Volume 13 - 1997/98





Nancy Rubens is an artist who creates moody and enigmatic abstract collages which incorporate elements such as ticket stubs from trains, planes, operas, and plays, pages from a novel in French, and labels from the finest wines. The work is not intentionally autobiographical; each found object has the resonance of its own past and evidences the passage of time. There are no deliberately encrypted messages. One work, “Parabola,” contains a piece of metal run over by a truck and found on Franklin Street near Rubens’s Tribeca studio. It gathered dust for three years before she hit upon the right moment to use it. In her work, which will be featured in a solo show at Kir Priore Gallery this summer, there is a controlled, almost architectural structure, stirred and threatened by aggressive, calligraphic strokes which possess a sense of the vortex, as if one were being pulled into a whirlpool of energy. “Vortexes are made up of contrasting forces,” Rubens says. “The same energy that can suck you under can also be used to deliver you back up to the surface. My layering of almost transparent materials achieves that. Elements surface, swell, sink, fade away. They resurface with greater force, the way memory works.”

Rubens makes references to water and the seas that are at once distinct and subtle. “There is a lot of the city in my work—graffiti, rectangular shapes, light between buildings—but I can’t deny that I love everything about water: the fluidity, the clarity, the murkiness, the buoyancy, the immense power.” She describes a childhood memory of falling into the deep end of a swimming pool when she was too young to understand the danger of being in way over her head. She experienced it as “extremely pleasurable, compelling, sensual. From under water, the familiar blue suburban sky was transformed as if I were looking through ice, an image that has remained with me to this day. I was sorry to be yanked out. Sometimes I think I’m trying to recreate that experience in my paintings.”

For several years she deliberately worked with a limited palette in order to focus on structure and form. “I would mix these incredible blues with dry pigments and stainless steel until I got the pitch I wanted. I never felt the need for more.” When she studied with Leo Manso at the Art Students League, he needled her about her fixation on blue. He said it was like playing in a string quartet when she could have the whole orchestra. He kept saying, “Why don’t you make a yellow one?” At the time, she found yellow and the higher-keyed colors to be irritants. Years after she left the League, she did a small yellow collage in Manso’s honor, but she couldn’t tolerate it. “I had to paint it green—totally obliterate it!” After he died, she finally painted two yellow paintings, each titled “For Leo.” It was a breakthrough that opened up the whole spectrum: turquoise, pale green, pink, orange, aqua. “These colors enriched my blues. I now work with all colors with the same attentiveness I gave to my original blue. I just did a painting using magenta, yellow, lavender, and pink, and I felt like I was going off the deep end. That’s what I called it, ‘Off the Deep End,’ not a bad place to be.”


Paul Bridgewater is an independent curator and co-director of the Bridgewater/Lustberg Gallery in New York.

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