There are some artists who seem to come into the world with their styles intact — no years of insecurity and searching for them. They know what they want to say and how to say it, and then proceed, for the remainder of their careers, to simply ring brilliant changes on their original vision, startling us again and again with their versatility and the force of their genius. The sculptor Louise Nevelson was just such an artist; and a superlative new book from Yale University Press (connected, yet again, to an exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York), titled The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: The Making of a Legend, makes the point indisputably.
Nevelson, who lived through much of the 20th century — she was born in 1899 and died in 1988 — is perhaps best known for her massive sculptures composed of found objects, most of them pieces of wood in an assortment of shapes and sizes, that were generally painted black. But this new book makes several things clear: that her palette was a good deal broader than might be imagined by most people, even those who think they know her work well; that she worked with a good number of other materials than just wood; that she took up several Jewish themes and interpreted them with characteristic brilliance and her requisite clarity; and that, even though her style may have seemed to be set from the start, she struggled as a woman to receive her due in the male-dominated art world of her time.
In fact, according to Brooke Kamin Rapaport's lead essay (there are three others in this book, as well as a chronology), Nevelson's first big break came with a group show in 1959 at the Museum of Modern Art. To strike the proper blow and ensure some attention for herself, the artist created a room-sized environment called Dawn's Wedding Feast, made up of found wood but this time painted all in white.
Her piece, of course, shared space with some of the top-flight male sculptors of the period: Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella. But she managed to get the attention she'd striven for.
But why, asks Kamin Rapaport, did it take this singularly striking artist so long to reach "the marquee?"
"The answer lies in the subject matter that ignited Nevelson's work: herself," writes the essayist. "Much of the literature on Louise Nevelson has focused on the constant (often grueling) progression of her work from figuration to abstraction to the crucible of her found object. Critically, however, Nevelson's use of her own life experience affected both the work itself and the way it was received. Her work is, above all, a metaphorical story about herself, told in sculpture."
Kamin Rapaport's essay and the others track Nevelson's Jewish background, her early marriage, motherhood and the revolt she instituted against bourgeois life by becoming a sculptor, as well as the different currents in the art world — cubism, surrealism and abstract expressionism — and the various artists — David Smith, Isamu Noguchi and Alexander Calder, to name only a few — who influenced her.
Most interesting is the artist's move from the self to society at large. As Kamin Rapaport writes, "By the 1960s and 1970s, with her reputation firmly established as sculpture's grande dame, Nevelson created room-size pieces that reflected personal, religious and social issues. As often as Nevelson had looked inward to find her ultimate subject, she now made works relating to the larger culture. Her black walls — already doleful tombs of objects once relating to an individual life — were well suited to themes of memory, decay and death" — especially the Holocaust, which came to preoccupy her artistically for a number of years.