The Jewish Museum’s current exhibit The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend celebrates, as the guest curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport puts it in the introduction to the catalogue, Louise Nevelson’s “singular ability to endow formal abstraction with a life story—her own.” Rapaport sees Nevelson’s Mrs. N’s Palace (above) as “conceptually and retrospectively review[ing] the artist’s life of object making.” In this exhibit and catalogue, The Jewish Museum allows us to enter Louise Nevelson’s palace of self-revealing sculpture and learn more about this groundbreaking female, Jewish sculptor.
Louise Nevelson, Sky Cathedral Presence, 1951-64; Wood, paint, 122 1/4 x 200 x 23 7/8 inches; Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Gift of Judy and Kenneth Dayton, 1969
Louise Berliawsky Nevelson’s sculpture and her life are inseparable. Her “legendary sense of self,” as Rapaport calls it, compelled Nevelson to create almost entirely out of her own autobiography. As many of the photos in the catalogue prove, Nevelson even came to see her own appearance as another work of art to further her artistic persona. “Nevelson was a walking sculpture, though more flamboyant than any wood object she ever created,” Rapaport reports. (Look at photos of Nevelson and just try not to think of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.) In the 1970s, she rivaled even Andy Warhol as an outsized presence in the big-time art scene. As Michael Stanislawski points out in his essay in the catalogue, titled “Louise Nevelson’s Self-Fashioning: ‘The Author of Her Own Life,’” this persona was “high controlled and controlling,” to the point that even the artist began to believe her own version of “the truth.” Stanislawski sees at the heart of that self-fashioning Nevelson’s coming to believe “that from the earliest age she knew that she was not only exceptional, but an artist.”
Nevelson’s long road to artistic fame began in 1899 in the Ukraine. Her family immigrated to the United States and settled in New England. After marrying Charles Nevelson in 1920, Louise began to study art in New York, against her husband’s family’s wishes. When their marriage fell apart in 1931, Louise traveled to Munich to study Cubism with Hans Hoffman. “The Cubist movement was one of the greatest awarenesses that the human mind has ever come to,” she later said. Nevelson’s love of Cubist technique lasted throughout her entire career. In works such as Sky Cathedral Presence (above) we see the Cubist pursuit of simultaneously represented multiple planes of perspective at work. Nevelson took found pieces of wood, painted them uniformly black, and assembled them in unique patterns that bordered on the organic, arriving at magnificent wholes that transcended the disparate parts. By following this pattern of sculpture, Nevelson developed a signature style that allowed her to be both consistent and diverse.
Louise Nevelson, Dawn’s Wedding Chapel IV, from Dawn’s Wedding Feast, 1959-60; Painted wood, 109 x 87 x 13 ½ inches; Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York
To reflect her own struggle with her failed marriage and the larger feminist issues involved, Nevelson created pieces such as Dawn’s Wedding Chapel IV (above) from the larger piece Dawn’s Wedding Feast. Here, Nevelson delves into her own autobiography to tell not only her story but that of all women of her generation. However, as Rapaport stresses, “Rather than focusing on a role such as ‘woman artist’ [Nevelson] chose to focus on the work itself, where her selfhood could be best expressed.” Nevelson avoids all labels in her single-minded pursuit of individuality. Arthur C. Danto examines Nevelson’s use of color in the catalogue in his essay, “Black, White, Gold: Monochrome and Meaning in the Art of Louise Nevelson.” Danto sees the early use of black as “neutraliz[ing] the question of color, just as it neutralizes the question of the material… as a way to nullify color in pursuit of something more important.” Conversely, the use of white, as in works such Dawn’s Wedding Chapel IV, is not neutralizing but “declarative… proclaiming a new stage in her work and in her career.” White becomes Nevelson’s declaration of independence from traditional women’s roles and a celebration of a new dawn of hope and possibility as an artist. Later, Nevelson would experiment with works colored entirely gold, which Rapaport sees as “representing royalty and riches” in the period of Nevelson’s long-overdue recognition, but which Danto sees as “tak[ing] the idea of alchemy [i.e., neutralizing color to transcend materials] perhaps too literally.”
Louise Nevelson, Homage to 6,000,000 I, 1964; Painted wood, 91 3/8 x 225 5/8 x 11 13/16 in.; Osaka City Museum of Modern Art, Japan
Nevelson only won larger recognition as an artist in the 1950s and 1960s. She gained much of this larger recognition by her larger pieces of sculpture, which surrounded and overwhelmed the viewer. Many of these large pieces were set directly on the floor, placing the viewer on the same visual plane as the work. Nevelson’s “environments” forced others literally to enter her world. Although not herself a traditionally observant Jew, Nevelson entered the Jewish aspect of her world in Homage to 6,000,000 I (above), her memorial to the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Nevelson created works for Christian churches as well, later saying that “religion, if you feel it, belongs to the world. My sculpture in the Vatican, why not?” Related to these public religious works, Harriet Senie’s essay examines Nevelson’s involvement in the public art field, hailing her as “one of the first artists and the only woman to emerge as a central figure in the public art revival of the late 1960s” in the United States. Unfortunately, Nevelson’s outdoor sculptures, such as Atmosphere and Environment II (below), failed to win the same approval as her indoor works, perhaps due to the personal, rather than public, nature of her art. Nevelson’s enveloping environments feel dwarfed by the great outdoors. (I’m only seen a few of Nevelson’s Bicentennial public sculptures, including Bicentennial Dawn here in Philadelphia, and have often felt that they seemed small and out of place in the concrete jungle. Of course, I feel that way about most modern public art in Philadelphia.)
Louise Nevelson, Atmosphere and Environment II, 1966; Aluminum, black epoxy, enamel, 94 ½ x 50 x 26 in.; Rosalind Avnet Lazarus
In discussing the alchemical powers of Nevelson’s use of monochromatic color , Danto evokes Hegel’s term aufheben, which Danto says “has in fact three meanings—something is preserved, or something is negated, or something is transcended.” This trinity of preservation, negation, and transcendence permeates Nevelson’s sculpture. But, despite the neutralizing or transcending aspects of her work, the human presence unmistakably remains. As Nevelson herself once said, “The nature of creation is that you have to go inside and dig out. The very nature of creation is not a performing glory on the outside, it’s a painful, difficult search within.” In The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend, we glimpse the pain and the joy behind one woman’s works of art as well as the work of art that she made of her life itself.
[Many thanks to The Jewish Museum for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to the exhibit The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Construction a Legend as well as the images from the exhibit.]