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Richard Nonas, who explored art and the space it inhabits, dies at 85
"The Man in the Empty Space" by Richard Nonas at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in 2016. Nonas, a Post-Minimalist sculptor who was influenced by his field work in anthropology to conceive works from found materials that explored how art and the space it occupies affect each other, died on May 11, 2021, at his home in Manhattan. He was 85. Richard Nonas/Fergus McCaffrey via The New York Times.

by Richard Sandomir

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Richard Nonas, a post-minimalist sculptor influenced by his fieldwork in anthropology to conceive works from found materials that explored how art and the space it occupies affect each other, died May 11 at his home in the New York City borough of Manhattan. He was 85.

The cause was arteriosclerosis, said his partner, Jan Meissner, a photographer.

“He harnessed space; he lassoed it,” said Alanna Heiss, founder of the cutting-edge P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center (now MoMA PS 1) in Long Island City, Queens. “To make art, he used space as one of his materials. He grasped space in a way most of his colleagues did not.”

A part of the early-1970s art scene in the New York City neighborhoods SoHo and Tribeca, Nonas developed a terse, undecorated style, using steel, wood and stone to create sculptures that both resonated with and interrupted their surroundings.

“It’s the way the piece feels that counts — the way it changes that chunk of space you’re both in, thickens it and makes it vibrate — like nouns slipping into verbs,” he wrote in a notebook entry that was published on the occasion of a solo exhibition in 1985.

For a 2016 exhibition of his works at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Massachusetts, he arranged 52 old railroad ties in a long, gentle arc 300 feet long on the floor of the museum’s signature gallery. Nonas’ ghost tracks suggested a connection between the old textile mill that is the site of the museum and the nearby river and railroad.

As sunlight streamed into the gallery one day during the exhibition, The Boston Globe reported, Nonas gestured to the illuminated rails.

“This is as much about these windows as it is about that line,” he told The Globe.

Susan Cross, the museum's senior curator, said that she had approached Nonas about exhibiting in the large, challenging gallery, and that they had discussed using different materials before he decided on railroad ties, a material he had used in the past.

“He really walked that space and understood it in terms of his own body scale and what light did in it,” she said by phone. “He was so adept at not only making the space his own, but making it itself even more, making people, including me, see it in a different way.”

Nonas’ belief in the power of objects, and his impulse to use art to change the space it is in, found expression in 1989 when he arrayed 39 boulders in a winding configuration in a grassy meadow at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. What he wanted, he said, was a “sculpture that activates its space, that confuses you a little, keeps you involved in it as you walked past it.”

He called it, playfully, “Lucifer Landing (Real Snake in Imaginary Garden).”

Richard Henry Nonas was born Jan 3, 1936, in Brooklyn. His father, Irving, was a lawyer. His mother, Bernice (Chasanov) Nonas, was an elementary school teacher.

He is survived by Meissner and her son, Stefan Zeniuk.

Nonas did not start out as an artist. He studied literature and anthropology at four schools — the University of Michigan, Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, Columbia University and the University of North Carolina. During his 10 years as an anthropologist, working with Native peoples in Canada and Mexico, he developed a sensibility about space from the people he studied, which would turn up in his sculptures.

When he returned from the field at age 30, he taught anthropology part time at Queens College. But while writing a book about his studies, he began to feel uneasy about setting down detailed accounts of other people’s lives. Still, he might have stayed in academia had he not had something of an epiphany in 1967.

One day while walking his dog, he told The Brooklyn Rail in 2013, “I held up two pieces of wood, pushed them together and, incredibly, they conveyed strong and specific emotion. It was identifiable emotion with no story, a disembodied emotion that I could not fathom or explain. I felt like I had been hit on the head with a hammer.”

He started taking pieces of wood home and arranging them, he said, but it did not occur to him immediately that he was creating art until a friend told him: “Idiot, that’s art. That’s called sculpture.”

He had found an unexpected way to express himself, and it delighted him. In an undated poem published in Artforum about his turn from anthropology to art, he wrote:

I start with memories of how places feel.The ache of that desert, those woods, that room opening out.Places I’ve been, places I’ve seen and felt.And felt always with some component of unease,apprehension, disquiet, fear even, discomfort certainly.Memories of places that seem always slightly confusing, slightly ambiguous.Places that tantalize, tantalize by their approach to — and lack of — clarity.

Nonas, whose rustic sensibility made him seem more like a man who lived on a ranch than in Tribeca, came to post-minimalism a little later than artists such as Richard Serra, Eva Hesse and Keith Sonnier. Nonas eschewed using heavy metals and machinery, which Serra used, or new materials, which Hesse and Sonnier used.

He displayed his sculptures at alternative art spaces in New York City, most notably the artist-run 112 Greene Street in SoHo, where Serra, Gordon Matta-Clark, Suzanne Harris and Tina Girouard also exhibited their works. In 1976, Nonas was among the artists who exhibited at the first show at P.S. 1, a formerly abandoned public school building.

“Richard did a single piece of steel that bridged three rooms,” Heiss recalled. “It just glowed in the midst of these raw and unpainted spaces.”

Among the works Nonas created were Swedish granite chairs that would have seemed ideal for viewing the Easter Island statues; an installation of pairs of crossed birch logs that brought to mind “malevolent beasts readying for attack,” as the Los Angeles Times once wrote; a composition of eight steel pieces that looked like stiffened writing strokes reaching toward one another; and an arrangement of steel rods marking off and shaping spaces on a gallery floor, which he dedicated to Matta-Clark.

In her review of a 1985 show at the Nassau County Museum of Fine Art that included works by Nonas, Phyllis Braff wrote in The New York Times, “The exhibition’s overall effect can be a demanding one, principally because visitors generally have no frame of reference for either the extreme simplification or the tension created by the unexpected alterations to the formal system.”

But, she added, “Developing a feeling for Mr. Nonas’ rather pioneering concepts can be quite satisfying.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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