Hive, 2020. Fabric, LED, blowers, electronic wiring, fabric, and computer, 222 x 144 x 144 in. Collaboration with Lakshmi Ramgopal. Photo: Fred Zwicky

Unruly Forms: A Conversation with Nancy Davidson

Though Nancy Davidson has worked in multiple mediums over the course of her prolific career, she is best known for her enormous, flamboyant sculptures made of latex balloons and vinyl-coated nylon. These quirky, vibrantly colored inflatables lightheartedly blend absurdity and humor, but they also raise social and political issues in an upbeat, playful manner. Their soft, lightweight, and erotically pliable characteristics serve as a purposely feminist retort to the rigidity and heaviness of male-dominated Minimalism, while comic and grotesque elements operate as “Rabelaisian” tools of celebration and social critique. Davidson’s carnival of unruly forms, inspired by everything from Eva Hesse to pop-culture icons like Mae West and cowgirls, to ancient goddesses of the Mediterranean, turn expectations upside down, seducing viewers into examining what lies beneath the surface.

Elaine A. King: You studied at the University of Illinois Circle Campus and received an MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), working with Whitney Halstead, who supported the Chicago Imagists, and with Nancy Spero, Joyce Kozloff, and Harmony Hammond. How did these experiences influence your work?
Nancy Davidson: The 1970s were a very heady time to be making art in graduate school and exhibiting. The world was changing, and women were in revolt, leaving their marriages and sometimes their children to pursue their art. In 1973, Judy Chicago came to Chicago to speak about Womanhouse. She urged women artists to form a gallery to exhibit their work. I was fortunate to work with Whitney Halstead during my first year at SAIC in 1973; he was a demanding advisor. At the end of the year, I decided to take classes over the summer, during which I had my first breakthrough. I began working with the gestures of my body and hand. This was my first piece connecting large-scale, bilateral symmetry, and curved forms. These combined elements became a focus for years. From that point forward, I only studied with visiting women artists, including Joyce Kozloff and Nancy Spero.

Neither Bigugly nor Smallnice, 1995. Latex, cotton, rope, and rubber, 60 x 96 x 60 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

EAK: I understand that you were a member of the nonprofit artists’ collective N.A.M.E. What was that like?
ND: Just as I was about to graduate from SAIC, I met members of N.A.M.E., including Jerry Saltz and Barry Holden. They asked me to exhibit in May, 1975. Shortly afterwards, I was invited to join the collective, which was formed in 1973 by a group of recent SAIC graduates. The National Endowment for the Arts had just begun a program to fund artists’ collectives, and N.A.M.E. received funding to create a space showing experimental work; it became a platform for unconventional work in Chicago. The two years I belonged were significant because my personal life was in free fall, and the artists at N.A.M.E. were instrumental in helping me to focus on my work and engage with the arts community. N.A.M.E. functioned like Artists Space in New York. We hosted exhibitions and performances by artists from around the country. The AACM (the jazz ensemble Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) and Henry Threadgill performed often. We met frequently and had heated arguments as well as great discussions.

EAK: Initially you made paintings and drawings and had a penchant for Minimalism, as evident in Untitled (1975).
ND: In the early 1970s, minimal forms and symmetry captivated me. I was fascinated with gestalt theory, which I applied to my work by thinking of my large installation-drawings as representing complete forms consisting of individual parts. I used a priori structures that allowed the work to evolve into a form with specific logic. At the same time, I was aware that many of the women artists whom I admired, including Eva Hesse, were moving beyond Minimalism’s reductive strictures by investing elements of the body and gesture into abstract forms. Hesse spoke about absurdity and repetition. Taking a cue from her example, I began to work with the gestures of my body, hand, and touch, making rubbings from my wooden studio floor. I used a technique called frottage to transfer the patterns of the wood grain to paper. By using rubbings, I was tracing that history of marks onto the paper. The idea of tracing, marking, and making the skin visible were all part of my attraction to the floor. Hesse influenced me in so many ways—her materials were soft, and her forms resembled aspects of the female body.

