One of the highlights for visitors to the Milwaukee Art Museums is Chuck Close’s 1968 portrait of Nancy Graves, with its incredible, photo-realistic virtuosity and its huge scale amplifying every facial imperfection in a disquieting, surreal way.
Visitors may not realize that the subject of the painting, Nancy Graves, was a celebrated artist in her own right.
Best known for her early sculptures of highly realistic camels (in a conceit that turned the museum into the zoo), she later incorporated banal objects like children’s toys into Alexander Calder’s and David Smith’s high modernist language of constructed sculpture. Graves was also a painter, and one of her paintings, Object Disguised 4 Times, 1982, is on view in the new installation of the contemporary art galleries.
The installation thoughtfully connects Graves’s painting with Close’s portrait by a sightline from the frequently re-shuffled contemporary galleries to the ever-popular photo-realist gallery. Stylistically worlds apart, the two paintings wouldn’t suggest themselves for comparison but for the fact that the subject of the one is the painter of the other.
Close and Graves were both classmates in Yale’s MFA class of 1964, along with artists Richard Serra (Graves’s husband from 1965-70), Brice Marden, Rackstraw Downes, and Richard Posen. Robert Mangold, Janet Fish, Don Nice, and Jennifer Bartlett were students at Yale at the same time, but in different graduating classes. It is hard to think of a more talented group of students in American art history, and undoubtedly their success derives in no small part from the excellent teaching they received at Yale. The Bauhaus alumnus and respected pedagogue Joseph Albers had stopped teaching in 1958, but was still around campus. The Abstract Expressionist Jack Tworkov was dean from 1963 to 1969. Al Held, like Albers a hard-edged abstract painter but a generation younger, joined the faculty in 1962 (a painting by Held faces off across the Graves in the gallery). And well-known figurative painters Philip Pearlstein and Alex Katz were also teaching at Yale in the early 1960s.
Yale in the early 1960s was a pluralist paradise, featuring teachers with a range of styles who encouraged students to master many different techniques, media, and styles. Robert Storr, the current dean at Yale’s School of Art, has explained Yale’s program under Tworkov: “Rather than teach students how to be artists—an impossibility—or indoctrinate them in a particular aesthetic, Yale’s goal was to expose students to as wide a range of competing ideas and potential choices as could be brought together under its roof” (Storr, Chuck Close, p. 29). The effect of this eclecticism was more eclecticism. The rigorously abstract Serra and Marden both took minimalism as their point of departure, opening it up to the body and giving it lyrical expression. By contrast, Downes and Close are both photo-realists, albeit of the most divergent kinds, with Downes painting panoramic landscapes and Close limiting himself to oversize portrait busts. Graves’s own body of work is eclectic, moving from figuration to abstraction and back, problematizing the distinction between these categories.
Just how problematic the distinction between abstraction and reference can be in Graves’s work is exemplified by her painting at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Object Disguised 4 Times refers to the world in an oblique way. Looking at it, I cannot tell what kind of object is disguised. The effect is a figurative painting disguised as an abstract painting. A skewed, white “X” divides the canvas into four triangular fields, each colored quite differently, as though in defiance of a modernist conception of unity. These four sections are pulled into the same field of energy by pasted, squiggly lines of pink, green, and yellow that snake over the canvas and give it its texture. But this description may make the work sound more abstract than even my confused experience of the work was: the big “X” is like a paved walkway seen from above, which makes the whole painting seem like an aerial view of a landscape. One triangular section contains checkerboard patterning. But these “readings” are suggested without being confirmed. The painting retains its interest as an unresolved mind-teaser.
-Robert “Cece” Geilfuss, Milwaukee Art Museum intern