Louise Nevelson – Sky Cathedral

Louise Nevelson— Sky Cathedral Presence Survey of World Art By Vyacheslav Borts The sculptress Louise Nevelson was a towering figure of American modernism. Born in 1899, she came to prominence in the late ‘50s, gaining renown for monochromatic structures built out of discarded wood. Critic Arthur C. Danto wrote, “There could be no better word for how Nevelson composed her work than bricolage—a French term that means making do with what is at hand. (Danto 2007) Her pieces evolved and expanded in size across the latter 20th century, moving from smaller pieces to wall-sized ones, and the plays of volume therein, between light and mass, generated comparisons to numerous different movements. The following paper will examine these links by discussing Nevelson’s work, Sky Cathedral (1982), in conversation with seven others: the Stela of Mentuwoser (ca. 1955 B. C. ), the Grave Stele of a Little Girl (c. 450-440 B. C. ), the Imperial Procession from the Ara Pacis Augustae (13-9 B.

C. ), the Triumph of Dionysos and the Seasons (ca. A. D. 260-270), Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, 1913/1951, MoMA, Mondrian’s Composition (1921), and Pollock’s One (Number 31, 1950). To set up these conversations, it is necessary to locate Nevelson’s significance. Picasso’s pioneering, early 20th century sculpture of accumulation was the foundation of Junk art—an impulse utilizing found objects. Nevelson had started assembling discarded wood in the mid ‘50s (she was then in her early 60s), and doing so linked her to many younger peers.

However, Nevelson was not ideologically linked to either. Similarly, Nevelson’s monochrome reliefs invoked sacred and public tableau from centuries earlier. What is centrally different, though, is the lack of single, true perspective—her larger installations invite consideration from a variety of perspectives. To place her in a particular mode or tradition always seems to run up against these tensions. Starting with the Stela of Mentuwoser (Fig. 2), one has a good example. Like Nevelson’s mature works, it is a rontally-oriented relief, and one might go further, taking the Stela’s funerary function as a link to the commanding monochromes—most obviously the blacks. However, Nevelson herself did not use monochromes to connote anything, stating that the association of black and death was basically a Western cultural association and that for her, “it may mean finish, completeness, maybe eternity. ” Moreover, it would betray cultural projection to assume that the Egyptians were attempting abstraction, per se.

According to Panofsky The ancient Egyptians, who tried to reproduce things in their rigorously objective appearance, surely thought they were proceeding as naturalistically as possible. The Greek artist, in turn, would have thought of his own works as naturalistic only in comparison to those of the Egyptians. {Panofsky 2000) Krauss, in her essay “The /Cloud/”, reminds us that, “The Egyptian relief…both enforces a shadowless linearity and is projected as if seen from no vantage at all. (Kraus 1992) By contrast, Nevelson’s Sky Cathedral (Fig. ), even in a 2-D rendering, is replete with nooks and shadows—this invites the changing of position which itself multiples its vantages. The Stela is relatively thin; its funerary purpose makes one recall Alois Riegl’s analysis The Egyptian method of employing a theory of proportions clearly reflects their Kunstwollen [artistic intention or “the will to form”], directed not toward the variable, but toward the constant, not toward the symbolization of the vital present, but toward the realization of a timeless eternity (Riegl 1957)

By inviting the viewer to re-engage Sky Cathedral from multiple approaches, Nevelson is clearly trying to achieve something else. Looking next at the Grave Stele of a Little Girl (Fig. 3), one can see not only the formal advancements to which Panofsky gestured in the quote above but also the metaphysical shift from the perspective Riegl described. Although this Stele, too, is connected to death, it is not concerned with the timelessness of the afterlife—it quite strikingly grasps towards a felt instant of its young subject’s life.

The poignancy of this girl’s untimely death and the instant of life the Grave Stele captures are both magnified by the weight and constancy of the marble. By contrast, Nevelson achieves something like suppleness in Sky Cathedral by her use of multiple layers and multiple “new” spaces that emerge from different vantage points. From the Attic Greek to the Augustan age brings one to the Imperial Procession, located on the North frieze of the Ara Pacis Augustae (Fig. 4).

The first two sculptures put into conversation with Sky Cathedral were mortuary, but the Imperial Procession is celebratory. The first two are both smaller than four feet, but the Procession is life-sized, so its visual force is thus magnified. Finally, the individuals therein are not idealized types, in contrast to earlier Greek modes of statuary—they naturalistic depictions of many actual people in the line of the Caesars. The Ara Pacis took four years to build, due to its desired scale and quality, and that scale points to a salient evolution from the Greeks to the Romans.

