Jeez Louise: The Return of Nevelson

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Sky Cathedral Presence, 1951-64 — Collection Walker Art Center Minneapolis

I got an early look last week at the Louise Nevelson retrospective at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan. Nevelson was already 60 when she had her breakthrough in the 1959 MoMA show Sixteen Americans that also featured Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg and other much younger players. Over the next three decades she assumed the role of artiste with the energy of someone who had waited a long time to take the stage. She had a grand manner and a personal appearance — those triple layer false eyelashes, that heavy make up, those head scarves — that situated her somewhere between Isak Dinesen and Edie Beale. I remember a friend coming back from a party in the early 1980s who told me that he had found Nevelson holding court there while perched on the host’s Gerrit Rietveld chair. The image seemed exactly right, a modernist throne for the empress of modern art.

By the end of her life, in 1988, she was hugely celebrated, but since then her star has faded a bit. This is odd, since installation art, which owes so much to her, was taking off in the same decade. Maybe her intricate wall pieces were too repetitive. Maybe her formal vocabulary couldn’t carry the burden of Big Meanings assigned to it — a problem, too, for some of the Abstract Expressionist painters whose work Nevelson’s always brings to mind. An artworld satisfied with media and pop culture references no longer speaks the language of myth and archetype that was her native tongue. Maybe it was just a case of diva fatigue.

Whatever the reason, the Jewish Museum show, which was handsomely designed by the architects Tod Williams and Billlie Tsien, is a reminder of why her work still matters, or at least the best of it. I’ll have more to say tomorrow.

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