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Louise Nevelson, Series of an Unknown Cosmos CIII, 1979, paper and cardboard collage mounted on wood, 20 x 24". © Estate of Louise Nevelson/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Louise Nevelson, Series of an Unknown Cosmos CIII, 1979, paper and cardboard collage mounted on wood, 20 x 24". © Estate of Louise Nevelson/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Louise Nevelson

L&M Arts | Los Angeles

Louise Nevelson, Series of an Unknown Cosmos CIII, 1979, paper and cardboard collage mounted on wood, 20 x 24". © Estate of Louise Nevelson/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Louise Nevelson is so frequently invoked as a primary representative of postwar sculpture—and especially that made by women—that even the United States Postal Service has commemorated her with a series of stamps. Perhaps this neat apotheosis owes to Nevelson’s self-presentation: Her turbaned head and shellacked face, her mink-adorned eyelashes and rich caftans could only contribute to a hagiography that was established early on through tales of her birth in czarist Ukraine and was even more widely embraced in the years after the artist’s death, in 1988. Hers is a great story—so captivating, in fact, that her biographical details have routinely been used to point to causality where there may only be correlation. Her father’s occupation as a contractor and lumber merchant and her experience as a young immigrant in the sylvan recesses of New England, for example, are often all too readily conscripted into interpretive service where her signature scavenged-wood sculptures are concerned.

Without denying the lure of personality or ignoring the rapport between her life and her art, “Louise Nevelson: The 70s” took a serious look at the artist’s work from a period that is customarily glossed over. The show focused on the decade following Nevelson’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1967—the years in which she became historical in her own time. (New York City mayor Ed Koch named a downtown Manhattan park after her in 1978, and President Jimmy Carter honored her as a signal American woman contributing to the arts.) To some measure, the Whitney exhibition marked a key turning point in Nevelson’s career, and the present context makes a case for her transition in its wake to works freed from the grid. In this, the show follows Germano Celant, who claims in his newly published monograph on the artist (quoted in the gallery’s press release) that “from 1970, the continuity of the wall structures was broken down in pursuit of a discontinuity that emancipated the individual elements.”

While L&M’s grouping did comprise some classic Nevelsons—sculptures with nesting and aggregated found materials coated in a uniform skin of black paint—the majority of the works on view manifested her transitioning. Take Untitled, 1971, an eighty-four-piece geometric structure of rows of boxes stacked at an angle; this slanting, off-kilter grid proposes an incipient undoing and compromising of the totemic powers of her comparable sculptures (if not of upright sculpture in general). Two untitled wall works from 1976 and 1976–78 were mounted on supports cobbled together from various planks and pallets, the earlier relief featuring curved-edged molding in staccato configurations, and the later one with weaving horizontals and verticals, against which the bent back of a chair projects in sharp relief. Among the more surprising pieces was an untitled tableau, also dated 1976, on which several unpainted objects, alternately crumpled and tensile, were fixed in jostled poses, and Small Cities IX, 1978, a little wooden toolbox covered in Nevelson’s signature matte-black monochrome—a sculpture and its means of becoming.

Yet the evolution that Celant describes was not strictly linear: The classic Nevelsons featured in the show were, in fact, made later in the decade than some of the works in which she transgressed the frame, suggesting that a before-and-after scenario does not necessarily obtain. Instead, Nevelson seems to have been experimenting with many modes simultaneously. Revelatory in this regard was a group of fourteen collages that flaunted magpie compositions of not only painted implements but also metallic papers, corrugated cardboard, a diminutive sewn patchwork quilt, cork, and other multicolored scraps. These collages extended Nevelson’s purview into a small-scale, detailed realm of fantasy, in which the working-out of positions materially involved intimacy, if not wholesale transparency of self. Here, the artist’s style was revealed to be more a matter of deeply ingrained practice than a mere reflection of the celebrated life that gave it form.

Suzanne Hudson