How Louise Nevelson Has Made Her Own Powerful Way in a Man’s Art World
Louise Nevelson, considered one of the foremost American sculptors of the twentieth century, made her way as an artist in an art world dominated by men. Though women have not always been seen to possess the same inner forces that drive men to create great art—especially when she began working in the 1930s and ’40s—she leveled the playing field with her monumental sculptural assemblages and rhythmic collages. Now, with her place in art history long since secured, Milan’s Cardi Gallery presents a considered selection of her work from 1955 to 1970, titled “Louise Nevelson: 55-70.”
“I go to the sculpture, and my eye tells me what is right for me,” Nevelson once stated about her process. “When I compose, I don’t have anything but the material, myself, and an assistant … Sometimes it’s the material that takes over; sometimes it’s me that takes over. I permit them to play, like a seesaw. I use action and counteraction, like in music, all the time.” This give-and-take relationship between the artist’s hand, eye, and her material can be felt in the pieces on view, made during a period when she honed and evolved her style.
Nevelson worked principally with discarded wooden scraps, sometimes incorporating materials like Plexiglas, aluminum, and steel. In Untitled (1964), she appears to have upended the modernist grid by concocting a misaligned array of stacked boxes, each one filled with variously shaped wooden pieces, the whole thing painted a matted, storm cloud gray. Untitled (1960) may be seen as a monolith, albeit one composed of varying lengths of a motley assortment of wooden planks and a couple of broken banisters—a possible dig at the overtly phallic connotations of this age-old marker of human power and presence.
More intimate in scale, the artist’s collages are studies in the exquisite subtleties of texture, color, and form. Untitled (1963), for example, is composed of an abstract arrangement of cardboard, paper, newspaper, paint, and wood on board, in harmonious tones of black and gray. Look closely, and you can still read sections of the stories of the day on the torn fragments of newspaper. In the context of this collage, perhaps the words should be looked at, not read. They come loaded with associations and meanings, of course, but here, as with all of the materials with which the artist worked, they are objects, pieces of a whole that is the sum of its parts.