enter Nancy Kay’s private world you first pass alongside the original
house, a nondescript eight hundred square foot Santa Monica bungalow, before
you reach the five thousand square foot addition which is her studio, her
gallery, her home, her creation.
Placido Domingo sings the tenor aria from the third act of Tosca, accompanied by the bark of one of two formidable Russian wolfhounds whose lounging bodies form an impenetrable blockade to the concrete and steel stairway which connects Kay’s studio to her living quarters. A Wurlitzer jukebox projects a neon glow across the foyer, casting a shadow across a steel I-beam left exposed as if to defy the very fluidity of clear space intended by her architects.
past the guardian Borzois her living space proves to be equally unpredictable.
Domingo is replaced by a duet for harp and flute that Kay recorded in concert
in Zurich. Beneath a wall hung with maquettes for her installation at the
Irvine company stands a line of chairs, some aluminum, some African, one
the shape of a Swiss flag, no two remotely alike, overlooking a pair of antique
harps. Masks from Mexico and Indonesia peer quizzically downward, Italian
leather sofas are casually draped with colorful Guatemalan serapes. What
appears to be a sculpted bronze egg resting in a basin of white sand is actually
the funerary urn of Adam, her first Borzoi — her friend and protector
for many years, and today her Muse.
As art imitates life, surrounding you is Nancy Kay’s work, each piece meticulously sited, each formally and directly linked to the art-historical path which leads from Malevich through Mondrian into Modernism, each impeccable in its precision of fabrication, and each breaking every rule of constructivism ever written.
Nancy Kay was formally trained, first as a harpist, then as an historian. Among her teachers was no less formidable a force in the interpretation of Art History than Heinrich Schwarz at Wesleyan University. Durer and the German Masters — Beham, Pencz, Aldgrever — Renaissance Italy, Spain under the patronage of the court, from Velasquez through Goya, impressionism and post-impressionism, these were her foundations; and as she studied she simultaneously paid her dues as a figurative painter and etcher.
It was at Wesleyan, while a student of Leonard Baskin, that Kay began to explore the nature and potential of wood. Panel painting and wood sculpture had survived for centuries. If timber could be cut and inked for printmaking, why could it not be adapted as an independent medium? Why must wooden boxes be fabricated only as housing for other elements? Her teacher was a master at drawing his expressive humanist images from oak. She could reverse the process: cut, paint, construct — create an entirely different language by working on and in wood.
Just as Kay’s primary medium may have been born of a rebellion against an established method, so certainly was her message. The art of the early 20th Century, the study of the philosophy which resulted in Suprematism in Russia, Vorticism in England, Cubism in France, Futurism in Italy, Modernism as it crossed the Atlantic from Europe to America, and particularly the lean, functional approach of the Bauhaus, all of this constituted an extraordinary epoch — to Kay an era of enlightenment.
After graduating from Weslyan, Kay focused her energies almost entirely on Non-objective and Constructivist art while she earned her Masters Degree at villa Schifona in Florence. There she was able to open her images to these influences, to establish the roots of her particular style, to begin to develop her unique vocabulary and ultimately to voice contradiction.
Did constructive abstraction need to be limited to two-dimensional surfaces, to be as devoid of depth as lyricism? In their time, of course, geometric perfection, precision and absolute adherence to the gospels of de Stijl, Geometric Abstraction and “Op” had their places — important places. Yet visual art had long been related to the influences from which music was conceived. As Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition depicted painting, so, often, did the paintings by Paul Klee, originally trained as a violinist, and Kandinsky’s pivotal “Improvisations” explore the relationship between music and art. It was thus from the Bauhaus that Kay drew much of her strongest influence as she developed her artistic expression.
From Florence she embarked upon the career, which has led to her exhibitions, commissions and collections from Japan to Brazil. Though she maintains her musical vocation with an occasional performance or recording, Kay’s primary commitment over the past two decades has been to the visual arts, particularly to the interrelationship of ear to eye in the context of the third dimension. It is within negative space that her images dance contrapuntally against the formulaic surfaces of her constructivist predecessors.
American critics are quick to draw the obvious parallels between the visual art of Nancy Kay and John Cage. The European press has often related her work to Swiss masters: to Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp as fellow explorers of random circumstance, to the musically inspired architectural planes of Le Corbusier, to constructivists Max Bill and Fritz Glarner (especially in the reviews of her recent Zurich exhibition at Galerie Suzanne Bollag) and, of course, to Paul Klee.
Posing questions in any form of art is valid often critical. Thus, as Kay contrasts her lyricism against the unyielding structure of the constructive planes from which her shapes recede or emerge, it is her aim to explore, to examine, to challenge. Whatever the medium, whether from multiple surfaces of painted wood, cut mat board or cast paper, her images evoke enigmatic dichotomy. It is never the role of her art to define; to the contrary, it first involves and seduces with the comfortable familiarity of primary color and linear surface, then tantalizes with shadow or line openly rebelling against the confinement of traditionally enclosed space; ultimately it dares the viewer to abandon all predictability and travel through a labyrinth of the unexpected into the vortex of the unexplained.
Throughout this journey the sensitivity, the harmony and the passion of Nancy Kay the musician is ever present in Nancy Key the painter. Sometime she will question, sometime initiate visual conversation, often jolt, shock or surprise; but never does she impose the dogmatism of her predecessors. Modernism and constructivism are but the genesis from which she builds her far more provocative dialogues, and therein lies the richness of diversity, which typifies the life, the spirit, and the art of Nancy Kay.
–– Aldis Browne