b. 1953, United States

Charles Ray Biography

Charles Ray is a prominent American sculptor whose works have been featured in both the Venice Biennale and the Whitney Biennial on multiple occasions. His varied output is perhaps best defined by his drastic turn to figuration in the 1990s—manufacturing unnervingly altered storefront mannequins that engage with American society and the canon of Western art history.

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Early Years

Ray was born in Chicago to artist parents who owned a commercial art school that was founded by Ray's grandmother in 1916. The second oldest of six children, he moved to Winnetka, Illinois in 1960 and was often in trouble at school. Ray and his brother Peter were sent to Marmion Military Academy, Aurora for their high school years in an attempt to discipline them. In his final two years, Ray attended the Chicago Art Institute's studio programme on Saturday mornings, which is where he the artist claims he 'really started doing sculpture.'

In 1971, Ray enrolled in a modernist sculpture class at the University of Iowa taught by Roland Brener. Brener studied under Anthony Caro in the early 1960s, and his lessons were richly informed by Constructivism and drew on the scrap yard for materials. Ray saw Caro's work 'like a template' and a 'kind of nourishment', inevitably influencing the space-as-medium approach of his own practice.

After graduating in 1975, Ray taught at the University of Kentucky and Mason Gross School of Arts, Rutgers University, where he received his MFA. Soon after, Ray began teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles, joining an impressive roster of teachers, like John Baldessari, Barbara Kruger, and Mike Kelly.

Charles Ray Artworks

Charles Ray's sculptural output is famously small and as varied in process and medium as it is in subject matter. A unifying principal that underscores his practice is that of 'embedment'—encompassing the social, environmental, and spatial qualities of a work as medium—and an often humorous suggestion of the uncanny that gives his sculptures an arresting quality.

Plank Piece I and II

When Ray was attending the University of Iowa, he began incorporating his own body into his sculptural practice. Plank Piece I and II (1973) are two photographs that document his combination of sculpture and performance and the effects of gravity on his own limp form. In the first, a plank pins the artist to the wall at the backs of his knees; in the second, he hangs over the top of the plank from his mid-section, creating a sculpture that unifies materials and craftsman quite literally.

Family Romance

After experimenting with performance and Minimalism, Ray's first figurative sculptures appeared in the 1990s, produced to his specifications by mannequin makers in painted fibreglass with glass eyes. The artist became fascinated with shop mannequins when he worked at a department store during his time at university and began modifying their size and scale to alarming effect. Ray's sculpture Family romance (1993) highlights this disturbing quality, the title alone a cause for concern. It depicts a nude and anatomically correct nuclear family linking hands, the children enlarged so that all the figures are the same height at 4 ½ feet tall.

Huck and Jim

'Provocativeness' continues to define Ray's practice. In 2015, after being commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art to design a permanent sculpture for the public plaza outside of the new museum, the Whitney rejected the proposal for fear that it would 'offend non-museum going visitors.' The sculpture, Huck and Jim (2014), was taken from the Mark Twain classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), depicting the two titular characters in the nude classical tradition—the boy bent over, reaching for an unseen frog, and the man standing about nine feet behind him with his hand raised above his back. Cast in stainless steel and painted white in a later version, the figures are neither marble nor bronze, occupying a similarly ambiguous sexual and racial tension that was deemed inappropriate for a public space.

Awards and Accolades

Ray won the Artist's Fellowship at Rutgers University, New Jersey in 1978 and the New Jersey Council on the Arts Grant in 1980. In 1985, he won an Artist's Fellowship from the Canadian Art Council. In 1987, Ray was awarded the Art Matters, Inc. Grant and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Grant. 1988 saw him win the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and in 1997, the artist won the Larry Aldrich Foundation Award.


Charles Ray has been the subject of both solo exhibition and group exhibitions.

Solo exhibitions include Charles Ray: four patterns, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid (2019); two ghosts, Matthew Marks Gallery, Los Angeles (2019); three rooms and the repair annex, Matthew Marks Gallery, New York (2018); First Installation, Glenstone, Potomac, Maryland (2018); Mountain Lion Attacking a Dog, American Academy in Rome (2017).

Group exhibitions include Drawn Together Again, the FLAG Art Foundation, New York (2019); The Foundation of the Museum: MOCA's Collection, the Geffen Contemporary at Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2019); Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now), Met Breuer, New York (2018); Walking On The Fade Out Lines, Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai (2018); Dancing with Myself, Francois Pinault Collection: Punta della Dogana, Venice


Ray's website can be found here.

Annie Curtis | Ocula | 2022

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