The Secret Gardener


“My whole life has been late,” the artist Louise Nevelson once confided to an interviewer. After years of relative obscurity, the 77-year-old doyenne of American sculpture was at the height of her renown. La principessa, as the dons in her Little Italy neighborhood liked to call her, cut a striking figure, whether she was scavenging wood from the street for her monumental assemblages or swanning around uptown, arrayed in false eyelashes, babushkas, Mandarin Chinese robes, and full-length furs.

The stunningly elegant retrospective of her sculpture currently at New York’s Jewish Museum also feels belated. It’s the first major survey of her work in almost three decades. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art all own major pieces by the artist, who died in 1988 at the age of 89, but they do not regularly display them.

Why not? Her sculptures are big, but no larger than, say, Gordon Matta-Clark’s slice of a house, which usually occupies pride of place on MOMA’s second floor. (It’s currently on view, through June 3, in the Whitney’s ecstatically anarchic Matta-Clark exhibition.) Rather, the art world’s routine bias against women seems to operate here in tandem with a quality emanating from the work itself.

Nevelson was sui generis. Though a quintessential modernist, she was no joiner. During her long life of artistic activity, she studied Cubism, flirted with Surrealism, and imbibed the influence of Minimalism, but no avant-garde movement could claim her. She was Mark Rothko’s favorite sculptor, but she wasn’t hanging out with the Ab-Ex crowd at the Cedar Tavern. Jed Perl, who gives her short shrift in New Art City, his survey of mid-20th-century Manhattan’s artistic avant-gardes, links her work with the sculptor Richard Stankiewicz’s “junkyard Constructivism.” But Stankiewicz (a generation younger) and David Smith (her nearer contemporary) were welders, while she worked with the regenerative capacities of wood, a once-living medium. And the room-size environments she began fabricating in the 1960s preceded the advent of installation art by some 20 years.

Is such diffidence about belonging a particularly feminine art-historical prerogative? (I think of the “other Louise,” Mme. Bourgeois, as occupying a similarly ambivalent position—a solitary peak, distant yet highly visible.) Nevelson wanted to stand alone; she ends up largely excluded from the mainstream. And it falls to a smaller museum to fill in the gaps.

So let’s start at the beginning. Nevelson was born Leah Berliawsky in Kiev, Ukraine, to upper-middle-class Jews whose money came partly from the lumber business, which her father hoped to continue when he moved his family (including five-year-old Louise) to Rockland, Maine. There he spent years as a junk dealer before remaking his fortune in construction. She married Charles Nevelson, a member of a prominent New York Jewish shipping family, moved to Manhattan, and gave birth to a son, before realizing that life as a society matron was not for her.

Among the many surprises at the Jewish Museum are early sculptures and drawings betraying the influence of her time spent studying Cubism with Hans Hofmann in Munich, such as an elegantly abstract, self-portrait in bronze, or geometric terra-cotta figures that emit a quasi-Druidic force.

During WWII, suffering from extreme anxiety over her son stationed abroad, Nevelson began picking up wooden scraps and fragments of old furniture, spray-painting them black, and endowing them with new life in her assemblages. She seemed fascinated by wood’s shape-changing power, its ability to appear as living nature (in roots and branches) or the raw, blocky material of construction, as well as the elaborately turned and polished surfaces of table legs. (A visitor in the 1950s to her house on East 30th Street recalled the darkened halls and backyard crammed with boards, crates, and banisters, carefully arranged by size and shape, “like sinners crowding the antechamber to await the Last Judgment.”) It was a metamorphosis that mirrored her own transformation of experience into art.

Sober and recondite, Nevelson’s sculpture drew from private sources; it was a secret garden she cultivated with all the ferocity of a creator whom time forgot. That also suggests some of her work’s limitations. It’s possible to lose yourself in the contemplation of Sky Cathedral Presence (1951–64), for example—a black wall composed of narrow, coffin-like boxes whose hinged doors are swung open to reveal a symphonic array of poles, sticks of molding, finials, and slats. Its play of light and shadow seems to stretch to infinity. But the innumerable black boxes that compose her Holocaust memorial, Homage to 6,000,000 I (1964), never move much beyond such generalized thoughts of the Beyond.

Her magnum opus, Mrs. N’s Palace (1964–77)—a small house, really— evokes the ancient sepulchres of Egyptian pharaohs, its black-mirrored floor heaped high with the accumulated artistic treasures of a lifetime. But its shadowy, self-enclosed depths are windowless.

An artist friend of mine is fond of saying that the first 70 years of a creative person’s life are always the most difficult. He might add, “And the 30 years after death.” The theme of this show is renewal—it opens with a view onto Dawn’s Wedding Feast, the all-white installation Nevelson described as representing her “marriage with the world,” which she created, at the age of 60, for a MOMA exhibition showcasing art’s next generation. Why Nevelson today? Her influence among younger artists exceeds her formal vocabulary and innovations. It’s by example—the idea that an artist’s life follows no prescribed path, beyond devotion—that she has the most to teach us.