Masters: Nick Cave

Masters: Nick Cave

Published on Tuesday, October 4, 2016. This article appears in the October/November 2016 issue of American Craft Magazine.
Author Staff
Nick Cave

Nick Cave

Joel DeGrand

There’s a turning point in Nick Cave’s career, and it’s not on any CV. It didn’t happen in the 1980s, when he studied at the Kansas City Art Institute or Cranbrook Academy of Art. It wasn’t when, devastated by the Rodney King beating, he made his first Soundsuit out of twigs in 1992. It happened just 13 years ago, after he’d already made dozens of his signature wearable, life-size sculptures.

“I was showing, I was doing things, I was making things,” he recalls; somehow, though, he was holding back. Then, one day in 2003, “I just woke up, and something said: Now or never.” The Chicago artist knew he had to make a decision – to commit to being an artist.

Before that moment, Cave says, he’d been waiting, hedging. He hadn’t really acknowledged the fear, the risk, that artistic life entails. “I was dodging it,” he recalls. “The moment that I decided to step into it, that’s when my life changed.” He signed up with Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. “The path started to open up and get real clear,” he recalls. The gallery presented his first solo show in 2006.

Eight years ago, he made another decision – to expand his focus. He’d committed to following his path wherever it led, and he asked himself: What does it mean to keep evolving? Pondering the answer led him to collaborative, costumed performances that emphasize movement, community, and social change.

Heard•NY (2013), performed twice daily for a week at Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, was a highlight. Cave worked with a choreographer, a handful of musicians, and 60 Alvin Ailey dancers to create the performance in a space designed for something else entirely. He loved the comings and goings of the viewers; “you have a performance at 11 o’clock. Then you flush this entire audience out, and there’s a new audience,” he says.

Earlier this year, working with four social-service agencies in Shreveport, Louisiana, he orchestrated As Is. Some of the performers had disabilities; others were coping with domestic violence or HIV. It was “a very humbling experience,” he says, “probably the most profound project” to date.

Opening in October may be his most ambitious project – a football-field-size installation at MASS MoCA in northwestern Massachusetts, incorporating dancers, singers, and poets.

“There’s so much amazing talent all over this country,” he says. Harnessing talent, and shaping it into a community with a mission, is his joy. 

Mentor: At Cranbrook, Gerhardt Knodel taught Cave to come at his work with conviction: “He taught me how to trust myself.”

A disappointment: The critics' response to his latest solo show in New York, “Made for Whites by Whites.” At a flea market, he’d found a “little bitty amazing black bust" – horrifically labeled “spittoon” – and proceeded to develop a body of work around the “most vulgar artifacts” he could find. But reviewers weren't as candid as he had hoped, and didn’t fully appreciate the kitschy, racist legacy that was his point.

Day job: He leads the graduate program in fashion, body, and garment at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The question he poses to students: “How does the body become the vehicle, the instigator?”

After hours: During the day, he’s with students or his studio staff. But in the evenings, in the studio until midnight, “there is a large chunk of time where it is just silent, and I am just making. And that’s the time when I’m clear. And that’s when I’m dreaming.” 

Read more about the 2016 American Craft Council Awards and winners.