Louise Nevelson at The Jewish Museum

Upon opening the catalog for The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend, an exhibition at the Jewish Museum, you’re immediately confronted with a photo of the artist in early middle age, her features retouched to emphasize the lines in her face. She looks to the viewer unsmiling and with unflinching self-possession.

Five 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.

Unlike Gloria Swanson’s faded-movie-queen character, Nevelson (1899-1988) was acutely 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 Pharaonic Grande Dame of Sculpture. Nevelson was, in her own way, as P.R.-savvy as Salvador Dalí or Liberace.

She wasn’t the first artist to mythologize a life, but her flair for it is indisputable. The playwright Edward Albee admired Nevelson’s cagey relationship with fact. Arnold Glimcher, her dealer and confidante, described her life as “an intricate pattern of fantasy synthesized with reality.”

“My life had a blueprint from the beginning,” Nevelson declared. “ … I was only following [it].” This oft-stated belief in artistic predetermination did not come without challenges. After a disillusioning foray in psychoanalysis, Nevelson admitted to the difficulties of “self-fashioning”: “Creation is not a performing glory on the outside, it’s a painful, difficult search within.”

Biography, however fascinating or manufactured, can illuminate aspects of an artist’s accomplishment. Still, it shouldn’t serve as a crutch or a springboard. Brooke Kamin Rapaport, guest curator for the Jewish Museum’s exhibition, seeks to place Nevelson the “outsized presence” on an even keel with Nevelson the artist, but the show she’s organized pretty much sticks to sculptural fact. It’s a quick and surprisingly thorough overview.

Nevelson, at least as seen here, never wavered. The work begins at Point A and pushes forward with steady assurance. Her fascination with archetypes—with the primitivism without which the art of mid-century Manhattan is unimaginable—endures until the end. The totem became the literal building block of Nevelson’s long career.

Picasso’s influence was essential. Nevelson wondered what her sculpture would be without it: “Suppose I had made these without Picasso. No one would look at them. They wouldn’t have any meaning.”

Yet Nevelson isn’t quite the Cubist—her sculpture is more indebted to Dada and its cousin Surrealism, really. Her discovery of non-art materials as a viable means of artistic expression was a significant turning point. And the work’s otherworldly vibe taps into the slippery currents of the unconscious. She also owes her architectural bent to Constructivism, and her monolithic scale and pressing ambitions to Abstract Expressionism. Still, these modernist influences glance decisively off Nevelson’s work without quite sticking, a mercurial achievement that was perhaps a source of pride to her.

Early on in the exhibition are seven terra-cotta sculptures made during the mid-1940’s—dated and cornball pieces. Nevelson soon found a more compelling way to give shape to her primordial yearnings. With Black Box (Seeing Through) (circa 1950) and the whimsical Night Presence VI (1955), assemblages made from lumber-yard scraps and furniture castoffs, you can almost hear Nevelson cry “Eureka!” She’d hit upon her métier: the found object.

Banister fragments, table legs, crates, armrests, bent nails and toilet seats—Nevelson stacked and packed them within shelved structures that would at times assume architectonic scale. She sprayed a matte black paint on her bits and pieces in an attempt to undo their specificity; their previous function was, if not negated, then qualified. A picture molding, say, became less a recognizable object and more of a freestanding shape.

Nevelson considered black “the most aristocratic color of all.” It provided, she said, “the feeling of totality. Of peace. Of greatness.” Certainly she was aware of black’s symbolic and emotional possibilities, as well as the clichés surrounding them.

But if black had any allusive intent for Nevelson, the rectilinear columns of Dawn’s Wedding Feast (1959)—pieces that have been painted white—would be radically different in temper and effect. They’re not; the eerie and imperial quietude remains intact. Black was a formal device, not a signifier.

The allusive power of the work resides in the fitting together and arranging of the bric-a-brac. Even then, it’s the stubborn presence of the totem, rather than any spiritual or cultural thrust, that was Nevelson’s goal.

Playing horizontals off verticals, volume against plane, her edifices are imposing even on a small scale. Compression and containment within Nevelson’s crated modules emphasize the rhythms, rhymes, quirky tangents and hieratic rigor of the artifacts. They save the work from being merely gloomy decoration.

When Nevelson turned her attention to building her “walls,” she lost this urgency. The gridded 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 greater complexity, but in 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 mori; 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 dénouement.

© 2007 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 8, 2007 edition of The New York Observer.

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