Riegl claimed this vector went from what he call[ed] the haptic objectivism of the Greeks—the delineation of the clarity of the object through an appeal to and a stimulation of the tactile associations of the viewer—to the optical objectivism of Roman art, in which the need to set the figure up in space as radically freestanding led to the projection of the rear side of the body and hence the use of the drill to excavate the relief plane. (Riegl 2004)

This magnification in both size and realism fascinates, certainly evoking an interest in multiple planes of and vantages on the Procession. But what is notably absent here that exists in Sky Cathedral are the recesses and pockets—the shaping inner spaces that create shadows and enigmas and that are themselves changeable things, as exterior light shifts. The transition from Augustan to late Roman sculpture finds this crucial transition. From contemporaneous perspectives, Late Roman art was judged to have declined from earlier Greco-Roman standards.

However, Riegl argued that the development of an “optical” mode of representation in the late Roman period—manifested, for example, in the play of light and shadow in the deeply cut sarcophagus reliefs—actually prepared the ground for highly spiritualized Christian painting and ultimately for the idealizing and subjective art of modern Europe. (Riegl 2004) The representative piece from this period is the Triumph of Dionysos and the Seasons (Fig. 5). This piece returns us to mortuary work, but—distinctly from the preceding three—brings us to the first work that does not concern mundane human beings.

Carved in high relief, Dionysos rides a panther and is flanked by four young men personifying the Seasons. Additionally, other mythic figures, such as Mother Earth and a Nereid, finish filling out the sarcophagus. It’s worth noting the concrete links between Riegl’s assertion about the play of light and the rise of the subjective. There is a bridge from mystery as a function of light and shadow (visual play) to mystery as visual and religious idealization; similarly, there is a bridge from mystery as personal reaction to mystery in subjectively experienced art (as opposed to art that necessitates some reaction or stance).

The name “Sky Cathedral” prefaces or prepares someone to experience the piece, and the piece is very evocative, even without any human-type figures. By contrast, the once-maligned techniques evident in the high-relief are not independent of the mythic-narrative elements on it. Of course, the obvious next step is to start putting Sky Cathedral in conversation with sculpture that has risen after the rise of the subjective and that has moved past representation. It’s well worth asking what—aside from Nevelson’s demurring—should make someone separate her from Dada, Surrealism, etc.

The first candidate is Duchamp’s altered readymade, Bicycle 1913/1951 (Fig. 6). One might disregard Picasso’s use of found objects, used as often as they were for representational pieces, but why shouldn’t one consider Duchamp and Nevelson kindred spirits? The first answer, in experiential terms, is the brute intellectual force of readymades, compared to Nevelson’s work—the best way to explain that is tor refer to the titular semiological device of Krauss’s “The /Cloud/. In this essay, Krauss cites Hubert Damisch’s Theorie du /Nuage/, which uses a perspective-viewing machine created by Brunelleschi as a point of departure, first to cite /cloud/ as a marker inserted …between those two planes of the perspective apparatus…slipped into the construction as though it were measurable…but which gave the lie…to this…possibility of definition…Perspective was thus understood from the first to be a matter of architectonics, of a structure built from delimited bodies (Krauss 1992)

If, to this grounding of perspective and perception, one can add Breton’s definition of readymades as “manufactured objects raised to the dignity of works of art through the choice of the artist,” the problem becomes clear. Duchamp’s readymades are goal-oriented works, works that live by the putative volition of the artist; therefore, there is nothing conceptual slipped between the two planes above—everything announces itself. By contrast, at first a physical and then a perceptional level, Nevelson’s work interferes and entices. They do not live “through the choice of the artist,” but rather through the choices of the investigating viewer.

Sky Cathedral operates not as a manifesto or an act of will but as a dynamic, growing system. Furthermore, although Nevelson has had pieces such as White Vertical Water, which recalls Arp’s works, she has never taken on the label, Dadaist. The notions of interference and physicality that were present in Krauss’s essay above move the conversation with Sky Cathedral towards Mondrian’s Composition 1921. The most obvious surface differences are Nevelson’s use of curves and irregular lines and her lack of dogmatism, relative to the proponents of Neoplasticism.

However, there are just as obviously very exciting parallels. Mondrian’s grids simultaneously organize and disorient space, and one might make the analogy that his use of color parallels Nevelson’s use of the volumes, the fullnesses of Sky Cathedral. Krauss might assert that this was to be expected, discussing how the influence of phenomenology ushered in early 20th century paintings’ concern with, “…the logical grounds of possibility, for the purely subjective phenomenon of vision itself…” and the subsequent ascendance, conceptually, of the grid. Krauss 1992) She goes on to cite Mondrian as the, “prime figure” in the “classical period of the modernist grid” (Krauss 1992), and this is entirely reasonable. Mondrian deals with this tension by creating lines without shadows, by using flatness, and by building images straightforwardly, in the mode of objectivism. But if one does not use this strategy to address the phenomenological issues above, the big /cloud/ that slips into the work and sight planes is tactility. Krauss describes the choice as one between, …materializing the grid, as when Ellsworth Kelly constructs…Colors for a Large Wall…” or between …mak[ing] the optical a function of the tactile…field of its viewer, that is to say, the succession of those viewing distances the viewer might assume. ” (Krauss 1992) It is at this verge, then, that the relationship between Mondrian and Nevelson becomes most provocative—the pure question of sight. Regarding how to engage Nevelson’s work, Danto recalls a term from Hegel To experience an Aufhebung, one must experience something on three levels of consciousness.

