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Louise Nevelson's Modernist Drag

Julia Bryan-Wilson, University of California, Berkeley
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow, January 1–February 28, 2017

Louise Nevelson, Ancient Secrets, 19641964

Louise Nevelson, Ancient Secrets, 1964, painted wood, Corcoran Collection (Gift of the Friends of the Corcoran), 2015.19.3804

I am conducting research on Louise Nevelson (1899–1988) for a book that will be the first scholarly monograph dedicated to the work and reception of this important twentieth-century sculptor. This gap in the critical literature is somewhat surprising, given that Nevelson’s oeuvre is well known and is represented in major collections around the globe. What is more, during her lifetime, her flamboyant self-fashioning was the subject of much popular press, including photographic features on her eccentric New York home in Life magazine and broadcast television profiles that celebrated her distinctive appearance. (She was known for wearing a turban, a tattered fur coat, and thickly applied mascara.) Her face may be familiar, but her specific procedures of construction—in which she assembled found pieces of wood into elaborate, gridlike structures, usually painted black—have been little studied. Several biographies and many exhibition catalogs retrace the arc of her life story: she was a Ukrainian-born Jewish émigré who was briefly married, then lived with a female assistant for almost thirty years. My book, however, will provide a sustained examination of the forms and methods of Nevelson’s art.

Beginning in the 1940s with her found-wood constructions and concluding with her large-scale commissions in the 1970s, “Louise Nevelson’s Modernist Drag” follows the uneven reception of her work within traditional accounts of modernism, looking primarily at her monochromatic abstract sculptures as well as her own self-fashioning as she consciously positioned herself as an eccentric modern subject. I argue that Nevelson’s color choices—in particular her oft-stated allegiance to blackness—and her formal deployment of carpentry propose atypical identifications, ones that offer novel ways of conceiving how abstract art addresses and constructs multiple selves across categorizations of race, sexuality, and gender. In other words, I assert that Nevelson used modernism to her own ends as a strategic resource, wearing it in exaggerated fashion and then discarding it in a knowing form of modernist masquerade or drag.

Although Nevelson is most associated with wood sculpture, I attend as well to the other media she utilized in her artistic practice, including her public plaza works in metal and her collages, prints, and drawings. Her wall-based grids, which hover between painting and sculpture, continue to resist easy categorization, and my book considers the artist’s belated and still tenuous absorption into narratives of sculptural modernism, including abstract expressionism and its aftermath, within the United States. Indeed, I argue that her gender, her artistic process, and her materials situated her as outside of—productively dragging on, or lagging behind—many advances of twentieth-century American art history.

Stretching the conventions of the monographic format to include
wide-ranging and unexpected comparative examples, this book takes Nevelson as an extended case study to question such categories as “woman artist,” “abstract artist,” “Jewish artist,” and “American artist.” I am interested in theorizing how Nevelson’s persistent sculptural idiom (which remained constant for many decades) resists the traditional frame of the monograph as well as modernist narratives of stylistic change and evolution. The book addresses this paradox by eschewing a chronological timeline; instead, it approaches her work thematically, constellated around critical terms that recur throughout her oeuvre.

Considerations of the process and materiality of Nevelson’s art are
crucial to my methodology, and I am endeavoring to examine many of her major works in person. I used my residency at CASVA to advance my primary research significantly, consulting dozens of Nevelson’s pieces in the Washington, DC, area, including those owned by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden as well as an unusually shaped accordionlike work entitled Ancient Secrets in the collection of the National Gallery. I conducted several intense study sessions viewing each of the more than eighty prints in the Gallery’s collection, a rich archive, mostly of lithographs, in which I could witness Nevelson’s nimble way with line and ink. I also made extensive use of the rich holdings in the vertical files of the National Gallery of Art Library, which include many rare catalogs and other documents. My stay at CASVA made possible many revelatory, up-close examinations that will be key to my writing as I describe and thematize Nevelson’s careful use of found objects. Such care is often masked in photographic reproductions, which tend to flatten her works on the page. Because of their monochromatic nature, Nevelson’s sculptures can reproduce poorly, and her work demands a physical, in-the-flesh encounter of any viewer who wishes to grapple fully with its dimensions, textures, and material choices.

Louise Nevelson
Ancient Secrets
Nevelson, Louise
American, 1899 - 1988