Blog VIII: The Alchemy of Louise Nevelson

By Tobias Ostrander

“…When I fell in love with black, it contained all color. It wasn’t the negation of color. It was an acceptance. Because black encompasses all colors. Black is the most aristocratic color of all. The only aristocratic color. For me this is the ultimate. You can be quiet and it contains the whole thing. There is no color that will give you the feeling of totality. Of peace. Of greatness. Of quietness. Of excitement. I have seen things that were transformed into black, that look on just greatness. I don’t want to use a lesser word. Now, if it does that for things I’ve handled, that means that the essence of it is just what you call alchemy.”  – Excerpt from “Dawns and Dusks: Taped Conversations with Diana MacKown” by Louise Nevelson, 1976, p. 126

Portrait of the artist in 1978. Photograph by Cecil Beaton, studio archive, Sotheby's London.

Portrait of the artist in 1978. Photograph by Cecil Beaton, studio archive, Sotheby’s London.

Louise Nevelson (born Leah Berliawsky 1899-1988, Ukraine) is a significant figure within American Art of the twentieth century. Her work was produced within a dynamic period, as the European influences of Cubism, Dada and Surrealism were translated and transformed within a U.S. context. She worked during the rise of Abstract Expressionism and beyond, toward Minimalism’s interest in austere, repeated forms. Nevelson was deeply aware of these art movements, and was both influenced by them, and influenced them in turn. She maintained a particularly individual style; however, one informed by her own biography and metaphysical interests. She was a remarkable personality – a strong, successful and strident woman – aggressively participating in a New York art world dominated by men.

From Cubism, she took an interest in collage, fracture and abstraction. From Surrealism, came her use of dreams, the subconscious, the myths and symbols of non-Western cultures. And through Dada, she engaged the material world –found-materials, the waste of urban culture. Her fluid and jagged lines have a dialogue with the brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionism. Repeated motifs and patterning in her later works often speak to the serial forms of Minimalism, and additionally, to its emphasis on scale. These works often dialogue with the body’s proportion and create environmental situations that imply the presence and participation of the viewer.

Nevelson's Dream House XLIII at Caryatid Conservation studio. Photograph by Corey Smith Riley.

Nevelson’s Dream House XLIII at Caryatid Conservation studio. Photograph by Corey Smith Riley.

Nevelson began exhibiting her work in the 1940s, but it was in the 1950s that she first developed her signature style. She began to assemble found-wooden materials; broken pieces of furniture, boxes, windows, doors. She unified these forms by painting them all a monochrome black. While she later created series using monochrome white and monochrome gold, black remained a constant within her oeuvre. Both pieces in the Pérez Art Museum Miami’s collection, Dream House XLIII, from 1973, and Untitled, from the 1980s, are strong examples of her black assemblages.

Untitled is a solid example of Nevelson’s collage reliefs and references her earlier pieces, as it hangs on the wall and is made up of found and irregular pieces of wood. Dream House XLIII directly signals her interest in the subconscious; in irrational states and rituals, specifically her readings on, and exposure to, Native-American and Meso-American cultural traditions. It is a more geometric and patterned work and connected to innovations seen in her later production. As a free-standing object, it speaks to totems and to the proportions of the human body. The wood fragments are less rough than in Untitled, and look cut; elements that have been produced, versus found. The play of light and shadows is developed further in this work, with light flowing through patterned holes in the surface and deep shadows emerging from the hollow interior of the structure.

Interior of Nevelson's Dream House XLIII at Caryatid Conservation studio. Photograph by Corey Smith Riley.

Interior of Nevelson’s Dream House XLIII at Caryatid Conservation studio. Photograph by Corey Smith Riley.

Alchemy was a word Nevelson used often, not only to describe the power of black, but to articulate her entire artistic process. How the living material of trees, which had previously been made into utilitarian objects, and then discarded, are transformed into mystical objects – objects that reference and honor the sun, moon, heavens and spiritual realms. It is the magic and mystery of her constructions that resonate strongly within our contemporary moment. As we live in a world increasingly filled with information, technology and minimalist forms and products, the subjectivity, irrationality and esoteric nature of Nevelson’s works take on a freshly irreverent and provocative character.

After conservation treatment, these two sculptures will return to exhibition in the new museum building opening in December 2013.

To learn how both sculptures were crated and transported from the museum to the Caryatid Conservation studio, read next week’s blog by Marlene Worhach from  ARTEX Fine Art Services.

Tobias Ostrander is chief curator of Pérez Art Museum Miami.

For questions or comments regarding this blog, please leave a comment below, or directly contact the editor, Jillian Ambroz, at jambroz.caryatidconservation@yahoo.com.

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