Bradford Graves

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by Laura Welikson

The sculptor Bradford Graves had a lifelong passion for

stone. During a time when sculptors were turning to

industrial materials such as steel, aluminum, and

plastic to recast their interpretation of the modern world,

Graves’ use of such a traditional material was

unorthodox. His creations embrace the ongoing

tension between old and new; they conjure up images

which are at once mysteriously ancient and remarkably

modern.

Graves (1939–1998) was born in Dallas, Texas, and

moved to New York in 1958 to pursue sculptural

studies. He attended programs at the School of the

Visual Arts, the American School of Art, and the New School, where he studied with sculptor Seymour

Lipton, one of his great early influences. While producing his own art, Graves also taught for several

years; he served on the faculty at Parsons School of Design in New York from 1974 to 1980 and at

Farleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey from 1969 to 1998. During his life, he traveled

throughout the world, spending long periods of time in Greece, Israel, Scotland, Haiti, Japan, Eastern

Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the American Southwest, places that provided a rich cultural palette

and informed his artistic imagination.

What is apparent in all of his work is a deep reverence for the material, resolving in a spiritual connection

with the earth. Graves wrote,

The making of sculpture may be taken as my desire for wholeness, the recognition of my identity as

being a part of the earth and its materials. In the confrontation between my inner image of what I want to

make and the actuality of the physical materials, a dialogue begins, and the result of that dialogue is a

sculptural statement.

He felt most comfortable working in limestone and personally selected the original blocks from quarries

in Indiana, Texas, and Kentucky. Graves said limestone reminded him of the hills he was born in.

Throughout his life, he felt a profound connection with the American Southwest. The awesome rock

formations were for him nature’s breathtaking sculpture park. His visits to Native American stone ruins in

places like Chaco Canyon and Canyon de Chelly also provided inspiration and imagery that infused a

number of his works.

Some of Graves’ most original pieces can be found in This Mirror Can Crack a Stone, a series of twenty-

two works produced between 1981 and 1984. This exhibition includes This Mirror Can Crack a Stone I, a

long horizontal piece that draws the viewer into an unusual aerial perspective. In effect, the viewer is

compelled to examine the ground beneath her feet and freed from the habitual path of vision: she is

bidden to reengage with the earth. Much of the piece has the look of rugged, exposed terrain, untouched

save for the decisive symmetry of the three carved circles across its central axis. This contrast between

the material’s natural state and the chiseled imprint of the artist highlights the interaction between man

and nature, the active dialogue between the sculptor and his material. Graves further accentuates this

balance by allowing the limestone slabs to retain some of the tool markings from the quarry. The man-

made rings also call to mind ruined Kivas, ancient Native American above-and-below-ground

ceremonial structures, like those found in Chaco Canyon or Pueblo Bonito. Graves incorporated the

solemn mystery of these sites into the Mirror pieces. The three circles each contain smaller sections

inlaid with a honeycomb of bamboo reeds. Like the inner chambers of a Kiva, they invite us to explore an

interior dimension of the piece.

The smaller bronze work This Mirror Can Crack a Stone XXII presents the circle motif recessed in the

center of a multi-tiered tablet. Two winged appendages fitted on either side of the circle look as if the

sculpture’s skin has been peeled back to reveal its interior. As much a portal as a mirror, the sculpture

teases out the meaning of Graves’ title, which is a wry subversion of Henry David Thoreau’s description

of Walden Pond, “a mirror which no stone can crack...a mirror in which all impurity presented to it sinks,

swept and dusted by the sun’s hazy brush.” In Graves’ title, subject and object are transposed. The mirror

as metaphor for the self acts upon the stone and alters perception through art. The mirror does not

present a mere reflection of reality; it introduces another dimension of vision.

Throughout his career, Graves was intrigued by the concept of tools. A tool’s form, however ingenious, is

determined by its function, yet Graves felt there was a real mystery in tools. How did people decide that a

certain form was ideally suited to perform its function? Graves deconstructed this relationship through

sculptures of wheels, axes, walkways. Gauve II, one of a related group of sculptures Graves made in the

late 1970s, is a reinterpretation of the bridge, but, given the work’s sharp curvature and rhythmic carving,

no one could walk upon it. Slat Breakdown, a small bronze sculpture, is a walkway, whose slats are

jumbled, bending at their joints and curling fancifully. What would have been stairs on an incline have

been lifted up and left to dangle over a precariously smooth slope of metal. The form is separated from its

utilitarian purpose and its meaning is redefined as art object—and yet the original function still hovers in

the work’s form and material.

