Louise Nevelson, Untitled (1968)
Photo by: Bill Jacobson / Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York

The sculptor Louise Nevelson was the idol of art’s own silent screen, the creator of evocative, cinematic work who also lived like the sirens of early film. An excellent selection of nearly twenty of her large wall sculptures from the 1950s through the 1980s is now on view at Pace Wildenstein in Chelsea.[1]

Nevelson used the syntax of Constructivism to plumb the depths of Romanticism and Symbolism. Hilton Kramer rightly praised her work as a “realm of enchantment.” Now Pace further reminds us how Nevelson refined allusion and mystery to make her own powerful contributions to twentieth-century modernism.

She was born Louise Berliawsky in Kiev, Russia in 1899, the daughter of Jewish parents. At four she moved to the United States and grew up in Rockland, Maine. Her father worked in the timber business; her mother dressed like a Park Avenue grande dame; Louise, meanwhile, developed a persona best suited for her sense of artistic destiny. “I’ve always had to overcompensate for my opinion of myself,” she said. “I had to run like hell to catch up with what I thought of myself.” Her grandiose pronouncements went hand-in-hand with her particular artistic achievement.

“I knew I was a creative person from the first minute I opened my eyes,” she claimed. “I knew it, and they treated me like an artist all of my early life. And I knew I was coming to New York when I was a baby.” She maintained the aura of a successful artist even before she was one. In her life and demeanor she rejected down-and-out bohemianism in favor of celluloid glamor. In 1920 she came to New York and married a shipping magnate named Charles Nevelson. “My husband’s family was terribly refined,” she complained. “Within their circle you could know Beethoven, but God forbid if you were Beethoven.” She had a son two years later. In 1931 she divorced, refusing to accept the complications of marriage. “I learned that marriage wasn’t the romance that I sought but a partnership, and I didn’t need a partner.” For many years she managed to live well, but also as an art world outsider. Over time she filled her palazzo-like homes with her large sculptures—first at a Murray Hill townhouse in Manhattan, and later spread through multiple buildings on Spring Street in Soho. She even discarded her home furnishings and other distractions to focus on making art.

She spent a quarter-century in the artistic wilderness. In the early 1930s, she went off to Munich to study with Hans Hofmann. She worked as an extra in films in Berlin and Vienna. She then became an assistant to Diego Rivera, whose sense of scale and technique of storytelling through sequential frames would make a lasting impression on her art. She also developed a lifelong fascination with modern dance and drew from Martha Graham a sensibility for movement: “Dance made me realize that air is a solid through which I pass, not a void in which I exist.”

Nevelson did not emerge onto the public stage until 1958, when the Museum of Modern Art acquired and exhibited Sky Cathedral, a wall-sized object of open wooden boxes containing recovered bits of architectural molding, dowels, and spindles, all painted a uniform black. Sky Cathedral, constructed on a system of box frames she had developed a year before, brought Abstract Expressionist scale and Cubist space into sculptural high relief. It also represented but a fraction of the work lining the walls of her home. Nevelson always exhibited the confidence of someone who was expecting the artistic spotlight. She was fifty-nine years old when it started shining on her.

It wasn’t long before Nevelson became a public eminence in the mode of Salvador Dalí and Andy Warhol. She wore gypsy bandanas and jockey helmets, sporting inch-long eyelashes and a riot of Incan and Persian jewelry. “I am what you call an atmospheric dresser. When I meet someone, I want people to enjoy something, not just an old hag,” she said. She smoked cigars. She appeared on magazine covers wrapped in furs. She rolled off one-liners and maintained the absolute position of her own artistic greatness. “In Maine, and at the Art Students League in New York, and then in Munich with Hofmann, they all give me 100 plus,” she said, often referring to herself as the builder of an artistic empire. “I am not very modest,” she admitted. She remained prolific up to her death in 1988. In the 1970s and 1980s, particularly after Alexander Calder’s death in 1976, she began receiving numerous commissions for public sculpture.

Most of us, regrettably, now first encounter Nevelson’s work through this public art. She was never at her best sculpting monumental stand-alone objects, nor does her work show well outdoors. “The very basis of Nevelson’s environments is enveloping rather than object-delineated,” wrote Arnold Glimcher. Gather her wooden sculptures in the right room, however, and the experience is altogether different. For the exhibition, Pace Wildenstein smartly displays some of Nevelson’s sculptures on blackened walls. Upon entering the show, I felt like the writer Joe Gillis when he meets Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. “You used to be in pictures. You used to be big,” says Gillis. “I am big,” replies Desmond. “It’s the pictures that got small.”

