Jeez Louise: Nevelson, Part 2

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Just a few more quick thoughts on the Louise Nevelson show that just opened at the Jewish Museum in New York.

The lead catalogue essay by Brooke Kamin Rapaport, who organized the show, makes a lot of Nevelson’s practice of redeeming junk she found in the street by incorporating it into her art. But for some reason Rapaport doesn’t draw the connection to the German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, whose collages of the 1920s were built up out of bits of urban flotsam, scraps and oddments of paper and cardboard found wherever. He later expanded his practice into wall assemblages with tin cans and bits of broken furniture and then into the multiple-room-sized Merzbaus that were a precursor to installation art, just as Nevelson’s big wall pieces were. For the record, Nevelson claimed not to have known about Schwitters when she started her assemblages, and she may well have been telling the truth. But it’s useful to know what Schiwtters did before her because Nevelson’s work is best understood in part as a variety of Dada’s discovery of the expressive power of offbeat juxtapositions.

But only in part. As for Nevelson’s own account of her influences, her preferred ancestor was Picasso and Cubism. This is a useful way into her work, but only up to a point. Cubism had to do above all with dynamic space and form, and no one would deny that Nevelson had an intricate sense of the possibilities in shallow space. The topography of her pieces is never less than fascinating, smartly, even suavely arranged, but disoderly enough, most of the time, to keep the dreaded word decorative at bay.

But psychology, which was crucial to her, wasn’t one of Cubism’s concerns. That’s why Nevelson’s boxes have much more to do with Joseph Cornell’s miniature worlds and the box dioramas that used to fascinate Max Ernst and Dali —  cupboards that hide or reveal secrets, cramped enclosures where memories and obsessions are placed under pressure, proscenium stages for mystery plays. Those crates and boxes that Nevelson used not only gave her wall pieces a structural armature, a literal framework that prevented her bits and pieces from spinning off into chaos. They also conveyed an instant power of suggestion by providing human scale and hinting at the mystique that attaches to rooms and compartments. This is precisely the source of the wall pieces’ fascination, the key to their power of compressed, enigmatic utterance, even as they stop short of uttering anything in particular.

In the years before and after the big wall pieces, which she began in the late ’50s, Nevelson’s output was a mixed bag. But at least one of the slightly earlier pieces in this show is a great one, First Personage, a 1956 sculpture consisting of two vertical elements of painted wood, both somewhat larger than human scale and one placed a few inches behind the other. (It was part of an ensemble of free standing pieces that Nevelson exhibited together as an “environment” that she called The Forest.) The piece in the foreground is a more or less smooth, solid slab, like a shroud. Near the top it has a prominent knot that Nevelson thought of as a mouth. Behind it stands the second element, a column of irregular horizontal spikes that thrust outward like a fever chart turned on its side.

First Personage, 1956 — Brooklyn Museum

This is a powerful and witty piece. As a totem of the divided self, of the bristling inner nature bursting from behind the composed public facade, it’s a saw-toothed triumph, a Rodin reimagined for a Freudian age.