New York

Louise Nevelson

There is no doubt that the present quasi-retrospective of Louise Nevelson’s sculpture at the Whitney, dispersed throughout its most prestigious 4th floor gallery, is among the most stunning and evocative installations seen in New York in a long time. Much praise must go to our leading woman sculptor for the perfectionism and imagination deployed in the setting of her work. But in thus adding a chirrup to the din of adulation which has met this exhibition, one should also take the liberty of sounding a note of reservation and restraint.

That Louise Nevelson should be considered one of our unassailable talents says less about her production than it speaks against the general run of American sculpture at mid-century, despite its fertility, its milky ways of young talent, its ebullience. With the demise of David Smith one can really think of no single dominant figure, not even Louise Nevelson, though for better or worse, the torch has been passed into her hands.

For all of Louise Nevelson’s fecundity as a formal prestidigitator, she is no more than, or as much as, depending on one’s volatility, a determined second ranker, whose stock in trade are obvious effects of taste. The earlier work shown here comes from the forties and fifties. These are largely groups of semi-figurative works in a jolly Cubist idiom—mais archi-tardive—enlivened by hints of folkloristic primitivism, naïvete, and Henry Moore. At the same moment, Louise Nevelson was experimenting with such prescient groups as Sun Game of 1942 in which chair legs and wooden forms were painted black. The debt to the Surrealist sculpture of Giacometti and to the paintings of Yves Tanguy is obvious, though Louise Nevelson’s mood here is playful rather than threatening.

By the mid-fifties she had given up making sculpture about sculpture (that is, about proportion and scale) in favor of sculpture about a principle of fabrication. Take a box, the principle goes, nail into it abandoned wood detritus and paint it black. (Is there an easier method for achieving surface unity?) The box equals sculpture (agreed, since all forms are sculpture). To make a large sculpture put two such boxes together, and a really large one, four such boxes. One could multiply them indefinitely, if one wanted to; one could curve them around corners, and for a touch of variety, one could daub them white, or cocottize them gold. Forget then the issue of scale—that is too difficult anyway, and one need not worry especially about the arrangement of the wooden elements since it all goes matte, and one does have a modicum of efficient taste. To consecrate them one need only wait on the expatiations of Surrealistically oriented imaginations.

Were it not for the control displayed in Louise Nevelson’s latest works this, I admit, would be my view of her “contribution.” It seems to me that at present, Louise Nevelson is producing works that are infinitely more powerful than her earlier work—and as a result of this, her earlier work must be valued as a bridge to her present accomplishments. Her new pieces are constructed out of plastic and industrial materials, and are handled with geometrically icy self-assurance. Louise Nevelson is, in her sixth decade, displaying a much more strenuous investigation of her genuinely witty impulses.

––Robert Pincus-Witten