Louise Nevelson: Recreating A Slightly Mournful Age In Black

The big campaign to give more recognition to women artist is gathering pace at Tate Modern, with a solo show by Mona Hatoum on view and one by Georgia O’Keeffe opening soon. It’s high time – t would be churlish to deny that. Now Pace London has joined in, with a big show devoted ton the work of Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), one of the few female artists to make it really big in New York during those competitive boom years for American art, between, say, 1960 and 1985, when New York was the only place to be for artists who wanted to build a worldwide reputation. She took on all the machos, and beat them at their own game, though it took her a little longer to establish herself fully than it did for the men. Still she did have her first New York solo in 1946 (she was already, however, in her late forties), and she was included in the Whitney Annual the same year – the first of no less than a dozen appearances.

Pace offers a pretty good spread of Nevelson’s work. The one bit of drastic editing is that pretty well everything is black. Nevelson did do work in white and gold as well.  At first glance, everything is piously abstract. Much is just designated ‘Untitled’. Where there are titles, they tend to be on the portentous side: ‘Cascades-Perpendiculars II (Night Music)’, ‘Moon-Star Zag XII’.

The big, complex wall reliefs, for which Nevelson became famous, are the best. In some ways they seem more ‘European’ than most American art from the epoch in which they were made. There is a strong influence from Cubist collage – the ever-inventive Picasso can be heard whispering somewhere in the background – but they have real visual punch. The irreverent ye will, however, tend to see them as a wall of extremely fancy built in bookcases. The comparison is somehow reinforced when one realises that these pieces are built up from architectural discards – banisters from staircases in old-fashioned New York brownstones, bits and pieces of broken furniture: a cabriole here, a sub-Chippendale chair back there. They are tributes to a city that, at the time when they were made, was busy demolishing the 19th century and recreating itself.

The sad thing is that the sculptures now also look like a slightly mournful tribute to an age that is gone. The portentousness, the solemnity, are things one can no longer take quite as seriously as the artist wished them to be taken. The art world has moved on.

Words: Edward Lucie-Smith Photo: Via Twitter/Pace


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