Joyce Beckenstein: In John Seabrook’s New Yorker story (January 23,
2017) about his father, a wine connoisseur with a formidable wine
collection, he recounts an elementary school assignment to draw
a floor plan of his house. His mother was mortified to see that he
had made a small family bar disproportionately large. Clearly, this
room occupied an important place in his mind. The episode makes
me think of your early experiences as an anthropologist and your
discussions of how indigenous people acquired a “sense of a place.”
How did this awareness influence you as an artist?
Richard Nonas: I came to art from anthropology and literature,
with very little interest in visual art. Before that, the Brooklyn I
experienced growing up was an entity, a city of its own, but cut by,
shaped by, held by overlapping though quite separate ethnic
enclaves—Jews, Italians, Irish. The borders between these groups
were very complicated. Each of us felt very similar geographical
and emotional edges, but we felt and placed them differently. That
interested me long before art did. In college, I wrote a thesis on
Faulkner’s work as a mythology of place. Later, having spent time
in the South, I realized that what I had understood as mythology
was the powerful realism of a specific place. That disjunction was
what moved me.
JB: You were interested in what was happening in that strange
place between two worlds?
RN: Yes, in the strange doubleness of those differences. As an
anthropologist, I realized that place was the hinge.
JB: How do you define place?
RN: Place is physical, geographical space imbued with human
meaning, a bounded area imbued with social being. It is the complex interaction between the natural and the human world, the
constantly shifting balance between them. People in the Canadian
forest, Indians in the Mexican desert, kids in Brooklyn all find their
own meaning in that edgy doubleness.
JB: Can you be more specific about how that works?
RN: In 2011, I did a work (an intervention) in an isolated, abandoned village in the French Alps, a tiny hamlet with a 12th-
century stone church, two hours’ walk from the nearest road—a
Richard Nonas’s studio, a Wunderkammer piled high with artifacts and relics,
as well as past and in-progress works, unfolds with the unexpected surprises
of an archaeological dig. Hunkered down within a jungle of antique vises and
drills, ladders, chains, axes, arbitrarily stacked books, pulleys, rugs, handmade kayaks, and countless con-
structions of wood and steel are collections of exotic masks and curiosities. The contrast between the studio
and Nonas’s sparse but no less complex interventions in gallery spaces is nothing short of astonishing. Within
the mysterious din of his studio, Nonas shares some intriguing insights into his unique response to space as
a sense of place, discussing the stark white light of his recent exhibition, “SLANT” (Fergus McCaffrey Gallery in
Chelsea, New York), which featured a single two-floor installation composed of wood and steel sculptures and
one large drawing, all dating from 1973 to 2017.
The Raw Edge, 2012. Detail of installation at Vière, Haut Provence, France.