As Light Through Fog
Materializing “Ambiguity” by Erik La Prade
ABOUT THE EXHIBITION
“I place my sculpture, I mean to say, to shape our shifting pasts.
– I place it as history in a world that slips away.”
Fergus McCaffrey is pleased to present Richard Nonas: As Light Through Fog, the first exhibition of the artist’s work since his death on May 11, 2021. It is Nonas’ seventh solo presentation with the gallery and features large-scale steel floor sculptures from the last four decades, juxtaposed with the final works he completed during the Covid pandemic. This body of work, comprised of salvaged wood and hot-rolled steel, is brought together with an expansive collection of published and unpublished books, texts, and ephemera.
Born into a Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York in 1936, Richard Nonas spent his formative teenage
summers in the American southwest and Mexico working as a cowboy. Though always drawn to
literature, receiving a Bachelors degree in the subject from Lafayette College ca. 1958, these early experiences in the southwest led him to pursue a PhD in anthropology at Colombia University in 1960, where he studied under scholars such as Margaret Mead. In 1966, midway to obtaining his PhD—after eight years of conducting fieldwork and living in indigenous communities of Northern Canada, Southern
Arizona, and Northern Mexico—Nonas began making sculpture, as he realized that his fascination with the cultural-mediated special experience of place could be better expressed through the lyrical
ambiguity of objects, rather than the logical language of academia.
Nonas sought to reveal passive space as places that could resonate and reverberate enigmatically,
where precisely located abstract forms can probe and push us into a state of euphoric speechlessness, beyond the limits of language. Drawn from his training and anthropological practice, Nonas made use of objects that were hand-wrought and evocative; materials that were connected to ritual and the history of place, rather than the polished surfaces and precise geometries of the prevailing orthodoxy of industrialized Minimalism.
He preferred secular objects, with worn surfaces and acquired patinas that evinced and encouraged touch and engagement, to the “eyes-only” sanctity of Minimalist forms. In so doing, Nonas was seeking a wider discourse for tangible sculpture unincumbered by hermetic allusions to philosophy and phenomenology.
In the 1970s, when Nonas and a group of intrepid downtown artists began creating and showing works in alternative spaces, including the artist run 112 Greene Street, Nonas found himself at the heart of this pivotal rethinking of how art could be shown and experienced. He conceived of his found materials as “tools,” which could be recycled and re-placed ad infinitum for the creation of new works. Each composition always somehow perfectly familiar, but never the same.
He posed the question: “What happens when a sculpture designed and built for a specific place is
installed on another very different site?” He answered: “The sculpture is destroyed. And another quite different sculpture is reborn.”ii Nonas was wary of singular understanding, simple identifications, or, what he called, “handles”—means of grasping and limiting the semiotic generosity of his ever-shifting perceptual provocations. He was devoted to ambiguity, to fog, and to “doubleness.” “What I’m after is one-thing on the verge of becoming another-thing. A kind of double vision, a queer propinquity, an unexpected juxtaposition—or even just a strange combining of everything that’s actually and already there.”