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Reuben Nakian

 (1897 - 1986)
Reuben Nakian was active/lived in New York, Connecticut.  Reuben Nakian is known for abstract female figure sculpture, allegorical drawing.

Reuben Nakian

Biography from the Archives of askART

Abstract Expressionist* sculptor, Reuben Nakian was born in College Point, New York.  Before 1911, he had briefly studied art before going to work for an advertising agency.  In 1915 he attended, possibly one of the only schools at the time to have students studying modernist art, the Independent School of Art in New York City.  He then went on to study at the Robert Henri School* with Homer Boss and A.S. Baylinson.  He also studied at the Art Students League*, apprenticed to Paul Manship, from 1916-1920, where he met Gaston Lachaise and became his studio assistant.

Beginning his career as a sculptor, Nakian associated with other Abstract Expressionists, becoming friends of Arshile Gorky and Willem DeKooning.  This group of artist friends soon became the subject of a series of portrait busts in the early 1930s.  He became famous in 1934 for his eight-foot-high plaster statue of Babe Ruth, which was later destroyed. He was commissioned to create busts of Franklin D. Roosevelt and members of his cabinet, and in 1936 Nakian joined the WPA*, Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project.

Throughout his career he came to focus on erotic abstractions of the female figure, frequently inspired by the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, reinterpreted for the 20th century.  Occurring themes are nymphs, mystic lovemaking, and charged encounters between humans and animals.

During his seventy-five year career as an artist he taught sculpture at the Newark Fine Arts and Industrial Arts College and at Pratt Institute* in New York City.  A prolific sculptor, he worked in stone, terracotta, plaster, steel, and bronze.  In the mid-1950s, Nakian began creating on a much larger scale, working more abstractly with coarse-textured bronze surfaces, which was his preferred medium.  Nakian was very active until his death in 1986.

Nakian had his first major retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1962, soon followed by a major exhibition curated by Frank O'Hara (who also wrote the essay for the substantial catalogue illustrating more than 100 of Nakian's works) at the Museum of Modern Art in NY in 1966. 

Reuben Nakian's work has been shown in museums and galleries around the world, with a major traveling exhibition to celebrate the centennial of his birth in 1997 and 1998 that showed at the Reading Public Museum in Reading, Pennsylvania and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
Peter Hastings Falk, Editor, Who Was Who in American Art

For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

Biography from
Born in College Point, New York, Reuben Nakian studied at the Robert Henri School with Homer Boss and A.S. Baylinson.  He also studied at the Art Students League and from 1917 to 1920, apprenticed to Paul Manship and Gaston Lachaise. He was inspired by the myths of ancient Greece and Rome.  He taught sculpture at the Newark Fine Arts and Industrial Arts College and at Pratt Institute in New York City.

Reuben Nakian was a giant of twentieth-century modernist American sculpture. His art-historical stride extended from an apprenticeship with Paul Manship and a studio assistantship with Gaston Lachaise, to his role as a major participant in the discourse surrounding Abstract Expressionism, particularly with Arshile Gorky and Willem DeKooning. During his seventy-five year career as an artist, he established a profound oeuvre based almost entirely on energetic, daring, and often-erotic abstractions of the female figure.  A prolific sculptor in stone, terra cotta, plaster, steel, and bronze, Nakian remained a vital creative force until his death in 1986.

While Reuben Nakian's work has been shown in museums and galleries around the world (the Reuben Nakian Centennial Retrospective exhibition was on view at the Reading Public Museum in Reading, Pennsylvania until January 10, 1998, and moved in early February to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., for a two-month stay), this exhibition was his first solo show in Boston.

His earliest work include animal studies from the 1920's, which reveal Nakian's stylistic relationship to direct stone carving.  This popular style, which emerged from the more linear Art Deco style, stressed mass and volume over line, but retained Art Deco's stylized surfaces and suggestively abstracted forms.  Related works on paper reveal that the issue of drawing, however, was always central to Nakian's aesthetic.

Nakian's freestanding figures and figurative groups represent the work for which he is best known.  These gestural, Abstract Expressionist sculptures are based on the radical abstraction of the female form as a way to transcend mere appearance to address more primal, essential issues. They are often erotic, sometimes tragic and always passionate engagements of deep emotional and spiritual states. The titles, appropriately, refer to characters and stories from classical mythology, which underscores the deep psychological underpinnings of the work, and reveals Nakian's undying allegiance to Mediterranean history and culture.  These sculptures also exhibit Nakian's consistent preoccupation with drawing, through their insistent linear thrust into space.

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About  Reuben Nakian

Born:  1897 - College Point, New York
Died:   1986 - Stamford, Connecticut
Known for:  abstract female figure sculpture, allegorical drawing