Kathryn Scanlan on Louise Nevelson
In 1945, after the death of her parents, Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) used money from her family’s estate to purchase a four-story brownstone at 323 East Thirtieth Street in Manhattan. She repaired it with the help of a friend and a loan from a gallery owner who had shown her her work but was unable to sell any. She used the building and its large backyard as a home, studio, and meeting place for artist groups and cultural events, but in 1954 she was kicked out by New York’s Committee on Slum Clearance, which planned to demolish the neighborhood for redevelopment. She stayed as long as she could, until late 1958 or early 1959, watching the surrounding buildings being razed one by one. In this house, Nevelson produced the first of the large wall sculptures which, at nearly sixty years of age, brought him serious professional recognition. It was also there that she began making collages, which she described as “lower tension” versions of her more monumental works.
Nine of Nevelson’s collages were on display in a recent exhibit at Kayne Griffin, in a small room beyond the large main space, which housed an exhibit of Sam Moyer’s large stone and canvas wall art. One of them – a taut pile of gray marble shapes against a muted blue background – was titled Louise, 2021, according to Nevelson.
The collages were rigorous, dark and playful, rendered in neutral palettes emphasizing black, the artist’s signature hue, a color with spectacular performance. The effect was particularly noticeable in Untitled, 1982, in which a deteriorated but perfectly cut piece of quilted quilt is made more striking by its jet black burial background and Untitled, 1959, an arrangement of rectangles of red paper, metallic foil and raw plywood surrounded by a black geometric shape evoking the sharp shadow cast by a building at sunset. And in Untitled, 1957, small pieces of wood and cardboard that look smoky and scorched were actually marked with spray paint, which Nevelson used for his large monochrome sculptures. The abstract composition resembles a condemned house that has been burned down and barricaded.
The pieces in this exhibition were produced between 1957 and 1982, but a consistency of color, form and material linked the works together in a way that, instead of seeming repetitive, reinforced their authority and created a sort of temporal resonance and of excitement. Unity was accentuated by the beautiful presentation of the collages, mounted on board and packaged in luxuriously minimal wood frames, made to Nevelson’s specifications, which offered both contrast and a complement to the humble materials – flattened packaging, scraps of wood and metal elements. aluminum wraps — Nevelson used to create such austere architectural compositions.
Nevelson made crucial breakthroughs in her practice once she had her own home to work in, and these came more frequently towards the end of her residency on Thirtieth Street, when her life situation was in turmoil. Although her family and her husband had money, Nevelson had moved away from the two by the 1920s in order to pursue her art. For years, she struggled financially, personally, professionally – the Great Depression didn’t help – and often wandered the streets of New York City, sometimes with her son, picking up pieces of wood and trash to burn for warm up. Appreciating the poetry of the castaway, she made art from the objects she collected, and when her neighborhood was razed, she made art from the wreck. In Nevelson’s collages, precariousness and stability coexist, producing a tension that transforms these architectural images – which seem to function as self-substitutes – into documents of everyday life and the passing of time.