Louise Nevelson - The Farnsworth Collection

by Suzette Lane McAvoy



As with primitive art, dance was another long-standing interest of Nevelson's which impacted her work. For more than twenty years beginning in 1933, she studied eurythmics, an expressive form of movement done to music. "Dance," she said, "made me realize that air is a solid through which I pass, not a void in which I exist."[26] Nevelson was also a devoted follower of modern dance, in particular the work of Martha Graham. Her cast bronze sculpture, Martha Graham, c.1950, captures the great dancer's strength and fluidity, and is one of Nevelson's strongest figurative works. For Nevelson, "Martha Graham by the nature of her spirit, by the nature of her energy, by her presence and intensity... was undoubtedly movement of the twentieth century. She was a pioneer."[27]

In her next three annual exhibitions at Grand Central Moderns, Louise proved that she, too, was a pioneer. The exhibitions showed consistent progression toward her mature style, culminating with Moon Garden + One in 1958. For this show Nevelson created a totally black environment which included her first wall construction, Sky Cathedral (Collection of Museum of Modern Art), a monumental piece composed of nearly sixty stacked boxes. In the June 1958 issue of Arts, the critic Hilton Kramer praised Nevelson's innovative new work.[28]

They are appalling and marvelous, utterly shocking in the way they violate our received ideas on the limits of sculpture... yet profoundly exhilarating in the way they open an entire realm of possibility.

The critical success of Moon Garden + One confirmed Nevelson's stature as an artist of national importance, and in the following year she was included in Sixteen Americans, her first major museum exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. For this show, she created Dawn's Wedding Feast, a lavish all-white environment suggesting a nuptial ceremony. The slender, vertical construction, Dawn Column I, 1959, is from this exhibition. Nevelson's use of virginal white, after her years of using black, stunned her audience. She later explained that the show represented a new beginning for her, "a kind of wish fulfillment, a transition to marriage with the world."[29] After nearly thirty years of struggle, Nevelson had become the "grande dame of contemporary sculpture." [30]

Her work over the next decade continued to be innovative; she experimented with new materials such as aluminum, translucent plastic, and Cor-ten steel, and added gold to her palette of black and white. The structure of her classic black walls also changed. Endless Column, c. 1969, shows the transition in her work. Rather than an assemblage of irregular found wood, the boxes of Endless Column are composed in a rhythmic pattern of machine-made shapes. In his catalog essay for the 1985 exhibition of Nevelson's work at the Farnsworth, Willy Eisenhart described the piece as "stately and dignified, musical in its harmonies of lines and shadows, defined by a fugue of repeating forms." [31] The top two rows of boxes and the flanking sentinel-like constructions were added by Nevelson at the time of the 1985 exhibition.

Also included in that show were Gold Throne I and Gold Throne II, created by the artist in 1984 for the St. Louis Opera Theatre's production of Gluck's Orfeo and Euridice. For Nevelson, the opportunity to work on Orfeo, "opened up doors that have added to my awareness.... It has given me a lot of joy." [32] This was Nevelson's first experience in designing for the stage, although it had been an interest of hers since the late 1920s when she studied at the American Laboratory Theatre in New York.[33] She dropped her theatrical studies in 1929 in favor of the visual arts, but her love for the stage continued to find expression in her dramatic public persona and in the theatrical presentation of her work.

The most recent pieces by Nevelson in the Farnsworth collection are the wall reliefs, Volcanic Magic XVI and Volcanic Magic XXIII, both 1985. Constructed from a variety of found materials, these late works seem closest to her native Russian roots. The dynamic, abstract compositions bear striking similarity to the non-objective relief sculptures created by the Russian constructivists Vladimir Tatlin, Ivan Puni, Vassily Ermilov, and others around 1915-20. In a radical change from her previous constructions, the works in Nevelson's Volcanic Magic series retain their original finishes, strengthening their ties to the work of the Russian constructivists and their antecedents, Cubist collage. [34]

Throughout Louise Nevelson's career as an artist, her personal and professional lives were intertwined. Consistently, events and relationships from her private life manifested themselves in her work. Her dealer, and friend for many years, Arnold Glimcher wrote: [35]

Through sifting, discarding facts, and rearranging chronology, the collage of her life takes form much like the construction of one of her sculptures.... In her works, Nevelson arrests time. She makes the moment accessible forever, and the fabric of time becomes a Nevelson wall, with each compartment available for discovery and exploration.



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