For the time being—this is late 1998—Nancy Rubins’s 5,500 lbs. of Sonny’s Airplane Parts, Linda’s Place, 550 lbs. of Tie-Wire occupies the courtyard at ArtPace, soaring majestically from the pavement through the tree tops. A little more raucous, and definitely more architectural than animal, its trajectory is no less elegantly transcendent than the path of flight etched by Constantin Brancusi’s Bird in Space. Rubins is a true sculptor, manipulating materials in space in the constructivist tradition of Pablo Picasso and Julio Gonzalez, who first applied the technique of welding to sculpture. Like them, and David Smith, who added color to the sculptural mix, Rubins transforms civilization’s detritus into magical formal concoctions. Her work is most frequently and appropriately compared to John Chamberlain’s gestural assemblages of automobile bodies, which take found color (as it comes on the junked sections of metal) as their subject. A soft harmony of faded colors evoking nature more than the sculptural elements’ identity as massive fragments of airplanes, 5,500 lbs. of Sonny’s Airplane Parts, Linda’s Place, 550 lbs. of Tie-Wire is predominantly greenish-yellow, the color of the aluminum primer used on the inside of airplane bodies, and muted silver. The ordinarily industrial colors echo the fluttering, light green leaves of the courtyard’s sycamore trees, which were planted only three years before the installation of Rubins’s sculpture in the spring of 1997 and are now double in height. A more congenial ambiance can hardly be imagined as the trees and the wispy bamboo hedge sheltering the courtyard from the street provide a shady, integral surround for the sculpture. As it lunges upward from one end anchored to the pavement, the thrusting planes and curving sections burst into a great bloom of energy. Held together by welds and wire, the sculpture is clearly under tension, miraculously cantilevered above the heads of viewers. In scale, force, and risk, Rubins’s work is reminiscent of Richard Serra’s or Chris Burden’s. What is significantly absent is the sense of immanent danger so crucial to, for example, Serra’s propped up pieces of lead or suspended slabs of steel. My own experience does not accord with critic Michael Duncan’s assessment that “Rubins’s smashed airplane parts evoke our fear of sudden, unexpected death, a fear that reoccurs each time we buckle an airplane seat belt,” but maybe I’m just not afraid of flying. Airplane parts seem natural in the air. Enhancing this naturalness is the sculpture’s sense of upward lift, as if taking off rather than crashing to the ground.
Duncan also compares Rubin’s sculptures to Chamberlain’s, which were frequently interpreted as car crashes, despite Chamberlain’s insistence that they are actually “soft”—like Claes Oldenburg’s sculptures—rather than violent. Chamberlain’s puffed up hoods, arcing fenders, and undulating roofs create generous, expansive volumes. His compositions are pieced together so that the parts fit, as he has said, like a handshake. “It all has to do with if it’s sexual, it’s squeezing and hugging.” Like David Smith, who claimed that all of his sculptures were “girls,” Chamberlain is a male sculptor making female sculptures. Rubins will have none of this feminine obedience. Her unruly mechanical components are lassoed together, just barely restraining their vigorous ascent.
Rubins began using experimental materials as a student at The Maryland Institute, College of Art, where she worked with unfired clay and slip. She turned to concrete for a series of thin, freestanding walls, inspired by a California earthquake in 1977. Soon, used appliances were embedded in the concrete and then in massive rebar cages, most famously for Worlds Apart(1982), a temporary public sculpture in Washington, D. C. The domestic and hand-scale appliances were replaced by larger, body-oriented hot water heaters and mobile homes, which met in a tumultuous mélange in the exhibition, Helter Skelter, at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in 1992. A visit to an airplane scrap yard owned by Bill Huffman in the Mojave Desert inspired her first piece of airplane parts, 4,000 Pounds of Smashed and Filleted Airplanes(1986), a sculpture assembled for one night in the lobby of a Los Angeles hotel. Several of Rubins’s airplane sculptures have, like the fortuitous encounter at ArtPace, included trees. In Topanga Tree and Mr. Huffman’s Airplane Parts (1987-89), 16,000 pounds of scrap surround the trunk and branches of an oak tree on her property in Topanga Canyon in southern California. An even larger sculpture utilized three trees as a sort of pedestal for four trailers, refrigerators, water heaters, and sundry other furnishings in a temporary outdoor exhibition in Pittsburgh.
In San Antonio, Rubins acquired the parts of her sculpture from Sonny Wulfe at Alamo Aircraft Supply. Unlike the smaller civilian airplanes used for her previous works, Wulfe’s scrap is mostly military, due to the prevalence of bases in San Antonio. The largest piece in 5,500 lbs. of Sonny’s Airplane Parts, Linda’s Place, 550 lbs. of Tie-Wire has been identified as an engine pod, once located under the wing of a B-52. Unfussy and expansive, a new, broad scale results from the size of the components. The airplane parts are wired to the sculpture’s main support, a welded carbon steel framework cantilevered from a three-legged base and anchored at the low end to the pavement. Although the aluminum parts are fairly light (compare the 16,000 pounds of Topanga Tree and Mr. Huffman’s Airplane Parts to the 5,500 pounds at ArtPace), the force of the sculpture necessitates fastening the low end securely, with an epoxy anchoring system, to the ground so that it will not be thrust upward.
The hollow, shell-like forms of the airplane parts give Rubins’s sculptures an airy fragility. Whether perched or soaring, they seem—and often are—impermanent, joined together for a brief demonstration of levitation. Many of her pieces have been disassembled and stored for reconstruction or other uses. Such was the case with Worlds Apart, which Rubins stored with Huffman in the desert. When she retrieved the appliances years later, she was astonished to discover that he had cleaned and sorted them all. Huffman’s metal bins filled with her appliances were then used by the artist as the main element in Veins, Connections, and Points of Departure, A Memorial for Peter Kunz: Mr. Huffman’s Containers filled with Rubble from Worlds Apart and an Oak Tree from Topanga (1990). Distinguishing it from traditional sculptural monuments, the performative nature of Rubins’s work derives from its spontaneity, process-orientation, and temporariness. In a sentiment commonly evoked by much work since the 1960s, Kathryn Kanjo wrote of Rubins’s early work in clay, “When the clay dried, the piece was over.” Originally intended as a temporary installation, 5,500 lbs. of Sonny’s Airplane Parts, Linda’s Place, 550 lbs. of Tie-Wirewill eventually be enlarged, reconstructed, and adapted to suit an alternative site. Augmented by the historical traces of factory, sky, junkyard, and art world, it may yet gesture heavenward with renewed aeronautical agility.
1 Michael Duncan. “Transient Monuments.” Art in America (April 1995) 82.
2 Julie Sylvester. “Auto/Bio: Conversations with John Chamberlain.” A Catalogue Raisonné of the Sculpture, 1954-1985 (New York: Hudson Hills Press) 1986, pp. 15, 18.
4 Diane Waldman. “Excerpts from a Conversation Between Elizabeth C. Baker, John Chamberlain, Don Judd, and Diane Waldman.” John Chamberlain: A Retrospective Exhibition (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum) 1971, p. 17.
5 Rosalind E. Krauss, Terminal Iron Works: The Sculpture of David Smith (Cambridge: MIT Press) 1971, p. 93 n. 44.
6 Kathryn Kanjo. “Beyond Addition.” Nancy Rubins (San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art) 1995, p. 11.