Epiphany is too big a word. It’s the edge of epiphany; I know something that I didn’t know before but I don’t know what it is. (8)
By the time Nonas decided to become a sculptor around 1968/69, he had given up his job teaching anthropology and stopped doing field work. Nonas and Gordon Matta-Clark became good friends around this time and frequently talked about the different points of view concerning space, its “doubleness”;
Gordon liked spaces that weren’t supposed to be there: abandoned spaces, socially abandoned. Gordon and I spent a lot of time together but we never directly talked about it, I never thought about it in these terms, that notion of abandoned spaces. Not even neglected, abandoned, which had a doubleness; empty and full of life, full of life but empty in the temporal aspect. But at the same time everything I was doing was about another doubleness; the doubleness between nature and culture. It isn’t about the differences but the similarity that is a doubleness. It is a thing that is one thing or the other; two things that seem to be opposite but situations that are right on the edge between those two opposites. (9)
In a number of his exhibitions, Nonas attempted to express this “doubleness” by carefully organizing his works on a gallery floor, arranging them from the entrance and across the floor, either in an evenly spaced straight line or in a semi-circular curve, literally creating a border line dividing the gallery in half. Other exhibitions might consist of the painted image of two roads intersecting, as in a crossroads, on a large piece of steel. Whether in a gallery, an empty building or an outdoor site, Nonas’s sculpture and wall reliefs were always evidence of his efforts to reveal that “doubleness” to us and generate our sense of ambiguity about that particular space.
Finally, Nonas wanted us to experience the material he used and its surrounding environment as the edge “between nature and culture.” That edge for him represented a cultural ambiguity; something that could have more than one interpretation.
Nonas wanted the viewer to avoid getting a “handle” on his work, i.e., easy interpretations;
The biggest danger is what I call handles. If in the art there’s a handle, people grab on to it, and if they grab onto that handle, they won’t see anything else. If there is a specific meaning, the more specific it is the less room there is for generalizing. So my solution for that is to give them ten handles, not one. As soon as they reach for one, they see another. (10)
The ambiguity Nonas expressed in his work was his attempt to get the viewer to avoid applying a single, specific meaning to what they are experiencing; rather to see it from two or three different points of view.
Nonas was labelled a “third-wave behavioral minimalist” by Donald Kuspit. But Kuspit was thereby applying a “handle” to Nonas’s work, identifying it in a chronological, art-historical context to define it and make it understandable.
Nonas ultimately felt ambivalent about being a sculptor unable to define his experience(s) in words. In describing his work, he seems to sum up his objectives with this statement:
You know, I’m still very uncomfortable thinking of myself as a sculptor. I’m not particularly interested in the object itself, but what the object can do, can accomplish. How the object changes the world it is put into, influences the world, changes the way you use the world and your body. How it affects your being. I’m trying not to separate them. I’m trying to confuse the usual separation. I know I’m doing something different than other people who do sculpture, but I’ve never been able to put my finger on what it is exactly that I do. But, part of what interests me is the permeability of categories or the stubborn rawness of almost any category. What is lost in categorization. The breaking open of two categories changes the world . . . and that’s a small change that changes everything. (11) WM
1. Q & A with Richard Nonas. Interview by Scott Indrisek, Modern Painters, Sept, 2014, pg. 66.
2. RICHARD NONAS. Sculpture / Parts to Anything. Essays by Donald Kuspit and Phyllis Rosenzweig. “Restoring the Sense of Concreteness: Richard Nonas’s Version of Site.” Nassau County Museum of Fine Art, Roslyn Harbor, New York. 17 March – 12 May 1985. RICHARD NONAS: CHRONOLOGY. Pg. 63.
3. 112 WORKSHOP / 112 GREENE STREET. History, 1970 / 1971. Edited by Robyn Brentano with Mark Savitt. Designed by Barbara Du Pree Knowles. New York University Press / New York. 1981. Pg. 7.
4. Author Interview. 3/2021.
5. RICHARD NONAS. Sculpture / Parts to Anything. Restoring the Sense of Concreteness: Richard Nonas’s Version of Site. Essays by Donald Kuspit and Phyllis Rosenzweig. Nassau County Museum of Fine Art, Roslyn Harbor, New York. 17 March – 12 May 1985. Pg. 28. In fact, Kuspit notes he is quoting from “Richard Nonas: Field Works.” Jan van der Marck. Art in America. (Jan—Feb. 1977) pg. 114.
6. RICHARD NONAS. Sculpture / Parts to Anything. Restoring the Sense of Concreteness: Richard Nonas’s Version of Site. Essays by Donald Kuspit and Phyllis Rosenzweig. Nassau County Museum of Fine Art, Roslyn Harbor, New York. 17 March – 12 May 1985. Pg. 62.
7. Q & A with Richard Nonas. Interview by Scott Indrisek, Modern Painters, Sept, 2014, pg. 68.
8. Author Interview. 3/2021.
9. Author Interview. 3/2021.
10. Author Interview. 4/2021.
11. Author Interview. 4/2021.
Erik La Prade has a B.A. and M. A. From City College. Some of his interviews and articles have appeared in Art in America, The Brooklyn Rail, ArtCritical and NewsWhistle. His book, Breaking Through: Richard Bellamy and the Green Gallery, 1960-1965, was published in 2010. MidMarch Arts Press. His forthcoming book, WEATHER, is published by LAST WORD BOOKS. Olympia, Washington. 2020view all articles from this author