New York

Louise Nevelson, Dawn’s Wedding Feast, 1959, painted wood. Installation view, 2007. Photo: David Heald.

Louise Nevelson, Dawn’s Wedding Feast, 1959, painted wood. Installation view, 2007. Photo: David Heald.

Louise Nevelson

THERE WAS A TIME when Louise Nevelson’s reputation far outshone that of the other Louise of postwar American sculpture: Louise Bourgeois. By the late 1960s Bourgeois still ranked as a minor scion of late Surrealism. In contrast, Nevelson had featured with Johns, Rauschenberg, and Stella in the Museum of Modern Art’s “Sixteen Americans” (1959), attracted widespread acclaim, received numerous public commissions, and had a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1967. However, the two women’s subsequent historical fortunes are an object lesson in trading places. Bourgeois became a darling of avant-garde taste, whereas Nevelson went off the radar. The noble aim of the recent Jewish Museum retrospective was to rescue her from this limbo.

Nevelson’s decline did not pivot on quality alone. Longevity doubtless played a part since, compared to the still active near-centenarian Bourgeois, Nevelson died twenty years ago, at the mere age of eighty-eight. Shifting market forces also had a role. Most importantly, although both artists delved subjectivity, Bourgeois’s self-absorption was in sync with burgeoning identity politics from the ’70s onward. The “self” that subtends Nevelson’s vision could not have been less geared to this confessional climate. Like the paintings of her close contemporary Mark Rothko, Nevelson’s sculpture and persona orchestrated facades.

One dominant device in Nevelson’s mature output (she reached her trademark style only after Abstract Expressionism had peaked) was that modernist guarantor of self-denial, the grid, with its semantics of exclusion, orthogonal rigor, and two-dimensionality. Another leitmotif is slightly less celebrated yet carries a comparable message—the box. From the boxy architectonics of de Chirico’s settings to Cornell’s containers to Johns’s Target with Plaster Casts, 1955, the box has been associated with concealment, the desirable, and the forbidden. As Judd ultimately demystified this idea and Robert Morris’s I-Box, 1962, unpacked it, Nevelson made the box into her shadowy other.

The strength of Nevelson’s achievement proved inseparable from its weaknesses. From diverse sources—including Cubist ordonnance, Max Ernst’s ominously massed “Forests,” and the monochromes of Clyfford Still and Ad Reinhardt—Nevelson fabricated a highly distinctive style. In turn, it evidently held her captive. Having found a groove, she got stuck in it. Although her early terra-cottas and works on paper display considerable refinement, if not originality, her efforts to go beyond wood to new materials, such as plastic and metal, now look flawed. Yet the Jewish Museum’s hypnotic installation elided such failings into a magnificently compelling experience.

Marshaling Nevelson’s works across a series of cramped spaces intensified their obsessive impact. The horror vacui that pervades these veritable walls, freestanding pieces, and chambers emphasizes their psychological edge, as if motivated by an idée fixe similar to that which can drive art by amateurs or the self-taught—say, Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, 1921–55, or James Hampton’s Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, ca. 1950–64. The latter resembles a homemade counterpart to Nevelson’s crafted assemblages but cobbled together in gold and silver aluminum foil laid over wooden furniture.

Nevelson gathered worthless bric-a-brac into wondrous new congeries—a bid to reenchant the commonplace and to render whole again what had been ruins. Casting a uniform veil of black, white, or gold paint over the wooden fragments defamiliarized them. Consequently the broken planks, banisters, doorknobs, and sundry other parts hover in an uncanny netherworld between recognition and effacement. As such, they went against the grain of modernist sculpture: too poetic for Clement Greenberg, too theatrical for Michael Fried. Likewise, the archetypal dimension—allusions to cyclical dawn and dusk, the totemic aura, suggestions of nocturnal voyaging and of bright regal realms (David Smith’s titles such as Royal Incubator long preceded Nevelson’s Royal Tide and its kin)—consigns pieces actually from the ’60s and ’70s to a mythical sensibility of some twenty years earlier.

Another potentially mythological note is Nevelson’s conjuring of a Russian past of timber merchants and junkyards in the Jewish Pale of Settlement, a background her family took as cultural baggage from Kiev to the Maine coast. Given that the former Leah Berliawsky was only six years old when she emigrated, this remembered “Russianness”—what historian Orlando Figes termed “Natasha’s Dance,” after the episode in War and Peace when the eponymous character suddenly rediscovers her native roots—must be somewhat suspect, and it receives shrewd scrutiny in Michael Stanislawski’s catalogue essay on Nevelson’s self-fashioning. Elsewhere, though, a different specter haunts the catalogue and the show.

Late in life Nevelson said, “I couldn’t live with myself if I was a lesbian.” Despite this denial and considerable sexual liaisons with men (including a failed marriage), some ambiguity must attach to anyone who lived, worked, and traveled for twenty-five years with a younger female associate—as Nevelson did. Although curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport’s catalogue essay stresses a quest for selfhood at the crux of Nevelson’s endeavors, not a mention of sexuality intrudes. Certainly, Nevelson should not be flagrantly “outed,” but nor is there reason to mask her. To echo queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, might some deep sense of shame be an energy underlying the boxes, the facades, and the darkness (not to mention the flamboyant public image) that Nevelson constructed? Mrs. N’s Palace, 1964–77, is both a Wunderkammer and a crypt—perhaps a sanctuary for a divided self? Like Nevelson’s art overall, this monument to melancholia suggests the most magical character armor and closet.

“The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend” travels to the de Young Museum, San Francisco, Oct. 27, 2007–Jan. 13, 2008.

David Anfam is commissioning editor for fine art, Phaidon Press.