Los Angeles

Louise Nevelson, Untitled, 1957, cardboard, laminate, paint, paper, wire, and wood collage on board, 50 1⁄2 × 42 × 3 1⁄4".

Louise Nevelson, Untitled, 1957, cardboard, laminate, paint, paper, wire, and wood collage on board, 50 1⁄2 × 42 × 3 1⁄4".

Louise Nevelson

Kayne Griffin

In 1945, after the death of her parents, Louise Nevelson (1899–1988) used money from her family’s estate to buy a four-story brownstone at 323 East Thirtieth Street in Manhattan. She fixed it up with the help of a friend and a loan from a gallerist who’d shown her work but hadn’t been able to sell any of it. She used the building and its large backyard as a home, studio, and meeting place for artist groups and cultural events, but in 1954 she was evicted by New York’s Committee on Slum Clearance, which planned to demolish the neighborhood for redevelopment. She stayed as long as she could, until late 1958 or early 1959, watching the surrounding buildings get razed one by one. In this house, Nevelson made the first of the large wall sculptures that brought her—at nearly sixty—serious professional recognition. It’s also where she started making collages, which she described as “smaller voltage” versions of her more monumental works.

Nine of Nevelson’s collages were displayed in a recent exhibition at Kayne Griffin, in a small room beyond the grand main space, where an exhibition of Sam Moyer’s large stone-and-canvas wall works hung. One of these—a tense stack of gray-marble shapes on a muted-blue ground—was titled Louise, 2021, after Nevelson.

The collages were rigorous, somber, and playful, rendered in neutral palettes with an emphasis on black, the artist’s signature hue—a color that performs dramatically. The effect was particularly apparent in Untitled, 1982, in which a deteriorated yet crisply trimmed scrap of patchwork quilt is made starker by its funerary, jet-black background, and Untitled, 1959, an arrangement of red paper, metallic foil, and raw plywood rectangles surrounded by a black geometric shape suggestive of the sharp shadow cast by a building at sunset. And in Untitled, 1957, small pieces of wood and cardboard that look sooty and singed were actually marked by spray paint, which Nevelson used for her large, monochromatic sculptures. The abstract composition resembles a condemned house that’s been scorched by fire and boarded up.

The pieces in this show were made between 1957 and 1982, but a coherence of color, form, and material linked the works in a way that, instead of seeming repetitive, enhanced their authority and created a kind of temporal resonance and excitement. The unity was accentuated by the handsome presentation of the collages, mounted on board and encased in luxuriously minimal wooden frames, fabricated per Nevelson’s specifications, which provided both a contrast and a complement to the humble materials—flattened packaging, scraps of wood, and metallic foil wrappers—Nevelson used to create such austere architectural compositions.

Nevelson made crucial breakthroughs in her practice once she had a home of her own in which to work, and they came more frequently toward the end of her residence at Thirtieth Street, when her living situation was in upheaval. Though her family and husband had money, Nevelson had estranged herself from both beginning in the 1920s in order to pursue her art. For years she struggled financially, personally, professionally—the Great Depression didn’t help—and often roamed the streets of New York, sometimes accompanied by her son, collecting bits of wood and scraps to burn for heat. An appreciator of the poetry of the castaway, she made art from the things she scavenged, and when her neighborhood was being leveled she made art from the wreckage. In Nevelson’s collages, precarity and stability coexist, producing a tension that turns these architectural images—which seem to function as stand-ins for the self—into documents of daily life and the passage of time.