Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Louise Nevelson

Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In

June 21, 2009
Division Street, Great Barrington, MA

It’s Sunday, so a sermon is in order. This was sent to me by Father Ralph Peterson, who I met at Olafur Eliasson’s event at Bard, and whose interest in art includes having brought the Louise Nevelson-designed chapel at St. Peter’s in NYC’s CitiCorp Building into being. These are excerpts from a sermon given by Canon John Simons at the installation of the Rt. Reverend Dennis Drainville as the Twelfth Bishop of Anglican Diocese of Quebec. Although it’s been unfashionable of late to think that art should be anything more than information or even to make value judgments (I’ve been accused of wanting art to be “good for its audience,” as if that were silly, when the alternative is to waste time on the stupid or mediocre) I like the expectation put forth here, that it “enlarge the boundaries of the self.” BTW I believe in any and all religions, and none.

Human beings are by nature spiritual beings, created by God to receive the Holy Spirit. The evidence of this receptivity is that we cannot be human unless we live ecstatically. In other words, each of us lives by participating in a larger reality than our particular location and perspective, than our particular consciousness, and, conversely, each of us, enriched by that larger world, adds his and her unique sensibility to it.....

Our spiritual potential is given a particular inflection in everyday life through music and literature. We all know what it is like to be moved by a poem or a novel, or any other work of art, for that matter. An aesthetic work enables its audience to enter and explore a different way of seeing something, a different way of feeling about the world, or, a way of feeling that is already ours, but which we may have repressed. To appreciate a literary work, for example, is not simply to be informed about the author’s point of view. It is to feel the sense of things expressed in the work.

You enter into the characters, so that it seems as if it were your own heart beating beneath their clothing. Hence literature, music and art do not isolate us in egocentric desire or self-pity; rather, they invite us to actualize our capacity to love, that is, to abandon our self-preoccupation, to stand outside ourselves and within the world as experienced by others. This is what love does, and what art fosters. It enlarges the boundaries of the self.
November 7, 2007
Writing articles about Marisol and Louise Nevelson (as I have recently for Art in America--although when they’ll be published is anyone’s guess), both of whom based their work on scavenged materials, made me realize that one of the things that made art in New York so rich during the sixties, seventies and eighties was that the artists lived in the industrial neighborhoods of SoHo and Tribeca, where tons of free stuff—the refuse of manufacturing concerns—was available on the street every night. Artists use what is at hand, and with that in mind I turned to what’s most plentiful in my life at the moment—spam. My friend, Carol Gingles, was the one who came up with the idea of writing poems with spam, so now, instead of opening Outlook with a sense of dread, I think, “Oh boy, maybe I have some spam! I hope it has the word ‘penis’ in it.”

For those who missed the open mic in Housatonic last night, here is my first effort:

Market investor alert
Home based business opportunity
Users to create
Interpersonal divide

I was looking for you
We will lead you to your new sexual life
Sex can
End the annoying obesity now
Quick, grab this
The students he’s seen
Use such tools
All with the goal of
Credit points

I may be mad but I’m not mistaken
Don’t miss out on your chance to become
A real penis
And go across campus
Explaining constructions to a living pig
Most appropriate
Quality replicas
Give her a satisfying smile every time you fuck
August 26, 2007
In a comment on my previous post, I was asked why I bothered with what Mario Naves thought and I’m betting that anonymous commentator was a guy. Because women understand that as one woman is portrayed, we all are. Naves’s comment about Nevelson not smiling for her portrait still bugs me. It makes me think of all the times I've walked down the street and been ordered by some jerk to smile. And then there was the guy, just the other day, who shouted out that I was wearing “the wrong clothes” because I was wearing black on a warm day. Meanwhile he had his shirt off with his belly hanging out over his shorts.

One of my lessons came from “the other Louise”—Louise Bourgeois (people actually called them that—can you imagine Richard Artschwager and Richard Tuttle being known as “the two Richards”?) who I was working with on a story for Art & Antiques just as they were changing owners and editors. While doing the Bourgeois article, another piece I’d written about my artist great-grandmother, Daisy Challiss Faust, was about to be published. A critic friend warned me early on in my writing career to be careful about the contributor’s credits that appear in the front of magazines, that they’re often handed off to just anyone who may not know what they’re doing. So I insisted on vetting the credit and when I called in, the intern (a woman, by the way) who’d written it read it to me, down to the last two sentences which went: “Diehl has recently gotten a grant to do some painting of her own. Will it be in the style of her great-grandmother?”

