Louise Nevelson: Sculpture

at Richard Gray Gallery, through May 31

By Fred Camper

Most museums display 20th-century art in the one-work-per-artist manner, encouraging viewers to identify certain forms with certain artists: the hard-drinking Pollock prefers sprawling lines, the monastic Reinhardt goes for grids of black. But such an approach can reduce whole art movements to accretions of personalities and an artist’s output to mere shtick. A Louise Nevelson sculpture, for example, is often set somewhere between a Pollock and a Sol LeWitt, its boxy shape filled with found wood and metal, a seeming bridge between abstract expressionism and minimalist grids. Her mixtures of bedposts and spools and straightedges can seem merely the efforts of a quirky collector, someone who loved making the ordinary seem a little weird.

But a very different Nevelson emerges at Richard Gray Gallery, which has long represented her (she died in 1988). Presenting her sculpture as she preferred to display it, surrounded by darkness and lit with dim bluish spots simulating moonlight, reveals how inappropriate the bright, clinical lighting of museums is to her work. Of the 22 late sculptures at Gray, 2 are painted white and 5 include found objects left in their natural state, but 15 are completely black, and these play off each other in the dim, moody twilight, filling the space with their presence while seeming to lose their physicality: Nevelson’s painted black surfaces vibrate between materiality and invisibility. The solidity of chair legs and dowels, plumbing fixtures and slabs of wood, is accentuated by the black paint, which also threatens to dematerialize them as they merge with the shadows they themselves create. Even when the light shines off them, creating a hint of white on black, one is torn between reading this luminosity as metallic hardness and seeing it dissolve into pure light.

Nevelson well understood the potential of black. She told interviewer Diana MacKown, who published their conversations in the 1976 book Dawns + Dusks, that “black encompasses all colors. Black is the most aristocratic color of all…. There is no color that will give you the feeling of totality. Of peace. Of greatness. Of quietness. Of excitement. I have seen things that were transformed.” She insisted that her sculpture not be reduced to its materials: “The work that I do is not the matter and it isn’t the color. I don’t use color, form, wood as such. It adds up to the in-between place, between the material I use and the manifestation afterwards; the dawns and the dusks, the places between the land and the sea.”

And indeed, what’s extraordinary about her black sculptures is their feeling of completeness: ordinary objects, improbably combined with others equally ordinary, become a world. An untitled box mounted on the wall (number 15 on the gallery checklist) is divided into compartments by horizontal shelves and vertical slabs. Two chambers on the left are filled with tiny cylinders, spools, and straight-edged wood fragments that seem to grow out of one another almost organically, as in a coral reef. On a shelf a bit to the right sits a smaller box, its “cover” open. Two clothespins on the cover are oriented differently, calling attention to their nooks and crannies; never has a clothespin seemed more removed from its quotidian use. The black paint and dark light fill the curves and crevices, making slivers of space seem as alive as the wood. Inside the box are small spools also arranged in various ways–sideways, head-on–to produce a similar tiny environment.

A number of current art stars give their work a grandiose, self-important bluster that begins to seem phony, a facade, when one peers into the art’s crevices; I’ve never heard Julian Schnabel’s paintings defended by the square inch, for example. But the smallest subsection of a Nevelson work reveals a complex order that replicates the complexity of the whole. Shelves in one compartment of number 15, for example, hold similar-looking wooden wedges, each presenting a rectangular face jutting out from the shelf but only a bit; the origin of each piece is thoroughly effaced. A mixture of self-proclamation and self-abnegating simplicity, they form a weird little poem that defies explication, their angles and geometries at once similar and different. One also notices how the nicks on one make it seem an utterly separate species from a smoother one at the center. And to the right of these shelves is a U-shaped plumbing fixture that completely confounds any expectations the wedges might set up. This mix of connection and disconnection is to me profounder than the psychic ruptures of surrealism, because Nevelson appeals to a deeper level than the associative mind of our dreams, addressing an “in-between place” in which objects become a vocabulary of pure form, speaking to the principles that underlie perception itself.

Fittingly for work that has such synoptic effects, Nevelson cites influences as diverse as this century’s art. Born in Russia in 1899, Nevelson soon emigrated with her Jewish family to Maine; very conscious of her outsider status as a child, she lived her adult life in New York City. She once called the Manhattan skyline “one big sculpture,” citing modernist structures such as Lever House. A member of no art movement, she acknowledged large debts to Cezanne, Picasso, African art, and Japanese No robes, which once moved her to tears: “the height of human refinement….Each robe was a universe in itself.” She studied modern dance for decades, which helped make her “aware of movement….When you know that you’re creating, you are aware of all life and not one piece of it.” She recalled the “glory” of a carved canoe paddle she once saw in an antique shop and cited as a formative influence structures we’d now call “outsider art” on a Maine island: “This man lived there with sheep and was a recluse….He took driftwood and he built one shack. Then he built another shack and then more shacks. He never painted them….The architecture was no architecture, the shacks were different sizes, but the whole concept and the combination was very exciting to me….It became a whole environment.”

Though the scope of Nevelson’s interests and ambitions was wide, one key to her work can be found in its simultaneous proud self-declaration and mysterious self-denial. Her black paint and dark light make the sculptures a mix of shadows and solid forms removed from sculpture’s long tradition of works that announce themselves first of all as objects. Similarly, she produced both large, imposing installations and very small pieces. One untitled box (number 18 on the checklist) is only about a foot long. Small, enigmatic wood fragments on its cover mirror an equally enigmatic arrangement inside of little wedges and small curved pieces and what seems to be part of a pipe bearing the number “907.” Just as her arrangements emphasize the abstract forms of found objects, effacing their original functions while preserving them as records of human activity, so her black paint and dark light remove this piece from the world of streets and alleys where she scavenged its parts. In the tradition of high modernism, it becomes an autonomous object, its own reason for being–a mirror for the consciousness of the artist, or viewer. As Nevelson told MacKown, “All materials are accumulations of thought.”

Among Nevelson’s works that dwarf the human figure is Cascade VIII, a six-foot-wide, eight-foot-high wall piece divided into 30 equal boxes arranged in a 5-by-6 grid. At once a city, a dark forest, and an empire of the mind, its forms shimmer with “moonlight” while others recede into darkness. Each box has its own composition, a different arrangement of forms and emptiness, though similar materials–rectangular rods, wedges, wavy-edged wood, and elongated mushroom shapes that might be coat hooks–are repeated throughout, always in different orientations. Since each box is almost a foot deep, elements in the foreground cast their shadows on elements farther back; the farthest recesses are often almost invisible. In each box Nevelson establishes a new continuum of darkness, sculpting space and light together. In several, the mushroom-hooks are arranged in rows so close together that the space between the objects–the inverse of their elongated necks and splaying circular heads–is as vivid as the hooks themselves. Nevelson’s longtime interest in negative space–“certainly as important as the forms”–helps make every object seem another shadow. “I gave myself the title ‘The Architect of Shadow,'” the artist told MacKown.

The overall effect is–well, sublime. One seems to be standing on a threshold looking through a series of windows that lead out of the physical world into the darkness of pure thought. As the eye passes from rounded surfaces that shimmer with a light bordering on darkness to the space between objects often placed close enough together to balance substance and emptiness to the shadows objects cast on one another to the deepest recesses of blackness, one feels a continuum of the visible and the invisible made palpable. There is no need for the artist, or critic, to resort to mystical rhetoric: in Nevelson’s symphony of resemblance and difference, all surfaces are underlain by the invisibility to which they seem to lead. The solidity of things is a window onto spirit.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited photo of “Cascade VIII”.