Louise Nevelson - The Farnsworth Collection
by Suzette Lane McAvoy
In 1933, Nevelson began studying with Chaim Gross, a young artist who was becoming known as one of the new generation of sculptors interested in a return to direct carving. Although she later recounted that she knew from an early age that she was going to be a sculptor, up until this time her art was largely restricted to painting and drawing. "Making the transition to sculpture wasn't difficult at all," she said in 1988, "I don't see much difference between one medium or another."
Throughout the next two decades, Nevelson continued to practice both painting and sculpture. Her early experiments in sculpture included semi-abstract animals and figures in terra-cotta, plaster, and cast stone, such as Seated Figure, Night Form and Mother and Child II, all c. 1946-51, A number of these pieces bear striking similarity with her paintings from this period. For example, the cast stone Figure of a Woman, c. 1946-51, appears related to the painting, Woman with a Red Scarf, c. 1947-48. In both works the artist plays opposing diagonals against one another, emphasizing the tilt of the head and describing the torso as an inverted triangle with a smaller triangle suggesting the arms.
Both works are undoubtedly self-portraits, for despite their abstraction they retain a strong physical resemblance to the artist. Although they share a formal relationship, the sculpture does not have the psychological impact of the painted self-portrait. In this extremely powerful work, the artist has depicted herself surrounded by stars, while her hands are bound by a symbolic red line, suggesting that forces outside herself are restricting her ascent as an artist.
The majority of Nevelson's paintings from the 1940s and early 1950s are portraits of herself, family and friends. Most are heavily impastoed with such thick layers of paint that they often appear constrained by the two-dimensional picture plane. One of the most sculptural of the group is Figure in Blue Shirt, 1952, in which the painted hair projects nearly an inch from the surface of the canvas. In this work, as well as in Woman, Child and Cats, 1946, the background of stacked rectangles foreshadows the artist's later wooden wall constructions. As in her earlier drawing, Four Figures, Nevelson's interest in the totem form is evident in Woman, Child and Cats, and in the painting Three Children, 1946.
Nevelson's attraction to the totemic figure stems from her long-held interest in tribal arts. This interest may lead back as far as her childhood in Rockland where American Indian artifacts were sold in the antique shops catering to summer tourists. Her exposure to museum collections in New York and Paris, her acquaintance with Wolfgang Paalen and his writings on primitive art in the Surrealist magazine Dyn, and her apprenticeship with the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera in 1933, all strengthened her early attraction to African, Pre-Columbian and Indian art. The small carved relief, Female Figure, c.1936-37, is one of Nevelson's earliest references to tribal art in sculptural form.  Other works such as Two Women, c. 1946-51, recall the blocky form and massive proportions of Mayan statuary.
In the spring of 1950 and the winter of 1951, Louise and her sister Anita traveled to Mexico and Guatemala to visit the Mayan ruins first-hand. The experience had a profound affect on Louise. She said, "This was a world of forms that at once I felt I could identify with,... a world of geometry and magic."  As a result of this trip, Nevelson produced a series of thirty etchings that evoke the forms and atmosphere of these ancient sites.
The three prints, Ancient One, Sunken Cathedral and Ancient Splendor, are from this series. The prints were all created between 1953-55, at Atelier 17, the highly regarded printmaking workshop begun by Stanley William Hayter. Characteristically, Nevelson approached the technique of printmaking intuitively, working rapidly and directly on the plate with unconventional tools and materials such as a can opener and lace. A selection of these prints were included in Nevelson's acclaimed exhibition, "Ancient Games in Ancient Places" at Grand Central Moderns, 1956.
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