Richard Nonas turned to sculpture at the age of thirty, after abandoning a budding career in anthropology. Fieldwork in Mexico, Canada, and the American Southwest had left him deeply troubled about some of the methodologies used in ethnographic studies, and he also found it difficult to engage in “activity structured to end in conclusion.”1 But his anthropological work was a crucial early influence on his sculptural practice, fostering a deep curiosity about how experience shapes our perception of space. After two years in Mexico observing the Papago tribe, he began to wonder about “the subtle difference in how people perceive reality. The way those Indians, in a complete desert environment, felt spatial changes was very sensitive. To me, the desert was undifferentiated, but for them its spaces were like a series of familiar rooms.”2
Nonas turned to art in the mid-1960s and soon began making work that referenced the then-current sculptural idioms of Earth Art, which focused on alteration of the landscape, and Minimalism, whose formal concerns included geometry and repetition. Most of his sculptures rest directly on the ground and suggest spatial markers: linear beams or timbers pick out perimeters; flat planes of steel or volumes of wood bring an area of the floor or room into focus. He often used modular forms and mathematical progressions only to interrupt them, suggesting flawed yet whole systems that perhaps echo the cultural structures he studied as an anthropologist. For he aspired to more than mere formalist investigation: “What interested me … was not minimalist ‘specific objects’ but rather the possibility of nonspecific charged ones: ‘dangerous objects’ whose power lay in their weird nonspecificity, their emotional slipperiness… . Tense, almost-vibrating objects were what I wanted, formal objects on the edge of becoming emotionally charged specific places.”3
Razor-Blade, a steel floor piece whose five components form a symmetrical eight-foot cross, was made in 1977 for a solo show at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City—a repurposed nineteenth-century school building whose rooms, with their wood floors, brick walls, tin ceilings, and radiators, feel rich with untold histories. The exhibition, entitled Montezuma’s Breakfast, was part of an ensemble that included the installation space, a catalogue, an artist’s book, an invitation card, and artwork titles; Nonas intended them to form a seamless but mysterious whole that would “create small, ongoing intrusions into the expectations of the audience.”4 Naming his P.S.1 project for Montezuma, the Aztec ruler who saw his empire devastated by the Spanish, is a clue (there are others) that the “intrusion” has something to do with the tangled narratives of conquest, colonialism, and missionary meddling that are a staple of human history. This unexpected content—history, war, life, death, home—is the stuff of epics: a powerful place for an artist to take his audience.
See excerpts from his notebooks published in Donald B. Kuspit et al., Richard Nonas: Sculpture/Parts to Anything (Roslyn Harbor, New York: Nassau County Museum of Fine Art, 1985), 61. ↩
Quoted in Grace Glueck, “Montezuma and the P.S.1 Kids,” New York Times, April 15, 1977, sec. C, 20. ↩
Richard Nonas, correspondence with the author, March 6, 2004 (Walker Art Center Archives). In a telephone conversation with the author on February 25, 2004, Nonas explained that the term “dangerous objects” is an allusion to the theory held by many Native healers that humans bring disease on themselves by disrespecting the dignity of powerful plants, animals, or objects. ↩
Ibid. In a telephone conversation on February 25, 2004, Nonas told the author that titles for the sculptures in Montezuma’s Breakfast were taken from the following passage in the eponymous artist’s book: “A peddler in a wagon pulled by mules sells: razor blades, figs, cotton cloth, tin cups, live chickens, and tequila.” ↩