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Zabriskie Gallery | Reuben Nakian (1897-1986) Terra cottas, 1955-1983

Reuben Nakian: Terra cottas


From April 19 through June 3, 2005 Zabriskie Gallery exhibits twenty-four ceramic sculptures by Reuben Nakian (1897-1986). Created between 1960 and 1983, the figurative terra-cottas on view are small-scale with an average size of nine to fifteen inches in height. Most are free-standing, including a few of the plaques. Unique among the plaques is Abstraction (1979), which demonstrates the artist's fluency in a purely conceptual language. This exhibition reveals not only the spontaneity and intimacy of Nakian’s creative process—his quick knife-cuts into wet clay and hand-molded figures—but also the artist’s long-term fascination with the timeless themes of classical Greek and Roman mythology.

Born in New York in 1897, Reuben Nakian attended the Art Students League for only one month and later enrolled in the Independent Art School and in the Beaux Art Academy (NY). In 1916 Nakian began an apprenticeship in Paul Manship's studio from whom he learned classical form, style and subject matter. During this time, Nakian met and shared a studio with Gaston Lachaise, Manship's assistant at the time.

In the 1920s, Nakian met and began a close friendship with William Zorach, creating sculpture studies of the Zorach family. After returning from his Guggenheim Fellowship in 1931-32, Nakian met and befriended painters Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning in the 1930s and Marsden Hartley and Marcel Duchamp in the 1940s. Nakian established a residence in Stamford, Connecticut in 1945, keeping his studio in Washington Square South, Greenwich Village, for two more years until 1948 when he set up a studio and kiln in Stamford where he remained for the duration of his career.

Nakian was nearly fifty years old when he started working on terra-cotta figurative sculpture. His expressive forms capture the dynamism of his rapidly executed drawings. Classical subjects as Europa and the Bull, Leda and the Swan, Juno and Nymph and Goat are treated themes in the exhibition. As studies for the bronze castings, the terra-cottas billow in form and retain the immediacy of the artist, who is both a classicist and romantic with a decidedly modern awareness.

The late poet Frank O’Hara writes in the catalogue of the Nakian exhibition which he organized at the Museum of Modern Art in 1966, “The sensuousness of his surfaces and forms, as of his themes, comes from this straightforward, exuberant, even classical eroticism, which is Mediterranean and completely involved with the world of the senses. As a motivating force, it establishes certain basic themes and attitudes, not only toward subject but also toward form, especially in the handling of surfaces and patinas and in the juxtaposition of abstract with figurative forms…This explicitness gives the Nymph and Satyr plaques a marvelous joy and ease, [and] the Europa terra-cottas a voluptuous dignity.”

Reuben Nakian has exhibited widely in New York and the U.S., France, Belgium, Brazil, Germany and Portugal. His work is in the major collections of The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, The Solomon P. Guggenheim Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, High Museum, Milwaukee Art Museum, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and many museums throughout the United States. Nakian has been recognized with many awards and honors, among them the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture, Guggenheim Fellowship, Award of Merit Medal for Sculpture and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

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