Louise Nevelson - Sky Cathedral

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Louise Nevelson—
Sky Cathedral Presence

Survey of World Art

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 frontally-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. 1), 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...
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