Guests remember how, at a 1975 dinner given by the Israel Museum in honor of Louise Nevelson, the sculptor stood up and said, "First of all, I want to thank . . . myself."1 No one was more aware of the extent of her contribution to contemporary art, nor knew better the lifelong effort it took, than she. It was sheer force of personality—a powerful combination of talent, perseverance and
guts—that enabled Nevelson to will her art onto a reluctant world.
When Nevelson began exhibiting her work in 1941 the times were not ready for her and whatever critical acclaim came her way was rendered almost consolatory by her gender. An unnamed critic in Cue magazine wrote of her first exhibition: "We learned the artist was a woman in time to check our enthusiasm. Had it been otherwise, we might have hailed these sculptural expressions as by surely a great figure among moderns." Nevelson's breakthrough moment occurred in 1959 when curator Dorothy Miller invited her, at the age of 60, to be in the "16 Americans" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, a show remembered as a landmark for its influence in ending the stranglehold Abstract Expressionism then had on American art. It established the careers of many artists, including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella (then 23), although Nevelson was the only one given an entire room. By the time Nevelson died in 1988 at the age of 89, her public work dotted the American landscape, and, honored by presidents and universities, she was hailed as a national treasure. Even so, with no major museum exhibitions devoted entirely to her work in the years since her death, it's possible that an entire generation has grown up only dimly aware of Nevelson's achievements and the extent of her influence.
It could be that by the time she died everyone was simply Nevelson-ed out. Unlike her earlier accumulations of found objects, whose appeal was their gritty elegance, Nevelson's ubiquitous fabricated public sculptures were sleek and calculated, and her bigger-than-life, flamboyant persona had begun to overshadow the work. Now, with the passing of time and the artist no longer looking over our shoulders, a serious critical assessment is finally feasible, and this exhibition, which originated at the Jewish Museum in New York and is currently at the de Young Museum in San Francisco (through Jan. 13), is the best possible way to be introduced—or reintroduced—to her work. While too many curators of many museum surveys insist on making sure each phase of an artist's life is equally represented, placing the work in rigorous chronological order, guest curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport and the designers, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, resisted turning the exhibition into a didactic lesson in the artist's development. Instead the emphasis was on selecting the best work available and placing it, not in the order of its making, but in juxtapositions that show it off to its greatest esthetic advantage. The result is a seamless integration of 66 examples of sculpture and drawings into what feels more like a single piece of installation art than a retrospective—which would have pleased Nevelson, who called herself, "the grandmother of environments."
The earliest sculpture that viewers encounter in the show (which covers sculptural work from 1940 to 1988, and works on paper from 1928 to 1981) is a bronze self-portrait. Only 13 inches high, it demonstrates Nevelson's interest in Cubism, to which she was introduced by her teacher, Hans Hofmann. ("When I found Cubism," she said, "it was like when some people find God, and I have never left it.") This bronze also exemplifies the contradictory qualities of hubris and humility that permeate her work. While the brawny figure has blocky, powerful limbs, with arms held out, biceps flexed and fists clenched like a boxer celebrating a knockout, the head is disproportionately tiny, and the figure is kneeling—a sign of deference, or perhaps, supplication.
The human body, its scale, and the way it moves through space was Nevelson's constant preoccupation, reflected in her lifelong study of dance and movement. "I felt a body discipline was essential to harmonious creation," she said, and even in the last few months of her life she was studying the Alexander Technique, a method of bodily alignment by which a teacher guides students in achieving optimum movement, balance and coordination. Nevelson was greatly impressed by the sets and costumes artists designed for Martha Graham, and these creations contributed to her concept of sculpture as a "surround" for the body. One of her earliest exhibitions featured moveable parts that viewers were invited to rearrange experimentally in space. "Dance," she said, "made me realize that air is a solid through which I pass, not a void in which I exist."
Perhaps it was that understanding which enabled Nevelson to move from direct interpretations of the body (as exemplified by the terra cotta series titled "Moving-Static-Moving Figure," 1945) to abstract work that was conceived with its spatial relationship to the body in mind: the signature accumulations of found wooden objects she began to develop in the '50s.
Nevelson was born in Kiev to a father who came from a long line of woodcutters. Unlike most Jews who fled Eastern Europe at the time, however, he immigrated not to a city but to the forested state of Maine, where Nevelson felt she acquired her sense of what she called the "livingness" of wood. Although with time her father was able to make a comfortable income to support his family, Nevelson's early years were characterized by poverty, as he made ends meet by scavenging and selling discarded items from the local dump. It's interesting to note that his means of survival ultimately became a component of his daughter's as well.
The variety in size and shape of the cast-off scraps and remnants Nevelson collected for most of her life found unity and order when she placed them in groupings or gridded boxes and painted them monochromatically. Although later in her career she employed other colors (as well as other materials when she became involved with public sculpture) Nevelson will always be associated with black, a color she valued less for its symbolic associations than for its transformative nature. Paint anything black, she used to say, and it becomes aristocratic, sophisticated, elegant. This monochrome treatment gives the form of an object dominance over its utilitarian aspects. A spool, for instance, no longer brings to mind thread and sewing but instead becomes simply a cylinder that's bigger at the top and bottom. Similarly, the turned banister balustrades in Nevelson's Sky Cathedral/Southern Mountain (1959) contribute an impression of Gothic ornament rather than anything to do with stairways. Disparate items placed together and covered with black also cast shadows whose shapes are as distinct as the objects themselves and whose depths seem unlimited—places of "in-between," as Nevelson called them, the "dawns and dusks."
