Louise Nevelson’s sculpture is undergoing something of a revival, with curators and art historians acknowledging the prescience with which the artist—overlooked until she was in her 60s but today recognized as a progenitor of installation art—incisively worked. Much of this revival, including Julia Bryan-Wilson’s 2022 Venice Biennale exhibition, “Louise Nevelson: Persistence,” has been directed toward Nevelson’s sprawling columnar façades. While institutions like the Whitney have shown Nevelson’s paper collages (“The Face in the Moon: Drawings and Prints by Louise Nevelson,” 2018), her wood and cardboard collages have often been overshadowed by the more gargantuan assemblages. “The Way I Think is Collage” (on view through November 10, 2023), reverses this course, offering a welcome amelioration to previous curatorial oversight. Presenting myriad mixed-media collage works executed throughout the late 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, the exhibition demonstrates that collage was not only a passing fancy for Nevelson, but the mooring to her entire enterprise.
Indeed, collage was the aperture through which Nevelson saw the world. She once remarked that “New York is a city of collage. It has all kinds of people, all kinds of races, all kinds of religion in it.” Even in the better-known sculptural works, such as Moon Garden + One (1958), which was first shown at Grand Central Moderns in 1958, collage served as the beating heart to her practice. Moon Garden + One consists of 116 boxes and freestanding rounded or rectangular pedestals topped with wood fixtures. The much-celebrated Dawn’s Wedding Feast (1959) and Sky Columns Presence (1959), exhibited in “16 Americans,” Dorothy C. Miller’s groundbreaking 1959 survey of American post-Expressionism at MoMA, are also collages, made up of distinct units, including columns, boxes, and freestanding objects ranging from oval frames to toilet seat covers interwoven into a relief-pocked vertical plexus. Soaking driftwood scavenged from the beaches of Maine and remnants from local lumberyards and antique stores in the bathtub before bending the pieces into alien arches, Nevelson used found objects to usher the collage into the domain of sculpture. Thus, the Galerie Gmurzynska exhibition redirects viewers to the core of her practice.
Self-contained mixed-media collage increasingly interested Nevelson during her “vintage years,” in the 1980s. These works were often made as part of a series, such as the 1982 cloth collages framed in Plexiglas that she called “Valentines” and the “Reflections” prints, which use etching and aquatint directly on plates. “The Way I Think is Collage,” however, begins at an earlier point, trekking from Nevelson’s pioneer collages (the earliest on view is from 1960) up through the 1980s. One is struck by Nevelson’s consistency throughout these decades, for despite changing media, she retained her thematic interests. Pigeonholing those interests, however, is more difficult than recognizing them.
Arthur Danto, in his essay “Transformations in Sculpture” for The Nation, underscored how Nevelson’s sculptures induce a sense of sustained aesthetic discomfort, using crowded modules and imprisoned corners to “cause a certain indeterminacy of interpretation.” Arguably, this indeterminacy, of a piece with Nevelson’s spiritualist beliefs, was at odds with the endeavors of those post-Modernist artist-cum-semioticians (e.g., the Pictures Generation) who were working and showing at the same time as Nevelson. In their case, appropriated images functioned as signifiers with which to criticize the commodity capital resources from which they were cultivated. Whereas artists like Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, and Robert Longo made use of determinate images and commercial aesthetics belonging to a recognizable and timely referential menagerie, Nevelson’s images were cleaved from their history, evidently referring solely to themselves. This is all the more curious when we consider Nevelson’s method of gleaning debris from her studio and the Bowery (where she lived and worked) before adjoining disparate pieces into a whole that, in mereological terms, became “greater than the sum of its parts.” By painting, or as she termed it, “cleansing,” her wooden objects in monochrome colors—chiefly jet black, off white, and then luster gold—Nevelson deracinated these found objects from their origins. Danto located the rife indeterminacy that so populates Nevelson’s work within Diane Waldman’s “claim that one distinguishing mark of contemporary sculpture is the way it has climbed off its implied pedestal to join us on the ground.” Galerie Gmurzynska’s exhibition shows that the very same came be said for her relief-collages.
Far from austere, the collages on display are quite sensuous and often find Nevelson working with colors that she abstained from in her larger works. These include raven reds and a whole cast of blue grays. Where she invokes white and black in her collages, there is also more articulation to its application, with constituent wooden facets splatter-struck or half-painted. Untitled (1970), for instance, presents a bisected board, strips of amber and russet-brown wood split by raven-black negative space. Negative space is often a wading pool upon which recast elements float, Nevelson having prodded the collage genre, replete in its Dadaist incarnation with a certain flatness, into full-fleshed dimensionality. The collage becomes relief and, thus, sculpture (a tenuous boundary that Galerie Gmurzynska, following its Marjorie Strider exhibition, seems keen on exploring). Even the flatter collages on view, like the spray-painted board and foamcore Untitled pieces from 1978, give the impression of depth, atomized black froths careening from negative space toward the center, the whirlings reminiscent of a folded nude body’s nodes. One is reminded here of Kunié Sugiura’s photograms, yet Nevelson keeps anatomy and naturalism at a far enough distance that we are not able to berth the works in clear referential bearings. Her collages resist interpretation. She makes glass and paper alien in Untitled (1983), as vertical strips of half-painted bark foreground a silvery-blue rectangle panel. In her paneling, there are no clean edges, and thus Nevelson foregoes the penchant for architecture associated with De Stijl and Neoplasticism. The edges are too rough and the compositions not simple enough to rest in architecture.
In Nevelson’s collages, we are privy to errant lines, rusted metal, aberrant molding, and refolding, all of which are less active in her installational sculptures. The latter are, in a sense, “cleaner” and more manageable. Nevelson’s collages, on the other hand, require further scrutiny. This exhibition, which also features a number of the archetypal installations in the upstairs gallery, is absolutely critical viewing because it allows us to better understand the core principles with which Nevelson was so engaged—themes that we are only now, almost 40 years after her death, coming to fully appreciate.