Piecing together a royal bag lady; Louise Nevelson brought a grand vision to the world of sculpture
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 4 September 2007)

NEW YORK - Much of the impressive art of the modern era draws its special quality from the shrewd marriage of talent and accident. In the years up to 1914, Picasso and Braque pasted newspaper and advertising labels onto their Cubist paintings; the world calls what they did collage. It was attractive, but no one imagined it would last for generations. But collage somehow suited the spirit of the time and turned into a major tendency of the 20th century. It has rarely seemed more impressive than in the exhibition now at the Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue, Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend.

Nevelson (1899-1988) was a fascinating artist to follow when she was producing and changing. Now, nearly two decades in the grave, she seems even more interesting. Her major works in the current show, borrowed from a variety of museums and displayed with great style, look so good in 2007 that they make me wonder whether she was in fact (after the Cubist innovators themselves) the artist who developed collage to its highest point.

Decades after the Cubists, artists like Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters and Joseph Cornell built careers around objects and shapes pulled together in unlikely combinations. But Nevelson achieved a level of poise and expressiveness that eluded most of her predecessors. To this world of mostly small works, she brought a grand vision. Her abstract objects, so big they become environmental art, look now like some of the greatest achievements of her era.

When I interviewed her in 1972, during a visit to Toronto for an exhibition of her work at the Dunkelman Gallery, she gave the impression that she was trying hard to look as much as possible like a gypsy version of royalty. In Time magazine Robert Hughes once called her "a cross between Catherine the Great and a bag lady." She was never dressed; she was costumed. Each day she re-invented her look. She would throw together a paisley scarf and a full-length chinchilla coat over a blue work shirt. A thick layer of kohl and long false lashes enclosed her blazing eyes. From her neck hung a huge brooch, a Nevelson sculpture, possibly made from a boar-tusk.

Whenever she emerged from her studio on Spring Street in lower Manhattan, she became a splendidly flamboyant advertisement for herself. Self-regard coloured her conversation. She was a star and insisted on star treatment. A proud egotist, she never let you forget she was a brilliant original. "I am interested in my life and my awareness and my consciousness," she said. "My whole life has been centred-- you can use the word 'self-centred' if you wish. Who am I going to centre on if not on my inner self? I love people. But they are a mirror and a reflection of me."

Dramatic gestures were part of her style. Over a few decades she acquired collections of African and pre-Columbian sculpture, then at age 66 abruptly sold off every item she owned. She even sold her furniture, or gave it away. She recreated her surroundings with puritanical sparseness: gray steel filing cabinets for drawings, gray steel lockers for clothes. She explained that she didn't want decor imposing itself on her. "I wanted a blank so that what I did would be its own totality."

She starred in a drama she wrote for herself. Like the life of many an artist, it involved years of poverty and long-deferred recognition. She didn't get a one-woman show till she was past 40, and she was 59 before the Museum of Modern Art purchased one of her sculptures. But in her last decades, she was popular and amazingly productive, working furiously at major commissions, employing half a dozen carpenters and painters. Like Rubens, she supervised a large studio; unlike Rubens, she dictated every detail.

At one point she had 20 giant steel sculptures in the works at a foundry in North Haven, Conn. In 1977 New York created the Louise Nevelson Plaza in the Wall Street district and invited her to fill it with seven black Cor-Ten steel sculptures based on her wooden pieces. At the same time she was building walls of detailed wooden sculpture -- one major piece, Homage to 6,000,000, came home from the Osaka City Museum of Modern Art for the current show. Around 1980 she was getting more commissions than any other sculptor in the U.S.

Nevelson arrived at her style, and found her place in art history, through intense ambition and careful study of the art preceding her. In the 1930s she studied in Munich with Hans Hofmann, who showed her why Cub-ism mattered; she also worked as an assistant to Diego Rivera, the famous Mexican muralist, during his New York period.

Eventually she developed a way of presenting her disparate wooden objects in boxes, which she used as stages to contain a drama of discordant shapes. Often her small sculptures look vaguely like set designs for operas that deserve to be written someday. When she achieved her mature style she painted most of her finished work in either a flat black or a pure white, letting the forms express themselves without the distraction of colour. The daughter of a Ukrainian-Jewish scrap dealer, she turned junk into fabulous art. For years she foraged for wooden objects discarded on the downtown streets of New York. Later, friends took to bringing her chunks of wood that she might use. Often she would own something (a hatstand, say, or the wooden frame of a clock) for decades before finally putting it to use.

She usually ignored lumber found in forests or on beaches and instead worked with processed wood; she was almost always the second user. When you stare at her dyed-black pieces you can speculate on the previous life of its elements -- knobby chair legs, bits of moulding, dowels, barrels, gingerbread roof edging, dismembered mantelpieces. These ancient examples of the carpenter's art, including shapes that haven't been seen elsewhere in decades, have achieved a permanent museum life because she chose them. Each object carries its own version of history. Nevelson always believed that to select a piece of wood and insert it into the context of art was to breathe new energy into it. The special quality of collage is its ability to give any object a second chance at life.

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