"Landscapes of Unease"
A Forty Year Survey of Drawing
November 9 - December 21, 2013
For many years, New York-based artist, Nancy Wolf has created thought-provoking drawings that comment
on the impact of architecture and urban design on community. The current exhibition consists of 30
works that provide an overview of her concerns. The Marsha Mateyka Gallery has represented the artist since 1984.
In her essay in the current (September/October) issue of ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN, Nancy Wolf describes her work as
follows: “Over the past 40 years my drawings, prints and paintings have commented on the relationship of people
to architecture in our modern urban environment. I have reflected on how people often feel dehumanized when
their intimate, small-scale architecture is displaced by today’s concrete, steel and glass high-rises. I have
also criticized the privileging of design for design’s sake over concern for people’s comfort,
connection and community.” 1
After receiving her BFA from Rhode Island School of Design, Nancy Wolf moved to Washington DC’s new
Southwest area (Tiber Island) and there experienced first-hand the impact of urban renewal. She
observed from her apartment window how people became isolated and dwarfed by enormous buildings
and vast empty plazas. Her work from this period is exemplified by the painting, View from the Balcony, 1975 which
is in the collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the print, The Underpass, 1973 in the current exhibition.
In 1976, Nancy Wolf moved to SoHo in New York where her studio has remained to this day. The
works that followed this move, Streets of the Prophets, 1980 and
Angel of Eldridge Street, 1981, show the urban decay and despair that she witnessed. She
also observed transformations in modern architecture that were visually interesting but
“often seemed to disregard the concerns of the urban communities they replaced.” 2 Expulsion, 1980, now
in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is an example of this concern. It depicts the new Citicorp
building that expelled a city block of low-rise structures.
From 1983-85, Nancy Wolf lived in northern Nigeria. It was a time when Western influence was being abruptly
introduced into a traditional society that had not experienced an industrial revolution. The Boiler, 1984,
captures the conflict between tradition and modernization. Within a halo of traditional calabash design, people view the
Boiler as an object of curiosity--something to which they could not relate. In Whom Do We Follow, 1985,
a calabash design anchors a scene where a choice is presented.
Who Are We, 1985 is the final image in the series. The figure is an Ibo masquerader looking at small
Nigerian shrines in the foreground and the modern Western city in the distance. Many of the drawings from this series
are now in the permanent collection of the Bass Museum, Miami Beach, FL.
Upon returning to New York, Nancy Wolf created a series of drawings entitled “Soho Suite: A Response to Postmodern Architecture”. An
exhibition of these drawings took place at the Marsha Mateyka Gallery in 1988. In reviewing these works, the well-known architect and
critic, Peter Blake wrote:
“Wolf is not an architect: she is a brilliant critic who uses images instead of words. Sometimes her images are flattering and
generous, sort of; most of the time they are devastating; and always, they are witty.” Blake went on to say that, “nobody has
more dramatically described the dimwittedness of modern zoning practice than Wolf did in her 1988 drawing, Perfect Order”.
Two other drawings in this series are Billboard Dreams 1989 and The Past Has No Future 1990. In
the former, building facades are displayed on poles much like stage sets. In the latter,
Nancy Wolf shows the facade of a building in lower Manhattan, designed by Kohn Pedersen and Fox,
leaning against a pile of cast iron facades of old warehouses and commercial buildings that had
previously occupied the area.
In Implosion 1994, one of her largest drawings, the high-rise buildings appear as simulated computer
models and the insert refers to Pruitt Igoe, the high-rise apartment project plagued with problems and ultimately abandoned.
The large surrealistic image, Pilgrimage 1993 was a major work in the artist’s retrospective exhibition at
the American Institute of Architects Headquarters in Washington DC in 1996. In his review of this exhibition, Benjamin Forgey,
architecture critic of the Washington Post, commented:
"In this stunning work, huge bridges crisscross a sea of office towers. The skyscrapers are just outlines
but the bridges are filled with traditional facades and buildings--a little encyclopedia of Western architecture--that are vividly drawn. Most
importantly, the people on these bridges are purposefully engaged--they embrace, play, stride confidently.” 4
This image represented a reversal for the artist in that the high-rises are diminished and the human-scale buildings are dominant.
Pilgrimage was a precursor to Nancy Wolf’s stay in India and Nepal. It was in Nepal that she came to understand that
the design of buildings is dictated by ancient, sacred geometry and that traditional sites and customs were being destroyed by
rapid modernization. Pivot of the Four Quarters 1994 is one work in a series of drawings from this period that comments
on this conflict.
Under the auspices of the Asian Cultural Council, Nancy Wolf was Artist in Residence in 2004, in the Department of Architecture
at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. During this period she traveled throughout China and witnessed the impact of rapid
modernization on a traditional society. She documented her response in drawings first shown at the University and later
expanded into a series that formed the exhibition, “Dragons Adrift: The New Chinese Landscape” in Washington, DC in 2008,
at the Marsha Mateyka Gallery.
The windows of Nancy Wolf’s studio faced for many years the twin towers of the World Trade Center. In Remains of the Day 2002
she captures her response to 9/11 and in doing so quotes a portion of Jacques Callot’s early 17th Century masterpiece “Temptation
of St. Anthony” to personify the evil from the sky.
This exhibition concludes with an example of Nancy Wolf’s meticulous working process. Several preparatory drawings exist for each work.
Two preparatory drawings preceded the final version of Ideal City 1987.
Wolf Von Eckardt, architecture and urban design critic for The Washington Post, and later design critic for Time magazine, wrote in an
"Nancy Wolf explores the effect of our buildings on our culture. Her lovely, incisive drawings and paintings
give us insights into a vital area where even sociologists rarely dare to tread. ...Like all good satire, literary or graphic,
Wolf’s drawings are charming, amusing, and witty. Yet, as in all true art, there is a forceful and unequivocal message.” 5
View from the Balcony, 1975
Streets of the Prophets, 1980
Whom Do We Follow, 1985
Who Are We?, 1985
Perfect Order, 1988
Pivot of the Four Quarters, 1994
From "Dragons Adrift..."
From "Dragons Adrift..."
Game Board, 2008
Remains of the Day, 2002
Ideal City, 1987
1 Nancy Wolf, Essay, “Dragons Adrift: The New Chinese Landscape”, ARCHITECTURAL
DESIGN, September/October 2013, p.109.
2 Nancy Wolf, Artist Statement, “Landscapes of Unease”, November, 2013.
3 Peter Blake, “No Need for Words”, Peter Blake’s Page, INTERIOR DESIGN, vol. 11, 1988, p.228.
4 Benjamin Forgey, “Demolition Job, Artist’s Nancy Wolf’s Dynamite Views of
Modernist Architecture”, Cityscape column, The Washington Post, September 21, 1996, pp. C1 and C7.
5 Wolf Von Eckardt, introduction to exhibition catalog, "NANCY WOLF, Drawings,
Soho Suite: A Response to Postmodern Architecture”, Marsha Mateyka Gallery, 1988.
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