On Modern American Art: Selected Essays

By Robert Rosenblum | Go to book overview

LOUISE NEVELSON 1959

In some ways, Louise Nevelson's newest and most astonishing achievements--her vast wooden walls--recall the iconoclastic innovations of the new American painting rather than the more tradition-bound character of the new American sculpture. In scale alone, the architectural magnitude of these forests of black boxes parallels the awesomely large paint expanses of Rothko, Still, or Newman, which similarly impose upon the spectator an engulfing sensuous environment. In structure, too, Nevelson's creative heresies evoke pictorial rather than sculptural analogies. Like the churning labyrinths of Pollock, her shadowy facades are inexhaustibly complex, affording endless explorations to the eye. As the works are looked at in detail, each visual focus is caught in a separate adventure that involves a unique configuration of irregular shapes and unfathomable depths. Looked at as an entirety, her walls, like Pollock's mural spaces, are boundless, for what we see is only a fragment of elements that are infinitely extendable. And in imagery as well, these walls suggest, like so much recent painting, organic metaphors. Almost the product of natural growth or decay, they allude to the mysteries of thick, dark woods, to the unimaginable scope and impalpable substance of the night sky.

As far back as the early 1940s, Nevelson had begun to define the component parts of this poetic and pictorial architecture. In a wooden construction of 1945, Ancient City (now destroyed, like most work of this period; fig. 80), the premises of her later achievement are apparent. Raised on a primitive wooden pedestal, the weathered majesty of an exotic ancient metropolis (is it Mycenaean, Inca, Oriental?) is re-created by a pair of ceremonial lions and a totemic baluster-column that still ennoble these strange, hovering ruins. And here in genesis, one can find not only the wooden architectural fantasy of Nevelson's later work, but also her particular fascination with the constructive and destructive powers of nature.

The extraordinary prophecy of Ancient City was more than fulfilled in the 1950s. In works of both small and large scale, Nevelson investigated the problems that were ultimately to reach a synthesis in her wall sculptures. The Bouquet of 1957 is a case in point, establishing as it does her characteristic elegance of detail and her familiar interplay between organic and man-made structures. Working here within a painter's rectangular framework, Nevelson opposes the given geometry of reason with the burgeoning, irrational forms of nature. With a delicate yet vital pressure, the tendril-like fragments of the bouquet expand toward and even beyond their rectilinear confines, creating a nuanced tension between the forces of

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