Untitled, 1975. Black paper and oil crayon, 96 x 200 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

EAK: Untitled was ambitious and demonstrated an early dimensional approach. But after a move to New York in 1979, your work started to change, until by the early 1990s, you were refocusing your work toward sculpture. What inspired you to move in this direction, and how did your subject matter change?
ND: By 1992, I wanted to work larger; I wanted to occupy three-dimensional space and manage the materiality of sculpture. I was always attracted to humor but didn’t express it. Then I read Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry. The lead character was a gigantic woman who had enormous appetites for food, sex, dogs, and more. I was captivated by the carnival at which a passive audience doesn’t exist. Concurrently I was reading Bakhtin, the Russian theorist of the grotesque. That subject attracted me, as did the photographs of Diane Arbus. And because I grew up in Chicago, I had a love-hate relationship with the artist group called the Hairy Who. One day, I had a thought about weather balloons and asked myself how it would be if I worked with a balloon as a form. I sent for one, and the minute it arrived, I blew it up and immediately knew that it was the perfect material—funny, grotesque, oversize, erotic, absurd, and attractive. It was a body with flesh and, very importantly, a body of parts: male, female, we all have these bulbous parts. The material allowed me to bring together notions of bodily pleasure, eroticism, carnival, and the absurd.

EAK: Do you make preliminary drawings?
ND: I keep sketchbooks of all sizes to record my ideas and thoughts. I also research and collect digital images. As my ideas develop through drawing, I begin to consider how to construct the sculptures, including material descriptions and sources, as well as possible installation ideas. After a project finishes, I collect all the materials into boxes to keep the ideas, readings, and installation notes together.

EAK: The female body has been a central subject in your work. The huge forms convey eroticism while confronting serious issues such as the exploitation of women and fetishism. What do you want the viewer to feel or understand?
ND: My work does not pursue a particular agenda. I am not interested in viewers having a specific reaction. The work is open-ended and ready for all.

Spin Too!, 1995. Latex, fabric, plastic, steel, rod iron, and cotton, 122 x 84 x 60 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

EAK: Could you talk about your interest in over-the-top clichés, such as corsets, ruffled tutus, spider-web netting, giant tassels, and silver lamé hot pants, and your use of pop culture elements?
ND: Using humor became a way for me to engage and confront viewers while acknowledging the unpredictability of their reactions. As this work evolved, my desire to engage a broader audience also directed my interest in popular culture. I have always been interested in the role of the fool and the clown. These trickster figures endowed with mythical powers are rarely women. When I work, I imagine myself as this character. I present a strong woman, using humor, erotic forms, and absurd comic gestures to play with the viewer. People move around and through the work, engaging with the scale, characters, surfaces, and vulnerability of the sculpture. They may choose to associate these characteristics with women, but these same elements may just as well evoke men, children, babies, or hybrid bodies, part human and part animal. It is all in the mix.

Excess is an integral part of American popular culture. The desire to have everything overly large looms in everything from hamburgers to houses. Using humor to reach viewers allows for both celebration and critique. I am not separate from this audience, so I continue working to understand how culture communicates.

EAK: Spin Too! (1995) is an enchanting and important work. How did you come to deal with space differently in this case?
ND: I began to look at how my sculptural forms exist in space. Instead of just suspending the sculptures, I wanted to connect them to the wall and the floor to increase their gestural possibilities and character. In Spin Too!, I used several elastic cords to attach the inflatable to the ceiling and multiple cords to attach the bottom of the inflatable to bowling balls on the floor, using the weight of the balls to pull back, which allows the large central inflatable to lunge forward in space. Formal sculptural concerns are always part of my thinking—volume, weight, and pressure are finely balanced in this piece.

EAK: When I look at your work, the playful absurdity of Franz West comes to mind. I’m thinking of his Paßtücke (Adaptives), with their raw colors and unconventional materials. Is that a fair observation?
ND: Yes, I love Franz West’s work. His interactive objects are absurd. They can be picked up, held, and carried, but they are very awkward and oddly shaped in relation to the human body. The question of how one approaches his Paßtücke is front and center for me. Are they giant turds, pieces of long-discarded sculptures? Are they created to irritate and give pleasure at the same time?

Dustup, 2012. Vinyl-coated nylon, rope, leather, blowers, sandbags, and sawdust, 240 x 240 x 192 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

EAK: Double Exposure, a huge suspended inflatable commissioned for the Beaux-Arts atrium of the Corcoran Gallery in 2003 was your first large-scale sculpture. The minimal form, despite its delicate materials, had an overwhelming presence. How did you develop the concept?
ND: When I made my first site visit, I was curious about the atrium space. It has a glass floor at the center, a second-floor balcony, and a 40-foot-high skylight—the materials are hard and cold in color; the forms are all vertical. People did not linger in that space, they moved quickly through it or walked along the edge. Through my installation, I wanted to give people a feeling of warmth, an invitation to enter the space.

