Having already explored Louise Nevelson’s works of the ’30s in a 1997 exhibition, the current Washburn Gallery show looks at Nevelson’s development in the late ’40s. The sculpture is low-fired ceramic, painted black, and not typical of what we have come to know as a “Nevelson,” those great walls and columns of wood and wood scraps united in a solid network of seemingly infinite parts. Nevertheless, these works are important since they demonstrate Nevelson’s efforts to find a path all her own.
Among small pedestal-sized works is a Mayan-inspired reclining figure, a Barbara Hepworth-like grouping of elliptic shapes, and the simple form of an archaic urn—all suggesting that Nevelson was looking here and there for ideas and inspiration. In the end she wanted to create for herself something distinctly modern. Whether figural or purely abstract, the clay pieces are incised by lines, some of which denote eyes and mouths; other, more decorative, markings indicate Nevelson’s early desire to activate the surface as she does later in her career with multiple layers of found wood. This technique also points to her awareness of the interest in pictograms shown by her contemporaries Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko.
There is a certain richness and nobility to these pieces underscored by her choice of black (which she saw as a unifying element) and reinforced by knowledge of the work yet to come. This premonition can be in the dramatic form of a vessel, or a totem, or the arrangement of geometrically shaped elements pieced together by means of a metal dowel, as in Untitled (1947).
Had she stopped here Nevelson would be part of a smaller movement which simply pursued the biomorphic and Cubist-derived abstractions of the day. But instead she learned from these demure works the need for monumental scale and the necessity of risk for growth. One might think of these earlier works as the symbols and archetypes of a mythology that would come to predominate the strange, haunting works yet to come.