As idiosyncratic as Nevelson's art is, it can also be seen as a co-creation with the viewer, a quality it shares today with the work of Robert Irwin and Olafur Eliasson, among others. When many elements are packed together, the impact of each is diminished, and we're left with an "overall" composition, although the eye is rapidly drawn from one thing to the next, so that it's almost impossible to take everything in at once. The three-dimensionality of Nevelson's work, plus her use of familiar, everyday objects, further increase the effect. What catches one person's eye is not necessarily what will catch another's, nor is the pattern that seems so evident today going be the same one you see tomorrow, with the result that the sculpture never devolves into a unitary "thing" to be completely grasped. As Arthur C. Danto wrote in his catalogue essay, "It is as if her works were three-dimensional drawings of realities created by the viewers themselves; they were prompts for the imagination."
After struggling for 30 years to live and make art, when Nevelson received Dorothy Miller's invitation to participate in "16 Americans," the artist, who had reached this point in her career on the basis of her black-painted sculptures, accepted by saying, "Dear, we'll do a white show. . . . Don't tell anybody, it will be a surprise." Nevelson's spontaneous reaction was surprising, since up to that point she had painted a few sculptures white but never exhibited them, and it is testimony to her courage and confidence that she took on the challenge of switching gears at this longed-for moment of recognition. As usual, there were no maquettes or drawings; Nevelson assembled all 15 elements of her contribution to the show in a special "white" studio, and relied on her intuition when it came time to install them—in the largest gallery of the exhibition, a procedure that took all of four hours.
Titled Dawn's Wedding Feast, the finished work includes bride- and groomlike totems, a "chapel" that resembles the Gothic facade of Notre Dame Cathedral, a horizontal "case" (for a trousseau?) and a number of columns that rise up from the floor or hang down from the ceiling like stalagmites and stalactites. Painted white, Nevelson's familiar balustrades, finials, knobs, moldings, dowels, roughly sawn boards and decorative architectural scraps take on the lacy lightness of wedding finery, and the shadows are less pronounced, becoming like an etching that sets off the intricacy of the shapes without any suggestion of infinite depth. Nevelson saw Dawn's Wedding Feast as a single work and was disappointed when its sections had to be separated and sold to various collections; no doubt she would be delighted to know that they have been regrouped (and the lost or destroyed ones carefully reconstructed) for this current exhibition, so the piece appears just as it did when originally shown at MOMA.
After experimenting with white and, later, gold, of which two beautiful examples are included here (Royal Tide I, 1960, and Golden Gate, 1961-70), Nevelson turned again to black. Examples from this period are Homage to the 6,000,000 I, and the supremely elegant Concorde, both from 1964. She continued to make the black wooden sculptures up until she died (as witness the totemlike Mirror-Shadow VII,1988), and it is for these found-wood accumulations, with the rawness of their components still evident, that Nevelson is best known. Working with found material, one is never completely the master of one's fate; it's a collaboration with chance, and the material itself can be the source of inspiration. No one ever asked Joseph Cornell to make something from raw, untouched materials, and it's probably a good thing. When Nevelson veered off into Plexiglas and Cor-Ten steel, her images grew stiff and oversimplified as a result of the planning and forethought that outsourced fabrication requires. Her work of this period, a boom era for public sculpture, further suffered from her decision to have it fabricated by the Lippincott foundry, which tended to give everything it made—be it a work by Claes Oldenburg, Tony Smith or Nevelson—the same overly smooth, corporate-friendly surface.
Along with Dawn's Wedding Feast, the other room-sized installation in the exhibition is a walk-in work (or in this case, given the velvet rope cordoning it off, a "peer-in" work) titled Mrs. N's Palace (1964-77), a complete surround that resembles a building interior. While spectacular in its sheer ambition, it's not as engaging as her other wooden pieces because it's too easy to get caught up in its straightforward resemblance to a home, or even a mausoleum, complete with entrance, black mirror "floor" and rear "garden". While Nevelson's other work has a psychic weightlessness that defies its black color, the literalness of Mrs. N's Palace overwhelms its abstract elements.
However, as a metaphor, Mrs. N's Palace fits Nevelson perfectly. She was a queen who picked things up from the street to build her own monuments, gathering humble materials to make grand statements. And as eclectic as her materials might be Nevelson borrowed no less promiscuously from art and art history—introducing elements of Cubism, Surrealism, Dada, Abstract Expressionism, Arte Povera, Pop and Minimalism into her work. Nevertheless, in retrospect it's clear that she fits no niche but her own. "I have made my world," she said, "and it is a much better world than I ever saw outside."
1. This quote is provided by Carol and Arthur Goldberg, who attended the dinner in question. Other sources drawn upon for this article include the author's own recollections, an interview she conducted with the artist in 1989 and Laurie Lisle's biography, Louise Nevelson: A Passionat Life (New York, Summit Books, 1990).
"The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend" appeared at the Jewish Museum, New York [May 5-Sept. 16, 2007], before traveling to the de Young Museum, San Francisco [Oct. 27, 2007-Jan. 13, 2008.]
Author: Carol Diehl is an artist and writer and is a Contributing Editor for Art in America. She posts regularly on her blog: artvent.blogspot.com.