I thought wow, here it is 1994 and I’m still fighting the same belittling attitudes my great-grandmother faced nearly a century ago. I had to have a rather big fit to get the credit pulled from the magazine but I prevailed. That night, when I saw Louise at a dinner, I told her the story and added how grateful I was for the role model she provided in standing up for herself. “It’s not about promoting our art but defending it,” she said, pounding her fist on the table, “We must defend our art!”
August 21, 2007
I finished writing my Louise Nevelson article and it’s as if I’ve just recovered from a disease, although not necessarily an unpleasant one. When I write about artists in depth I read and think about them so intensely that they become part of my life, part of me. Especially if I’ve done an interview and then listen to the tapes, after which their voices drone on in my head. Robert Irwin was once stuck there for a year, and it was pretty hard to take. This time, with Louise, I felt as if she entered my DNA—but then she would; we all know she wasn’t shy. Also there was, I discovered, a strange synchronicity to the chronology of our lives: we have the same birthday, we both married at 19 and led lives as suburban housewives for 11 years until separating from our husbands, and started the serious study of art late, at the age of 30.

Perhaps because I now identify with Nevelson—but more so because I’ve gained so much artistically from knowledge of her work—I was annoyed when, in my research, I read Mario Naves’s review (The New York Observer, May 14th) of the her Jewish Museum retrospective (on view until September 16th) which begins:

Upon opening the catalog for The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a're immediately confronted with a photo of the artist in early middle age, her features retouched to emphasize the lines in her face.

This is quite a stretch to make a case for image-building. When I contacted the museum, I learned the photograph was retouched, but by whom and for what reason is not known, and whether or not it emphasizes the lines in Nevelson’s face is a matter of opinion. It’s possible, they say, that the retouching could have been done to add shadow and contrast to areas that were washed out by the lighting. There’s no date on the photo, but in it Nevelson appears to be in her middle-forties and the style of make-up would also indicate that it was taken in the 1940s, at least twenty years before she became a public figure. Naves says:

She looks to the viewer unsmiling and with unflinching self-possession.

Oooh self-possession! Bad. Do we complain or even comment that Picasso was self-possessed and didn't make cute for the camera? And that Mondrian! Always so fucking serious!

Naves goes on:

More portraits follow in chronological order, bearing witness to Nevelson’s transformation from working artist, dressed in a white wool sweater and cap, to a creature with (to put it mildly) a distinct sense of fashion. In the last photograph, Robert Mapplethorpe’s portrait of the 87-year-old Nevelson, she’s as haughty and garish as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

Naves makes it seem as if Nevelson was unwittingly making herself ridiculous, where if you compare the film still of Norma Desmond here with the Mapplethorpe here, it seems more likely that the similarlity was intended, and that Mapplethorpe and Nevelson were having fun riffing on a classic image.

Naves backtracks just a bit by saying:

Unlike Gloria Swanson’s faded-movie queen character, Nevelson (1899-1988) was very much self-aware. She knew that cultivating an image, however contrived or flamboyant, would earn her recognition. Her regal bearing, bandanas, dramatic gestures and spidery false eyelashes created an identifiable persona: the Pharonic Grande Dame of Sculpture. Nevelson was, in her own way, as P.R.-savvy as Salvador Dali or Liberace.

So being "very much self-aware" is all that separates Nevelson from Norma Desmond? How about that Norma Desmond was pathetic, desperate and needy, a woman who gave a party to which no one came, while Nevelson was celebrated, in her power? Everyone wanted to be at her party. At the time of the Mapplethorpe photo, Nevelson was the epitome of a satisfied, fully-realized woman. And garish? Whatever degree of garish she was, it landed her on the Best-Dressed List. And then the times, the seventies and eighties, were pretty garish all around. I wonder what Mario Naves was wearing back then, when he was in his teens and twenties. Button-downs and Oxfords? It was an era when people, especially artists, used style to express themselves, unlike today when art is big business and everyone’s cowed into Prada.

Okay, on to the idea that Nevelson’s look was a P.R. ploy. If it was such a great scheme, then how come it took so long—like 20 to 30 years—to take effect? Those who have done their homework, who’ve read Laurie Lisle’s wonderful biography Louise Nevelson: A Passionate Life know that Nevelson’s style was with her from the beginning, a source of discomfort for her husband in her pre-art years. Lisle writes: “While Charles dressed conservatively, Louise liked to create flamboyant outfits for herself, like a dress decorated with a dickie made from a wedding napkin. He often insisted she return purchased outfits that he disliked, and he began to be embarrassed to walk down the street with her.”

Imagined conversation:

Charles: Oh my God, Louise, are you going to go out looking like that?

Louise: Don’t worry, Chuckie, I know what I’m doing. When I leave you I’m going to study art, and in 50 years I’ll be famous and this is the look that’s going to put me over.

Anyway, what’s wrong with wanting attention and going about it in an artful way? Nevelson was never anything but elegant. And being a tall, dark woman with excellent bearing and an acute awareness of her body allowed her to pull almost anything off. The day I went to interview her, a few months before she died at 89, she was wearing an impeccable man-tailored suit of crisp blue ikot fabric (a Japanese-ish cotten with a thread-dyed geometric pattern), what looked like men’s black patent leather wing-tip lace-up shoes, and a fabulous fur coat. Then and there I decided that older women who go the fluffy, ultra-feminine route look like men in drag, and that when I’m eighty I’m going to have men’s suits made for me, just like Louise.