I used the atrium as a container for Double Exposure. The gigantic scale invited visitors to view the sculpture in parts or as a whole, creating a sensuous, tactile, physical experience. I wanted to engage viewers, drawing them into the space to sense the perceptual play between the architecture and the form. Standing underneath the gigantic inflated double sphere, one could feel the swaying overhead. Viewed from above, the sculpture resembled two hills within the Beaux-Arts interior.

EAK: You’ve been interested in the history of the cowgirl for years, and you’ve made numerous sculptures related to the theme, including Dustup (2012), an over-the-top, boldly colored, and energetic evocation of the rodeo, complete with costume details such as fringes and highly ornamented boots. What is the source of this fascination, and how did Dustup come about?
ND: Back in 2001, I watched from my studio as the World Trade Center towers fell and witnessed the devastation of my neighborhood. I was upset about what the U.S. was becoming, and I began thinking about my past and personal mythology. As a child growing up in the ’50s, I was inspired by the cowgirl character and her can-do spirit. She was unruly. For me, the cowgirl is significant because she represents a woman outside the structure of society, beyond the rules. I remembered the “rhinestone cowgirls” in Hollywood films and musicals. My memories, coupled with 9/11, set off an investigation into the history and legends of the cowgirl. The embodiment of a free-spirited woman with agency emerged as a guide through the devastating tragedy.

I really began the project in 2005, with funding from Creative Capital. That year, I went to Fort Worth, Texas, to do research at the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Museum. A women’s professional rodeo event was taking place in the ring next to the museum. Never having attended a rodeo, I didn’t know what to expect, so I went and saw the last bucking bronco ride of Jan Youren, who had a 47-year career. She “rodeoed” until the age of 63 and retired with five world championships in bareback bronco riding and 15 reserve championships in bull riding. I couldn’t believe that a 63-year-old would be riding in such physically hair-raising ways. Rodeo became an obsession for me. I had to find out who these cowgirls were—they did unacceptable things. Youren was a real American icon. All the concepts I had previously worked with in terms of popular tropes and stereotypes were present in the rodeo cowgirl. This transgressive complexity and self-motivated dominance is my attraction to popular culture.

What began as a childhood attraction to the archetypal American character of the cowgirl became an irreverent reinvention in my work, celebrating and critiquing popular culture, comic humor, and our society’s fascination with the overly large. I worked with these ideas for over seven years, creating many sculptures, videos, and the Dustup installation.

Dustup (detail), 2012. Vinyl-coated nylon, rope, leather, blowers, sandbags, and sawdust, 240 x 240 x 192 in. Photo: @studiolhooq

EAK: Buttress (1987) and Dulcinea (1999) seem to make a farcical commentary on Donald Judd’s sculptures. What do you think?
ND: My early notes and drawings reference Brancusi’s Endless Column. Thinking about repeating forms with rotational changes reminded me of many of Judd’s early serial works. His sculptures concentrated on shape, materiality, and a generative scheme, sometimes including the Fibonacci sequence. Hesse’s use of materials, repetition, gravity, and fragility also influenced my thinking in Buttress. My interest in minimal form is evident. It gives me pleasure to think about the absurd comparison between the fleshiness of my materials and Judd’s stacked boxes. Dulcinea, a 16-foot stela, fits into the long history of the stela as a repository of meaning, here as analogue for the human form. Dulcinea was Don Quixote’s fantasy muse.

EAK: In your 1999–2000 exhibition at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, you included a video for the first time. What brought this about?
ND: Working with inflatables means working with air that is always in flux, like breathing in and out, expanding and collapsing. I witnessed all of these states in the studio, yet the finished sculptures are usually fully inflated. Video allows me to show the changing form of the inflatable, including full inflation, deflation, movement, and collapse. In the video, jump cuts activate the form. The closer look of the camera allows the viewer to identify with the visual pleasure of seeing the balloon as it floats ebulliently, buoyant and elastic. Judy Dunaway, a sound/performance artist, collaborated on the sound, recording the air escaping from the balloon.