Graves had eclectic tastes and a voracious appetite for books and music. He built up an impressive

library and record collection throughout his life. Graves closely followed musicians in jazz and avant-

garde music and named a number of works and series after people whose music he admired. Graves

named one early series of works Dolphy after the alto saxophonist, flutist, and bass clarinetist Eric

Dolphy. This exhibition includes the first piece in the series, Dolphy I, a weathered limestone work

composed of six units atop a stone base. Graves created the piece early in his career, in 1973, and it

shows him working through the concepts of cubism and constructivism. Graves had discussed the use of

constructivist methods in his own work as a way of allowing space to become an active part of the form.

“This is a unifying method of working,” he wrote, “that permits each unit of my sculpture to create its own

reasons for existence.” Much of Graves’ sculpture is abstract, and yet there are recognizable reference

points which dot the imagination—one can perhaps see in the long arched block, lightly pressing on one

of the limestone discs, a finger arrested in motion along the sonorous valves of a saxophone. The upper

block also retains those characteristic grooves left from hoisting in the quarry, a visual remembrance of

its origins as a monolithic block of stone. Other musically inspired pieces in this exhibition include the

two November Steps sculptures, which Graves completed a month before he died. They were named

after a musical composition by the Japanese avant-garde composer Toru Takemitsu.

The influence of constructivism can be seen more subtly in two of Graves’ later pieces, Gonaive (1982)

and Stuttering His Own Bent (1995). Gonaive, with its seductively smooth surfaces and mesmerizing

geometry, is one of many of Graves’ works that possesses a kind of easy charm. Here, the sections are

contained within one piece, each one layered upon the other, creating a series of sinuous folds that call

to mind the concentric circles of a seashell, or perhaps some other-worldly astronaut’s helmet. The

evocatively titled Stuttering His Own Bent contains four major units, varied by texture, shape, and design.

The sections are stacked vertically one upon another, giving the piece a totemic, anthropomorphic

quality. The capping stone easily suggests a phallus but at second glance the sculpture also seems to

be arching forward and trying to speak. Where there would be a mouth, however, there is only a

wordless mask of stone.

Some of Graves’ work mingles the ethereal and abstract with a physical, biological reality, as one can

observe in the series Loud in the Blood, begun in 1984. In that one year, both his mother and father died

of heart disease and Graves himself suffered a major heart attack. The tumultuous events greatly

affected his imagery. Loud in the Blood IV has the cool archaeological look of a ruined aqueduct. From

its title, however, one interprets the cascading water as a stream of blood flowing out of a stone cavity,

which is also vaguely reminiscent of the mirror series motif. The oozing blood collects in a sluice-like

trough below. A thin crossbar straddles the channel as the pool of liquid clots into a tumid bead, which

threatens to break and spill over the edge. It is an exploration of mortality and the body’s fragility framed

within the crumbling structure of civilizations past. The subject is sublimated, rendered even playful.

Ravages of Silent Agencies, a small piece carved from African wonderstone, also shares this whimsical

exploration of time and decay’s effect on living forms. On the back side, a scarab-like relief is perched

upon a smooth rim of stone. A maze of small white lines radiate out of the figure and cover the piece in

all directions. They look as if they’ve slowly wormed their way through the stone: centuries of

imperceptible tunneling motion leaving behind a marvelous web of corrosion—the ravages of silent

agencies.

Though primarily a sculptor, Graves produced many pen and ink drawings, pencil sketches, and torn-

and layered-paper collages, as well as illustrations for art and music events and collaborations with

poets and other writers. His drawings range from representational portraits to studies in design to images

of cosmic spheres colliding and collapsing in space. They share with his sculptures a certain playfulness

as well as a driven curiosity about man’s relationship to space—about our place within the cosmos.

More than any other art form, sculpture engages with space, allowing space to become a part of the form,

and making us aware of our position within it. Through his dialogue with stone, carried out with chisel,

hammer, die-grinder, point, and claw, Graves was able to fathom the mystery of the universe. As he put it,

“You become a link in the movement of the universe as it circles through space. You become a part of a

mystery. You are within and participating in that mystery,” rather than looking on and defining it from the

outside. One can find in each of Bradford Graves’ works some element of that encounter, out of which a

quiet sense of mystery and tranquility is born.

 

A Legacy Carved in Stone

 
 
 

Introduction

Taking the Side of Things

Omphalos and Lapis Manalis

Creation

England

The Stones of Camus

Twentieth Century Stone Sculpture

Richardson 's Original Monster Rock

Band

Robert Smithson

The Moon Gets its Rocks off on Earth

In Praise of Limestone

Essay by Laura Welikson

 

Life

Exhibitions

Collections

Awards

Press

Publications

Brad's Writings 

Selected Essays