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Reuben Nakian

(1897—1986)


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(1897–1986).

Sculptor and printmaker. Often reminiscent of human figuration yet not directly representational, the roughly finished, expressive forms of characteristic works parallel the grandeur, ambition, and emotional charge of abstract expressionist paintings. These pieces often refer to mythological themes or to literary subjects with universal overtones. Erotic elements appear frequently, suggesting the regenerative powers of sex. Much of his work achieves a monumental scale appropriate to display in public interiors or outdoors. As a printmaker, he worked with etching and lithography, mostly during the 1960s. Born in New York, as a youngster Nakian moved with his family from Queens into Manhattan, and then to the city's New Jersey suburbs. He took drawing lessons in Jersey City but left formal schooling in 1912, without attending high school. He briefly studied at the Art Students League, but for most of the next four years he worked in advertising and magazine design. After taking evening art classes in 1915, the next year he became an apprentice to Paul Manship. During three years in Manship's studio, he befriended the chief assistant, Gaston Lachaise, and they shared a studio in the early 1920s. Nakian's early work demonstrates smooth modeling and fluid design derived from Manship and Lachaise, but suggests also his admiration for the work of acquaintances William Zorach and Brancusi. Nakian specialized for a time in animal sculptures and also became known for portraits. In 1931 he visited Italy and France. Around the time he found employment with a federal art project in the mid-1930s, he moved to Staten Island. There, for ten years, he made little sculpture but worked out his ideas in drawings. After becoming acquainted with Arshile Gorky and then Stuart Davis and Willem de Kooning, he reevaluated his artistic goals. Moving away from representation, by the early 1940s he was working in a semi-abstract and more expressionistic mode. He found his way back into consistent sculptural production through two series of appealing terra cottas, plaques incised with drawings and three-dimensional pieces, both featuring female nudes. Usually in the guise of mythological characters, they recall Picasso's playful eroticism, as well as de Kooning's Woman series. In the 1950s Nakian hit his stride with larger and more abstract works that he typically fabricated with plaster and cloth over metal armatures and then cast in bronze, as in Birth of Venus (Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1963–66; cast 1970). Eight feet tall and nearly eleven feet long, loosely assembled from craggy but majestic organic elements, the work suggests the energy of a figure rising from the sea but only indirectly alludes to body parts. Nakian died in Stamford, Connecticut, where he had made his home since 1948.

Subjects: Art.


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