Louise Nevelson: Style as Character

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It’s not the early portraits by which one knows her, but let’s begin there anyway. There’s the photograph of Louise Nevelson standing stiff and tall—let’s say strong—against a brick wall, her scarf slipped elegantly into her single-breasted coat, her eyebrows thin swoops, and her mouth a fierce, dark streak. Her dark hair half up and back, and her lined eyes up too, staring at something just over the photographer’s shoulder.

Fast-forward many decades to one of the seminal portraits of the now-iconic American artist in her New York studio. Here she is in 1974, among the boxlike fragments and wooden crates that she would assemble into her monumental reliefs. The works that surround Nevelson are coated in black spray paint, suggesting the negative silhouettes of photograms—likely the result of the artist staining the scrap wood that she nestled into those boxes with molecular dexterity. Nevelson’s hair is covered in a silk scarf, pulled tight. She is wearing her own heavy, handmade jewelry; a necklace loops like a series of anchors around her neck. Her collar is long and pointed. A heavy Western shirt is open like a studio jacket—its pearl buttons gleam. Her eyes are occluded by the enormous false eyelashes that she favored, and her hands rest lightly on the corners of a large box that is streaked with black, echoing her drawn-on eyebrows, her spidery eyelashes, the patent paint on her smiling mouth.

In between there are the many portraits of Nevelson in heavy furs—the glossy coats more animal than material—and oversize men’s shirts or kimonos, her eyes dark grottos behind her lashes. Jewels piled across her chest, crawling geometrically up her neck; enormous hats placed atop her scarf-covered hair. More is more. Her look in each image is wry or delighted or despondent, attenuated fingers splayed theatrically across her face—each feeling performed perfectly. Rising up within almost every frame are the artist’s epic wooden monochrome constructions (mostly covered with a shellac of matte black and the occasional white or gold or green), her intricate jewelry and lined eyes rhyming with the vast assemblages bearing down like dark waves behind her.

“You take any material and when you convert it to black,” she once curtly stated. „It’s so distinguished.” Of the all-encompassing black she often painted her reliefs, she noted that this “silhouette” was the “essence of the universe.” What is a silhouette but a body, some dark, tidal form? What is essence besides everything, distilled? Thus Nevelson’s style, her own intricately assembled silhouette, its own definitive form, is not without meaning. It was how she staged her body and her body of work for the world. And she staged it brilliantly. In 1977, the critic Robert Hughes would note of Nevelson: “The dandy of American art is a woman.“

Born Leah Berliawsky near Kiev, in the Russian Empire, in what is now Ukraine, in the last year of the 19th century, Nevelson was six years old when her Jewish family emigrated from Russia, due to Tsarist persecution, to Rockland, Maine. Her father became a carpenter and then a lumber merchant, predicting his daughter’s favored future material. After seeing a plaster cast of a statue of Joan of Arc at the Rockland Public Library when she was nine, Nevelson decided to be an artist. She would become one. She escaped an early marriage and moved to Europe to study with Hans Hofmann in Munich (legend goes she sold a diamond bracelet to fund the trip). Back in New York, where she assisted Diego Rivera on his WPA murals and experimented with the styles of the day, Nevelson found her form. Her walks of the city’s streets (searching, with her young son, for firewood to heat their home) yielded scrap wood that she turned into enormous assemblages that would become some of the defining American sculptures of the 20th century.

The sculptures are dazzling and nearly atomic takes on form and the latent emotionality of the modernist grid, variously evoking the timber industry of Nevelson’s family and the dense Maine forest, the domestic wooden homes of Russia and the United States, intricate Jewish altars and temples, Mayan ruins, Native American totems, the ready-made, and the assemblages of contemporaries like Robert Rauschenberg and others. The final form that the artist distilled from these disparate influences is, however, all her own, at once astounding and inevitable, seemingly always extant.

Although Nevelson showed consistently in New York, acclaim only came when she was nearly 60. In 1958, a portrait of her was featured on the cover of Life magazine; the following year her work was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s “16 Americans” show, curated by Dorothy Miller, who included a prescient lineup of what is now considered the American canon—Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, and Rauschenberg among them—but only two women artists: Nevelson and Jay DeFeo.

Today, Nevelson’s work remains strikingly influential and yet immune to imitation; her persona, meanwhile, as personified by her expert personal style and the marginality she had to constantly battle as a working-class woman artist, an immigrant, and a Jew, also continues to resonate with contemporary struggles. A recent exhibition at Invisible-Exports in New York paired Nevelson’s work with that of Vaginal Davis, the legendary punk-queer glamour queen from Los Angeles. The show’s press image offers a photo collage of Davis dressed up in Nevelson drag, as the two artists and divas stare at each other with delight—and total recognition.

Nevelson died in New York in 1988; two decades later The New York Times would call her a “dark horse” of the 20th-century New York art world. The line suggests Nevelson’s dark silhouettes racing around some track, her body and body of work at once cosmological and fiercely gravitational, of the heady cosmos, and of the black, wet earth. “Style is character,” it is widely said. (Everyone says it, though this quote is attributed to both Joan Didion and Elizabeth Hardwick, two glittery stylists.) If this is so, as the refrain goes, Nevelson’s singular style, her stunning character, carried her far, just as her virtuosic body of work—its light and its overpowering dark—continues to streak past us and into the speculative future of contemporary art-making.

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