Louise Nevelson, Mrs. N’s Palace, 1964-77. Painted wood and mirror, installation view.

Louise Nevelson

New York

The Jewish Museum

The 67 Louise Nevelson works at the Jewish Museum included a remarkable and little known group of early works, elements of her ground-breaking environments from the 1950s, and important late sculptures, drawings, and prints centered around Mrs. N’s Palace (1964-77). In the 25 years since the artist’s last substantial retrospective, Nevelson’s work has largely disappeared from the literature. In contrast, other significant women sculptors, notably Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse, have been placed in increasingly central positions in sculptural narratives. This show, independently curated by Brooke Kamin Rapaport, offered an opportunity to re-evaluate Nevelson’s sculptural legacy and reflect on the reasons for her temporary eclipse.

The exhibition posited Nevelson’s sense of identity as fundamental to an understanding of her practice. The powerful First Personage (1956), displayed at the start of the exhibition, provides insight into this complex relationship. The primary form is a towering slab of timber, with a silhouette loosely recalling Rodin’s Balzac. Just as Rodin used Balzac’s cloak to define and shroud the figure, Nevelson uses the dominant outer section of First Personage to partially conceal a second shorter totemic form. This more fragile element has jagged crosspieces like the ribs of a bony figure, creating an impression of vulnerability and menace. Nevelson added further ambiguity to the work’s self-referential qualities by stating that First Personage spoke to her through the mouth-like knot in the outer slab.

Rapaport also considered Nevelson’s explorations and expressions of identity in photographic portraits by professionals and friends, One of the earliest is by Lotte Jacob (1943). Nevelson trimmed the photograph into a D-shape to accentuate the profile and drew a Cubist-inspired tracery of lines over the face. The resulting image simultaneously reveals (by acknowledging a key aesthetic influence) and conceals (by subtly masking her features). This and other works suggest that Nevelson used the portrait form as much to disguise as disclose her inner self. Arguably, this strategy has contributed to her recent neglect because it forestalls critical readings, particularly feminist approaches, based on explorations of the artist’s interior life.

In addition to fostering recognition of Nevelson’s impenetrable, layered identity, the exhibition challenged fixed assumptions about her painted assemblages. Indeed, her sculpture emerges as temporal and contingent: boxes were exhibited together and then frequently remade or sold individually. For example, her seminal “Moon Garden + One” exhibition at Grand Central Moderns (1958) could not be completely reconstructed, and sections of Dawn’s Wedding Feast (MoMA, 1959) were reunited from 12 collections for this show.

Aspects of Nevelson’s preoccupation with the relationship between sculpture and architecture have been clearly diminished by this loss. We can still see in the modular construction and wall-like composition of Sky Cathedral Presence (1951-64) and other works that, by employing the vocabulary of the built environment, she boldly reversed sculpture’s traditional subservience to architecture. However, with the exception of the three-dimensional Mrs. N’s Palace, the original tempering of her sculpture’s insistent frontality by its display within a complete gallery installation can no longer be fully grasped. This has created a mismatch between Nevelson’s work and the direction of recent criticism, which, following Rosalind Krauss’s lead, has given privileged status to sculptures that engage the viewer’s experience through space and time.

Yet Nevelson’s investigation of sculpture and architecture reveals more than purely formal concerns. Monumental constructions like Sky Cathedral/Southern Mountain (1959) allude to external, public, and historically masculine spaces. At the same time, the open-fronted boxes from which the sculptures are made have an intimacy of scale that is deliberately personal, domestic, and feminine in context. These dual references are mirrored in many of the cast-off materials that Nevelson selected: objects with an architectural origin (shops signs, finials, stair rails, plaster lathes, door knobs, hinges) and fragments of the furnishings occupying these spaces(chair legs, spindles, toilet seats, lamp stands). Overturning current expectations, the “chance encounters” she nurtured when arranging these objects do not express the polarities between the domestic and public or the masculine and feminine; instead, Nevelson fused these tendencies to create mysterious, mythical spaces, It is in these poetic resonances that a new and deeper insight is to be uncovered. “The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson,” which was recently on view at the DeYoung Museum, signals the direction for further study of a powerful and evocative body of work.