80 Washington Square East, NYU

David Nelson

September 9 – October 24, 2015

80 Washington Square East

The exhibition will be the first major institutional solo presentation of David Nelson’s work, representing the wide range of mediums which constituted his artist practice, including painting, drawing, photographs, photograms, and sculpture. The exhibition is organized by Jonathan Berger and Nancy Brooks Brody in collaboration with the Estate of David Nelson and students from the NYU Steinhardt Department of Art and Art Professions. 


David Nelson (b. 1960, d. 2013) moved to NYC and began making art in late 1970’s. In the 1980’s he established a studio on East 14th street and became friends with the artists Robert Bordo, Nancy Brooks Brody, Joy Episalla, Tony Feher, Zoe Leonard, Angela Muriel, Nicolas Rule, Rafael Sanchez, and Carrie Yamaoka. This peer group’s formative years coincided with the onset of the AIDS crisis, which further established their camaraderie and led to many of them becoming involved with the organization ACT UP (The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) during the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1985 Nelson met the artist David Knudsvig, who remained his romantic partner up until Knudsvig’s death from AIDS in 1993. Soon after Knudsvig’s death, Nelson travelled to Paris where he presented a solo exhibition at gallerist Tracy Williams’ project space, which occupied an old apartment there. The state of grief under which the exhibition came to fruition, as well as Nelson’s own HIV diagnosis in 1990, galvanized a core group of themes and motifs in Nelson’s work, concerning the passage between life and death, which remained central and permeated the entirety of his creative production up until his death in 2013.

Nelson was an avid collector of vintage curios and specimens of natural history. He transformed his small apartment in to a domestic museum, or wunderkammer, filled with an eclectic assortment of found objects that spoke to his interests and informed his artistic practice. On his dresser, Knudsvig kept a small wooden figurine of a man with a removable top hat that contained a pair of dice made from bone. Upon his death, Nelson placed the figure next to his own toy train and named the hybrid object the “train man,” going on to make him a recurring character in numerous bodies of work in various mediums. The character himself, as well as his role of conductor, bears striking resemblance to the Haitian Vodou deity “Papa Ghede,” believed by practitioners to be the corpse of the first man who ever died, and whose role in the religion is to guide souls into the afterlife. In a large series of photograms from 1994, Nelson rendered the figure in sand, an act that is also common practice in Vodou rituals. While Nelson created the “train man” character, and the photograms, without the knowledge of Papa Ghede, his later discovery of these connections may have led to its reappearance as a protagonist in his work.

In 1995 Nelson discovered and excavated a cistern in the yard of his home and studio on east 5th Street. The well-like structure and its function resonated with his creation of the “train man” and prescient interest in portals, tunnels, and the act of passage from one dimension to the next. Soon after, he began digging holes in his yard, in to which he would pour synthetic clear resin, later pulling the cured casts from the ground and with them the dirt and roots that had attached themselves. These sculptures, which Nelson referred to as “Holes,” existed as a positive document of a negative space, created through the act of digging—both a child like act of curiosity and a desperate need to escape.

These themes continued to evolve through Nelson’s ongoing involvement with photograms—images made by placing objects and materials on emulsion coated paper in a darkroom, exposing it to light and developing it. The resulting silver gelatin prints present lush, flat black, void like surfaces on which floated delicate white ghostly pictures. The “Hole” sculptures that Nelson produced echo in many of these works, both in terms of their shared dark spaces as well as the recurring form of the circle. In one series of photogram works, each of which is titled “Iris,” Nelson produced contact prints using found scientific glass slides, depicting the cross-section of an eye in negative, resulting in an image of two side by side circles that resist immediate identification and appear more geological or orifice related than ocular. A second series titled “From the series…” holds the shape of the “Iris” series, yet depicts the paired circles through the use of a geometric drawing toy known as a “spirograph.” Nelson used an antique spirograph, which he had purchased at a flea market, repaired, and employed in conjunction with the photogram process to create precise, often infinitely intricate, hairline white on black images, built from the spirograph machine’s incrementally progressing, obsessively repeating, circular motions of the drawing tool. The mathematical and mechanical nature of the circles depicted in these works makes their centers particularly present as the apparent point from which they were generated. In this regard, the spirograph works can appear partially as abstract depictions of clocks—one of many references to Nelson’s preoccupation with the representation and passage of time. Among the recurring motifs in Nelson’s work, including his photograms, is the image of the "timer," a small hourglass that also often appears in a broken state, with the sand it had contained spilled and used as a compositional element.

After a nearly 20 year hiatus from painting, Nelson began to paint again in 2003, trading in the blacks, browns, whites, and greys that dominated his work in the 1990s for a wide array of pastel colors. The imagery of holes, tunnels, spirals and portals were transformed into abstracted versions of eyes and mouths that often sit on the surface of the painting and through which under layers are revealed. These late paintings speak most directly to the human body and its frailty and yet their light, often washed out, pastel color palette casts the final chapter of Nelson’s exploration in a distinctly different tone. 

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated publication designed by Julian Bittiner, including texts by Jonathan Berger and Nancy Brooks Brody, and an interview with David Nelson conducted by his gallerist, Nick Debs, in 2000. The publication is co-published with Visual AIDS and Fales Library and Special Collections.

This exhibition and publication would not be possible without the continued support of Kate Beach, Julian Bittiner, Jesse Bransford, Bobby Bordo, Mary Beth Brown, Tammy Brown, Ken Castronuovo, Maria Celi, Kristen Coyle, Nick Debs, Joy Episalla, Jessica Iannuzzi Garcia, Benjamin Hatcher, Sarah East Johnson, Mary Knudsvig, Zoe Leonard, Elle Moody, Donald Mouton, Angela Muriel, Brenda Nelson, Lynne Nelson, Hugh O’Rourke, Nicolas Rule, Rafael Sánchez, Nelson Santos, Karen Santoyo, Cherie Sharp, Nancy Shaver, Marvin Taylor, Morgan Thomas, Carrie Yamaoka, the Chris Burke Studio, and students and faculty from the NYU Steinhardt Department of Art and Art Professions. 

The organizers wish to express special thanks to Barry Paddock. Without him this project would not have been possible. 

Several small objects of dried wood, some sealed in resin blocks, sit on a white surface in a gallery.
Four images hang on a gallery's wall. Two are white on black-and-two are black-on-white.
Five framed images of white circular shapes on black backgrounds hang on the walls.
Two black and white images hang on a gallery's walls. One is comprised of a 4x4 grid of black sheets with white dots.
A three-by-three grid of black drawings hang behind a pedestal holding a small white sculpture.
A row of 5 framed gray images showing circular shapes on grainy backgrounds.
Two pairs of framed drawings, each showing small black circles on white paper.
Two rows of framed drawings hang on perpendicular walls of a gallery.
Two framed images of white circular orbit shapes drawn on black paper.
A line of colorful small tunnel-like shapes is arranged on the floor of the gallery. Three mildly colorful images hang on the wall behind the floor sculpture.