October 12, 2014

Richard Nonas: Forms in Space

Untitled, 2005; steel, 4 1/2 x 3 x 2 in

On my recent visit to NYC, my favorite gallery show was the sculpture of Richard Nonas at Fergus McCaffrey. The show was a retrospective of sorts, with work spanning the years 1970-2014. I don't know how I've missed seeing his work all these years; this was the first I've seen of it, and I loved it. There is a consistent vision throughout, a minimalist sensibility, with work modest in size and large in ambition. When I began processing the photographs that I took at the gallery, I noticed what must have been subconsciously clear to me while there: these small pieces were as much about the space around them as the solid forms themselves. Rather than focus on closeups of each work individually, I photographed much of their surroundings. The work above was on the wall alongside the staircase to the second floor; the way it was hung animated the wall, as though encouraging an upward movement. It is such a simple idea: two triangles abutting so as to create an irregular edge, with that empty rectangle creating energy. 

Untitled, 2014; steel; Part 1: 9 x 8 x 4 1/2 in.; Part 2: 8 x 8 x 4 1/2 in. 

Two pieces made up of a horizontal and vertical rectangular solid, seemingly the same though turned 90 degrees. But no, the left part is slightly longer than the right; and the jutting rectangle on the right is not centered on its vertical. These slight variations, along with the major one of orientation, have our eye moving back and forth, jumping from one element to the other in a lively interaction.

Untitled, 1987, Untitled, 1986; oil paint on steel; 12 x 12  x 2 in; 9 1/4 x 8 3/4 x 6 3/4 in. 

White paint on steel brings attention to surface and to the planes of the sculpture. A cross, so close to the floor, seems to levitate; a white shape moving across and irregular solid emphasizes its volume. The two pieces together are engaged in an interesting conversation.

A few small pieces were installed in a space under the staircase. The floor pieces are especially lively, looking like they are jabbering with each other. 

Skid (New-Word Chaser Series), 2014; steel; 9 parts, 41 ft and 6 in long, each: 20 x 20 x 12 1/4 in. 

Nine identical parts go shooting across the gallery from one room into another. One thing that's so interesting about this work is that steel is usually used for enormous, monumental sculpture. Nonas shows us that the material has great beauty of surface and great emotional weight at a small size. We follow these "T" shaped pieces as though they are friendly signs leading us onward.

Untitled (First Series), 2014; steel; 6 1/2 x 4 x 4; 4 x 6 1/4 x 4; 7 1/4 x 6 x 4 1/4; 6 x 4 x 4 in.

Instead of being enveloped by steel, as in the work of Richard Serra, we have an intimate relationship with it. This series of compact works uses a vocabulary that shifts from one piece to the next, all dealing with shifting planes.

Untitled (First Series)

Untitled (First Series)

The surfaces are varied in color and in surface finish, making the simplicity of form more complex.

Untitled, 1990; steel, 8 x 6 3/4 x 5 in.

This small floor piece brings to mind one of Joel Shapiro's house sculptures, but while the Shapiro is a self-contained image, the Nonas work has a deeper and more mysterious resonance; although weighty, the reddish forms also have a floating quality to them as the triangle points upward, rising in the space.

Untitled, 2003; steel, 7 x 10 1/2 x 1 1/2 in.

What could be more direct, more ordinary, than a group of sliced cylinders? They could almost be pieces left over from a construction project. In lining them up in such a deliberate way, Nonas makes something poetic of them; curving elements that could roll across the floor are instead huddled together, the pattern of their repeated ellipses giving a sense of movement. I think this might have been my favorite work in the show; it touches me: there's a vulnerability expressed in these hard forms.

Crude Thinking 1, 2005-2007; wood, 34 1/4 x 37 1/4 x 9 in.

Crude Thinking 5, 2005-07; wood, 31 x 41 x 9 in.

There were several wood pieces in the show, including these two titled Crude Thinking. I suppose that putting together 3 slabs of plain wood could be considered crude, but Nonas' perfect sense of form and balance turns them into satisfying objects of contemplation. Larger than the steel pieces, they have a more commanding presence on the wall; at the same time they are softer and warmer, wood being a living material. It may seem surprising that I would feel so moved by sculpture that is so stripped down, so elemental, but that is exactly its appeal: in clear and simple forms is a sense of the underlying reality of the world, its essential character. Nonas aims towards that.


  1. thank you for introducing me to this artist. I like the idea of steel as an intimate material, something one doesn't associate with it usually. best wishes and congratulations on your show. Enjoy the deserved attention and I'm sorry the Atlantic Ocean keeps me from seeing it myself.

  2. Thanks so much for the comments; I'm glad you liked the work.

  3. I love these! They deeply resonate with me. Thanks Altoon.