The Nancy Graves Foundation gives a quite pithy version of her life: "Nancy Graves was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1939. She graduated from Vassar College in 1961 and earned an MFA from Yale University’s School of Art and Architecture in 1964. Graves came to prominence with her groundbreaking series of camels: life-like constructions of wood, burlap, hair, and wax, that resembled the animals found in natural history displays. In 1969, she became the first woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She was also an avant-garde filmmaker and a world traveler who incorporated elements of classical antiquity, as well as Ancient Egyptian, African, Japanese, Korean, and Indian art into her work. Nancy Graves’s sculpture, paintings, works on paper and prints may be found in the collections of numerous museums, including The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York; The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; and National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Graves died of cancer in 1995 in New York."
The New York Times obituary was a bit more expansive:
Nancy Graves, an erudite Post-Minimalist artist who combined abstraction with an exacting naturalism, died on Saturday in N.Y. The cause was cancer, said her husband, Avery L. Smith.
A prolific artist who worked in painting, sculpture, printmaking, and film, Ms. Graves first made her presence felt on the New York art scene in the late 1960's and 70's, with life-size sculptures of camels that seemed as accurate as a natural history display (down to the real skin). Closer examination, however, revealed myriad distortions of both form and surface, as well as deliberate signs of handwork, so that the ultimate effect was strangely abstract. Although idiosyncratic, the camels were representative of a widespread effort among younger artists to take Minimalism's emphasis on given facts and forms, as well as new materials, into unexpected areas. Like-minded artists included Eva Hesse, Chuck Close, Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra, to whom Ms. Graves was married from 1965 to 1970.
Nancy Stevenson Graves was born in Pittsfield, Mass., on Dec. 23, 1939, and throughout her life she retained the reserve and dry humor of a quintessential New Englander. Her dual interest in art and science was encouraged by frequent visits to the Berkshire Museum, where her father worked and which had collections devoted to both art and natural history. After graduating from Vassar College as an English major in 1961, she attended Yale, where she earned bachelor's and master's of fine arts degrees from the School of Art and Architecture in 1964. Grants enabled her to spend the next two years studying in Europe, first in Paris and then in Florence, where the life-size wax studies of an 18th-century anatomist named Susini inspired her to work from natural forms.
She settled on the camel as the first of these forms, and with typical thoroughness spent three months learning carpentry to be able to devise an armature. Working in Fiberglas, latex, marble dust and other unorthodox materials, Ms. Graves moved on to camel skeletons and bones, which she dispersed about the floor or hung from ceilings, and based other works on a variety of archeological and paleontological subjects, including fossils, totems and mummies. In the early 1970's, she traveled to Morocco, making several films whose repeated sequences of camel herds emphasized the mesmerizing rhythms of their movements.
In 1972 Ms. Graves forsook sculpture for painting and printmaking, making beautifully colored, ostensibly abstract works that were often based on a wide range of maps and charts, including those of the ocean floor and the surfaces of Mars and the moon. When she returned to sculpture in the late 1970's, she learned the lost-wax process so she could work in bronze, experimenting with unusual patinas that translated her natural forms into a palette of highly artificial hot pinks, blues and yellows. She gradually expanded her vocabulary to include not only plants, flowers, fish and occasional pieces of the human skeleton but also man-made objects like fans, colanders and tools. These disparate parts were assembled into gracefully balanced sculptures whose elegant linearity recalled the "drawing in space" sculptures of David Smith. At the end of her life, Ms. Graves was incorporating handblown glass into her sculptures and experimenting with poly-optics, a glasslike material that can be cast.
Ms. Graves, whose first New York exhibition was at the Graham Gallery in 1968, has been represented by M. Knoedler & Company since 1980. She exhibited extensively in galleries in the United States and Europe and is represented in museums around the world. Her most recent museum retrospective, organized by the Fort Worth Art Museum, traveled to the Brooklyn Museum in 1987. An exhibition of new hand-painted prints closed on Saturday at the Betsy Senior Gallery in SoHo.
Nancy Graves' prints, like her sculptures, have been widely exhibited at galleries and museums in the US and abroad, including (as of 1997), the Brooklyn Museum, the Cincinatti Art Museum, the Nelson -Atkins Museum of Art, the Loeb Art Center at Vassar, the Butler Museum of Arts (Youngstown OH), the Cornell Art Museum, Middlebury College Museum of Art, the Walker Art Museum (Minneapolis), the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Neuberger Museum of Art (SUNY Purchase), the Mount Holyoke Museum of Art, the Yale UniversityArt Museum, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Richmond VA Museum of Fine Arts, the Tampa Museum of Art, the Nationmal Museum of Women in the Arts, the University of Minnesota Art Museum, the Elvehjem Museum of Art (Univ. of WisconsinMadison), and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Her work has also been shown abroad at the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and at many galleries in Japan during 1989 and 1992-93. Since her untimely death, her works have been shown widely at many museums and galleries in the U.S. and abroad.
Bibliography: Brigitte Franzen & Annette Lagler, Nancy Graves Project and Special Guest ( Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2013). This is the catalog of the celebration of Graves work' held in 2013 at the Ludwig Forum in Aachen, Germany (with English and German text). It includes a massive bibliograpy of works about the artist and her oeuvre and makes a great place to begin researching Graves.
Also essential reading: Thomas Padon, Nancy Graves: Excavation in Print. A catalogue raisonné (NY: Harry N. Abrams in association with the American Federation of Arts, 1996. It too contains a very substantial bibliography as well as her complete print oeuvre. There is also a catalogue raisonné of her sculptures, but I will pass over that. I have also found the following useful: Linda L. Cathcart, Nancy Graves: A Survey 1969/1980. (Buffalo: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1980): This catalogue accompanied a 1980-81 traveling exhibition that went from the Albright-Knox to the Akron Art Institute, the Contemporary Arts Museum (Houston TX), the Brooks Memorial Art Gallery (Memphic TN), the Neuberger Museum, S.U.N.Y (Purchase NY), the Des Moines Art Center, and the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis MN). Also of interest: Kelsey Halliday Johnson, Synedoche: Moving Towards Abstraction (Philadelphia: Locks Gallery, 2013): the most recent book on Graves I have seen, this provides a lenghty but selective list of solo exhibitions, including her one-person show at the Whitney Mueum when she was 29, an exhibit at MoMA the following year (1970, along with one-person shows at Vassar (1970, 1996, 2011), the National Gallery of Canada (1970 [to be followed by a repeat show in 1973), shows in Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Sweden, and Bermuda, as well as many shows in museums and galleries in the U.S. as well as several traveling shows that went to multiple museums in 1986, 1987, 1993, and 1996. For her early work, see Yvonne Rainer, Nancy Graves: Scuptures and Drawing 1970-1972 (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, Univ. of Pennslyvania, 1972-Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati OH 1973); Nancy Graves (Tokyo: Gallery Mukai, 1988)the text is unfortunately in Japanese, but the large-format photographs are superb).