But back to Naves:

The girded accumulations of individual components are artful rather than lively. Overall, they’re rather boring. Butting a dozen or so boxes up against or on top of each other results not in great complexity, but homogeneity.

The artist, Willie Cole, seen in a video at the end of the exhibition, speaks of Nevelson’s art in terms of “embalming.” Inadvertently, but with devastating precision, Mr. Cole hits the black and rusty nail on the head. Nevelson’s pieces aren’t
memento mort, they’re just dead.

Their handsomeness is derived from their inertia. Nowhere is this clearer than
Mrs. N’s Palace (1964-77), a shack-like enclosure that’s less Temple of Dendur than house of horrors. Nevelson’s gift for juxtaposition is undone by her theatricality. Here she replaces stoic spectacle with outright hokum. It’s funereal bombast with mood lighting—a sad and all-but-laughable achievement.

Not for nothing is Nevelson hailed as a progenitor of a numb-to-its core movement like minimalism, or the didactic excesses of most installation art. Nevelson’s sculpture ultimately privileges the artist’s prerogatives over art’s vitality. We’re left with monuments of personality rather than homages to life. The latter can be picked out here and there, and to impressive effect. Don’t fool yourself, though. Nevelson the Legend wins out over Nevelson the Artist. It’s a disheartening denouement.

I agree with Naves about Mrs. N’s Palace, although I find the use of the word “shack,” which implies something crude, in disrepair, or hastily thrown-together, inappropriate. I try not, however, to evaluate artists on the basis of their least successful work (instead of the "homages to life...that can be picked out here and there, and to impressive effect") and wonder why he didn’t mention the other room-size piece, Dawn’s Wedding Feast, which happens to be white. And there’s a contradiction here—Naves admits Nevelson is “hailed as a progenitor” yet insists she made her reputation on the basis of her persona.

Note to women artists: Don’t be too minimal; don’t be too theatrical. Don't let too much personality show in your work. Make sure that you smile a lot, act conservatively, dress conservatively, and, above all, don’t be old. I guess Nevelson should have gotten Scaasi, her favorite couturier, to design her a burka.

August 10, 2007
Continuing the insect theme (see Insex, below), these photographs are from Mike Glier’s blog, Along a Long Line, from an entry that describes how Mike was out painting in the Arctic one day, worried about the possibility of polar bears emerging from the dense fog and ultimately finding that his biggest challenge was mosquitoes. So these aren’t just any old mosquitoes, but Arctic mosquitoes, if you can get your head around that. Pangnirtung, Canada, is the first stop in Mike’s huge plein air painting project that’s taking him to various sites around the globe, and his writing about his experiences there is as beautiful and evocative as his paintings and photographs. Meanwhile, today in the Berkshires was too cold and wet even for mosquitoes, so I curled up on the couch by the pellet stove to read Laurie Lisle’s excellent biography of Louise Nevelson and, as my most intrepid act, braved the raindrops to pick lettuce.

August 8, 2007
I'm writing an article on the Louise Nevelson retrospective at the Jewish Museum (up through September 16th), which is, as I might have mentioned, a jewel—not too many pieces, gorgeously and thoughtfully installed, not a lesson in process, but simply an effort to create an atmosphere and to show the work at its best. I interviewed Nevelson a few months before she died in 1988, for an article for Art & Antiques (when Jeff Shaire was editor and it was a good magazine) about how four artists—Nevelson, Nam June Paik, James Rosenquist and George Segal—found their artistic voices. Initially I’d intended to include Helen Frankenthaler, but she was such a pill during the interview and photo shoot that all of us—me, the photo editor, and Duane Michals, the photographer (who she kept waiting for 45 minutes while she primped)—agreed she didn’t deserve a spot in the magazine.

Nevelson was willing, and I admit to being a bit nervous about the interview—especially after the Frankenthaler debacle—and Nevelson from afar was a forceful and intimidating character. While Duane was setting up his equipment in her house, which was spooky, like a great big Nevelson installation, we chatted—she told me we had plenty of time, until 6:00 when the “Alexander man” came. I asked if she was studying the Alexander Technique (a hands-on method, popular with dancers and actors, that focuses on the best use of the body), and it turned out we were both studying with the same teacher, Tom Lemens. After that we were like two buddies, and at the end she told me that the only regret she had in her life was that she hadn’t been able to achieve a long-lasting and satisfying relationship with a man. Nevelson asked who else I was writing about and when I mentioned George Segal, she said, “Such a nice man. But that wife of his, she scares me.” George and Helen Segal were friends of mine, and I remember, when I first met her, being frightened by Helen’s abrupt attitude as well. A few days later I ran into them at an opening and told Helen, “Louise Nevelson says you scare her.” Helen said, “Good.”