Nevelson as Architect?

Event: The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend
Location: The Jewish Museum, through 09.16.07
Curator: Brooke Kamin Rapaport — Exhibition Curator, The Jewish Museum

Sky Cathedral Presence

Louise Nevelson’s Sky Cathedral Presence (1951-64).

Courtesy The Jewish Museum

Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), best known for her large monochromatic relief-like sculptures composed of found scraps of wood, was in her heyday considered the “grande dame of contemporary sculpture.” Always ill at ease with the category of sculpture, however, Nevelson claimed, “I don’t want to make sculpture and I don’t want to make paintings; I’m not looking to make anything… It’s almost like you are an architect that’s building through shadow and light and dark.” Restricting herself to the arrangement of found objects, Nevelson avoids “‘making’ in a strict sense, and focuses on the construction of relationships in light, shadow, and above all — meaning.”

In pieces such as Sky Cathedral Presence (1951-64) and Dawn’s Wedding Feast (1959), wood fragments are arranged within an irregular grid of box-like frames and painted to highlight an abstract definition of space through light and form. The meaning of the original found objects is thus subsumed into an abstract topography and open to interpretation. This sublimation is never absolute, however, as traces of narrative rumble below the surface in an elusive and subliminal fashion. For example, in her self-portrait, Silent Music IV (1964), and her Holocaust Memorial, Homage to 6,000,000 (1964), a regular grid structure serves to contain and mediate a series of fragmentary compositions, each of which recede into shadowy spaces. The traces of meaning found within each compartment evoke a collection of memories: the stories of a community, or the multiple aspects of a singular persona.

Through her obsessive endeavors to collect and reassemble fragments, Nevelson strikes a dynamic equilibrium between the tensions of form and content, rational and irrational. Beyond her use of light and shadow to define abstract form, Nevelson’s intuitive sense for structuring and facilitating relationships further aligns her work to that of the architect — but on an the ethical and poetic level, by constructing the frames through which human existence can express meaning.