EAK: I am especially fond of the works brought together in your multimedia project “p e r Sway” (2017–18), a striking and philosophically compelling exhibition in which light and sound evoked an otherworldly sensibility. The components seemed to mirror and distort the political climate. What was your thinking, and how did the exhibition evolve?
ND: We have been living in liminal times, times of political and cultural change. Ideas involving ritual space and liminality discussed by Victor Turner have interested me for several years. In November 2016, Locust Projects, a nonprofit gallery in Miami, invited me to exhibit. The building is an enormous, raw converted garage, with a 17-foot passageway leading from a front space to the large back space. The architecture guided my concept for the exhibition. A portico structure (Marquee) ushered visitors through a double passageway filled with colored light, allowing a transitional interval between everyday life and the ritualized space in the main gallery, where the world was inverted, becoming a topsy-turvy place where privilege is subsumed by parodies of power. Eyeenvy (2017), a gigantic, one-eyed being both ancient and cartoon, sat high above on a platform overseeing all activity, held up by four wooden legs covered with red transparent fabric. The environment was cued to the luminous effect of twilight, the liminal time between day and night. Eventually, the viewer left through the passageway and returned to the everyday. Several dance performances took place in this space.

Installation view of “p e r Sway,” with (left to right) Mini Sin and Sinistrous, 2017. Photo: @studiolhooq

EAK: Hive (2020), your current installation in the Krannert Art Museum’s Kinkead Pavilion, consists of two gargantuan, nearly 20-foot-tall inflatables. The forms, each with a single red braid flowing down to the ground, are covered with numerous, breast-like bulges and illuminated from within. Haunting sounds, created by Lakshmi Ramgopal, suffuse the space. What was your inspiration for this installation? 
ND: Hive is a site-specific installation and a public artwork. After visiting the museum at the invitation of curator Amy Powell and observing the Kinkead Pavilion during the day and at night, I focused on it as a glass-enclosed, classical temple portico. I envisioned two enormous multi-breasted forms filling the enclosure, referencing Artemis of Ephesus, the goddess of the ancient Mediterranean, whose symbol was a bee.

With the addition of a wide maiden braid to each sculpture, modeled after the caryatids on the “Porch of the Maidens,” the twin forms became hybrid creatures, both goddess and maiden. They disrupt the gendered architecture of the pavilion by creating a place empowered by carnivalesque humor. Lakshmi Ramgopal produced the permeating sound, which references breathing, whispering, laughter, and ambient conversation. Programmed LED lighting inside each sculpture creates a dialogue between the two sisters through light and color—think of the Acropolis at twilight, mixed with code and signals. The pavilion is illuminated inside and out with dramatic lighting. 

Covid put a halt to one area that I wanted to explore—the multisensory experience of being in the space with Hive. Della Perone, a photographer, was interested in collaborating with me. Our community-based photo project included inviting people of all ages to join us in the pavilion, using photography to capture their experiences, then sharing the photographs with the community. I am going to explore this area in the future.

EAK: How has your work changed over the years?
ND: I often think about Eva Hesse, who constantly questioned herself but didn’t retreat. To paraphrase Miles Davis, “It’s not about standing still and becoming safe. If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change.” Since 2015, I have been asking myself what cultural and social conditions created the present moment. I am questioning my ideas about monuments and the concept of temporary monuments. I will continue to collaborate with artists across a variety of disciplines. These explorations point to a more active engagement with viewers and the social space of the exhibition. What is the work we need to do? Peter Brook, in a recorded conversation, spoke about the “formless hunch,” making a space for the hunch to come.

Buttress, 1997. Latex, fabric, and rope, 180 x 53 x 33 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

EAK: Do you have a favorite work? 
ND: I have favorite pieces from different times in my life, each bringing back specific memories. I was very proud of UntitledButtress perfectly combined many elements of sculpture, installation, humor, and irreverence. Many of the sculptures in “p e r Sway” spoke to feelings of rage and disappointment, including Eyeenvy and Green-eyed Lady (2017). The twin Hive sculptures give me great pleasure standing under them, feeling their power, softness, and presence.

EAK: What role do you think artists have in society?
ND: It is essential that artists continually ask questions and remain open to new thoughts. Artists are affected by the cultural and social conditions of their times—they bring this into their work. Representing these shared experiences requires passion and vision. I can only speak for myself. My questioning is self-reflective. Does my work, with its humor, pleasure, play, and grotesque form, provoke people to see differently? I am attracted to work that opens people to new thoughts, questions preconceived notions, and challenges ideas about the nature of art. Is art permanent? Can it be understood in other cultures? Can it provide answers? The longer I make art, the more questions I have.

Hive, an installation by Nancy Davidson and Lakshmi Ramgopal, is on view at the Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois, through May 16, 2021.