One must see something is preserved but at the same time that it is negated and that it is transcended. This is the way the mechanics of wood, black and sculpture operate in the experience of Nevelson’s work—or the way she hoped they would operate. (Danto 2007) If Nevelson and Mondrian are antipodes on the spectrum of the phenomenology of vision, it is not surprising that their works are formally antipodal. Danto’s assertion is striking, though, because the physical engagement of Nevelson’s work operates very similarly to that of her final peer.

Although Jackson Pollock did not work with found wood, or monochromes, or large reliefs, his work easily triggers the same multivalent observations and interactions that Nevelson’s does. Like her’s, his work generates heightened, shifting, and fragmented awarenesses even as it restructures an apparent totality. The reasons for this are numerous and well-worth examining, especially after an exploration of the fundamental basis of vision. First, Pollock achieves the quality of depth, thus instigating a viewer’s investigation thereof.

Whereas Nevelson achieves this quality through physical volumes, arrays of lines, and seeming barrier of monochromes, Pollock does so with line, color and layering. Furthermore, both artists operate within a mode of subjectivity—that is to say, both are creating arenas in which every spectator is playing with and against their own shifting experience of some artwork. To the extent that Danto is correct, to the extent that Nevelson’s (and possibly Pollock’s) works are built to engender Aufhebung experiences, they can do so because of the interplay between shifting perceptual, conceptual, and emotional engagements.

Moreover, this space seems open partly because of the aleatory or unconscious impulses within these artists’ processes. This is not to negligate intention in either party’s works—for instance, one quality of Pollock’s opticality is the perception of shadows, despite the absence of (significant) volume—which quality Nevelson’s work obviously generates. Finally though, it’s important to recognize the considerable gulfs between Sky Cathedral and Pollock’s One (Number 31, 1951). There are several qualities which distinguish Nevelson from Pollock and other Abstract Expressionists.

There is, in a literal, physical sense, nothing abstract about Nevelson’s work; even though there is nothing representational, per se, her great monochrome masses are amalgams of things that are somewhat recognizable and of regular space. Furthermore, even though Nevelson’s work process cannot be said to have been structured, there was no ideology or impulse towards revealing or expressing a subconscious. Although there are numerous intellectual and personal influences to credit for Nevelson as an artist and thinker, these seven conversations have, hopefully, made clear the uniqueness of Louise Nevelson’s body of work.

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Politics and Art Historical Method in the 1930s. New York, NY:Zone Books, 2000. Rapaport, Brooke Kamin. The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson:Constructing a Legend. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007. Riegl, Alois. Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004. Riegl, Alois. Meaning in the Visual Arts. New York, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957. [pic] Fig. 2. Stela of Mentuwoser, ca. 1955 B. C. Limestone, paint, 104. 3 cm x 49. 7 cm x 8. 3 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Reproduced from www. metmuseum. org. (accessed May 1, 2010) [pic] Fig. 3. Grave Stele of a Little Girl, c. 450-440 B.

C. Marble, Parian, 80 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Reproduced from www. metmuseum. org (accessed May 1, 2010) [pic] Fig. 6. Marcel Duchamp, Bicycle Wheel 1913/1951, 1951. Metal wheel mounted on painted wood stool, 129. 5cm x 63. 5cm x 41. 9 cm. Museum of Modern Art. Reproduced from www. moma. org. (accessed May 1, 2010) [pic] Fig. 7. Piet Mondrian, Composition, 1921. Oil on canvas. 59. 5cm x 59. 5 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Reproduced from www. abcgallery. com (accessed May 1, 2010) [pic] Fig. 1. Louise Nevelson, Sky Cathedral, 1982. Painted wood. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Reproduced from http://www. rtst. org/ (accessed May 1, 2010). [pic] Fig. 4. Imperial Procession, North wall of the Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace), 13-9 B. C. Rome. White Marble. Reproduced from http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Ara_Pacis. (accessed May 1, 2010) [pic] Fig. 5. Triumph of Dionysos and the Seasons, ca. 260-270 A. D. Marble, 86. 40cm x 92. 10 x 215. 90cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Reproduced from www. scholarsresource. com (accessed May 1, 2010) [pic] Fig. 8. Jackson Pollock, One (Number 31, 1950), 1950. Oil and enamel paint on canvas, 269. 5 x 530. 8 cm. MoMA. Reproduced from www. moma. org (accessed May 1, 2010)