There’s a picture of Nancy Graves in the English cemetery in Florence. It is an interesting setting for a photo and made even more so, with time, by the presence of the artists pictured alongside her. From left to right, we have the painter Chuck Close, then her husband, the sculptor Richard Serra, and finally the painter Stephen Posen. This is one of those images of famous people before they became famous – before the exhibitions, the biennials, the awards and the acclaim.
The photo was taken in 1965 and all four, recent Yale MFA graduates, are in Europe on Fulbright grants. One imagines they all decided to meet up in Florence where Nancy Graves and Richard Serra had just moved. It was a prerequisite for any young artist to visit the Uffizi, the Palazzo Medici, the Pitti Palace and of course the Duomo.
But what they were doing in the Cimitero degli inglesi?
There is a theory that they were visiting the grave of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a 19th-century English poet who enjoyed immense popularity in the Victorian era for her love poems but whose acceptance into the canon of Victorian literature was much delayed. Browning’s work receded into oblivion after her death and It was not until the development of feminist criticism in the 1960s and 70s, that her poems became celebrated.
It is tempting to compare Browning’s story of rediscovery with Nancy Graves’s trajectory which would follow a similar path of meteoric success, disappearance and revival. Uncannily, both died aged 55 at the height of their careers.
The works on paper in this online presentation were created in the latter half of Nancy Graves’s career and life but many of their motifs refer to this time in Italy, a formative year during which she visited museums and sites of both archaeological and historical importance. Throughout her life, Graves would return to Italy, most notably in 1979 when she was awarded a residency at the American Academy in Rome, and during the years in which she produced editions with Europe’s most prestigious printer of contemporary art.