Nevelson’s own larger-than-life persona would be of little interest were it not so tied to her sculptural practice. Her theatricality helps define her use of form. Hilton Kramer, in his introduction to a 1983 Nevelson catalogue, recalls a studio visit he made to her Murray Hill townhouse in the 1950s: “the most extraordinary of all my encounters with artists and works of art.”

Here one entered a world of shadows, and it required a certain adjustment in one’s vision simply to see even a part of what there was to see… . It was also, as one came afterward to realize, intensely theatrical. Emerging from that house on this first occasion, I felt very much as I had felt as a child emerging from a Saturday-afternoon movie. The feeling of shock and surprise upon discovering that the daylight world was still there, going about its business in the usual way, was similarly acute.

Nevelson arrived at a sculptural form that conveyed the darkness of the movie house by way of Richard Wagner’s “total work of art.” “Theater, dance, music, films—the whole world of theatricality had long been one of Nevelson’s passionate interests,” Kramer remarked. Nevelson never drew formal boundaries between the arts. Everything became absorbed into her sense of overall creativity. Like the movies, which are a vulgar descendant of Wagnerian opera, Nevelson’s dark, musical work has more in common with advanced nineteenth-century art than the distilled classicism of twentieth-century high modernism.

Nevelson’s lush persona seemed far removed from the existential angst of the Abstract Expressionists at mid-century and the chilly serialism of the Minimalists a decade and a half later, even as her career took her through both worlds. In assembling her sculpture from wooden cast-offs, Nevelson became a spiritual actor. Her creative process had as much to do with nineteenth-century occult practices as twentieth-century formal concerns: “I feel that what people call by the word scavenger is really a resurrection. When you do things this way, you’re really bringing them to life. You know that you nursed them and you enhance them, you tap them and you hammer them, and you know you have given them an ultimate life, a spiritual life that surpasses the life they were created for.”

At Pace, the division of staked crates that make up Untitled (1964), turned open on their side, forms the frames of a larger moving image. Taken alone, each box displays an inanimate still life: table legs, pieces of shoes, all perfectly blackened and plunged in a bath of darkness. When read sequentially, though, the box frames become animated. The objects and the black spaces between them start to dance, one box to the next.

Nevelson refined this animating practice in her work in the 1970s, when she ceased relying on found-object crates and began contracting out for more uniform boxes. The result was an orderly constructivist grid, one that reflected the art world’s new measure of Minimalism but without a loss of animated action. For End of Day Nightscape (1973), the best work in the show, Nevelson further divided her grids into smaller and smaller units to arrive at a result so overwhelming it seems to become that total work of art, no longer the product of a single artist. The sculpture can be read differently at multiple distances. From up close it looks like the topography of a city; from farther away, one hears the tones of a contrapuntal fantasia. “The eye is fed such a rich diet that it can never quite take everything in at once,” Kramer remarked in a review of Nevelson’s work in 1976. The divisions have to be “read as a series of sequences, and as we give ourselves over to it, we are enclosed in its magic spell.”

Cascade VII (1979) zooms in on the action, with multiple lines of hinged box doors that open and close as you read down. Cascade VIII (1979) is a perfect open grid of six-by-five boxes where sticks of wood further divide the space and reflect frame to frame. The “Mirror-Shadow” series from the mid-1980s explodes the grid, using it now as open armatures for free-floating objects in suspended space. Here one sees the box-like forms of earlier work mixed in with the allusive stand-alone elements of carved bed frames and musical instruments.

Nevelson’s handful of unpainted assemblages of mixed media from the 1980s at Pace, academic exercises in synthetic Cubist collage, come off as interesting counter-examples to her painted work but in the end fail as experiments in colorization. A few stand-alone sculptures from the same period, which resemble oversized golf bags containing loose strips of wood, also convey little of the evocative authority of her black wall sculptures. Nevelson is best in black and white with wall screens that are halfway between picture windows and stand-alone sculptures. Like much of her outdoor sculpture, the failed works at Pace risked variations that became too object-specific.

Louise Nevelson should be remembered for her artistic tenacity in lean times as well as her prolific output in flush. She understood the world in cinematic form, one that spoke in the silent stop-action of a flickering screen. “I feel in love with black; it contained all color,” Nevelson remarked in her best Norma Desmond imitation. “It wasn’t a negation of color. It was an acceptance. Black is the most aristocratic color of all, the only aristocratic color. For me this is the ultimate. You can be quiet, and it contains the whole thing.” Fortunately for us, late in life, Nevelson was able to see herself become the star of her own spectacular in black and white.


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    • “Louise Nevelson: Dawns and Dusks” opened at Pace Wildenstein, New York, on February 13 and remains on view through March 14, 2009. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 27 Number 7, on page 47
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