Louise Nevelson’s Black-Box Theatrics

Early on in the exhibition are seven terra-cotta sculptures made during the mid-1940’s—dated and cornball pieces. Nevelson soon found a more compelling way to give shape to her primordial yearnings. With Black Box (Seeing Through) (circa 1950) and the whimsical Night Presence VI (1955), assemblages made from lumber-yard scraps and furniture castoffs, you can almost hear Nevelson cry “Eureka!” She’d hit upon her métier: the found object.

Banister fragments, table legs, crates, armrests, bent nails and toilet seats—Nevelson stacked and packed them within shelved structures that would at times assume architectonic scale. She sprayed a matte black paint on her bits and pieces in an attempt to undo their specificity; their previous function was, if not negated, then qualified. A picture molding, say, became less a recognizable object and more of a freestanding shape.

Nevelson considered black “the most aristocratic color of all.” It provided, she said, “the feeling of totality. Of peace. Of greatness.” Certainly she was aware of black’s symbolic and emotional possibilities, as well as the clichés surrounding them.

But if black had any allusive intent for Nevelson, the rectilinear columns of Dawn’s Wedding Feast (1959)—pieces that have been painted white—would be radically different in temper and effect. They’re not; the eerie and imperial quietude remains intact. Black was a formal device, not a signifier.

The allusive power of the work resides in the fitting together and arranging of the bric-a-brac. Even then, it’s the stubborn presence of the totem, rather than any spiritual or cultural thrust, that was Nevelson’s goal.

Playing horizontals off verticals, volume against plane, her edifices are imposing even on a small scale. Compression and containment within Nevelson’s crated modules emphasize the rhythms, rhymes, quirky tangents and hieratic rigor of the artifacts. They save the work from being merely gloomy decoration.

When Nevelson turned her attention to building her “walls,” she lost this urgency. The gridded accumulations of individual components are artful rather than lively. Overall, they’re rather boring. Butting a dozen or so boxes up against or on top of each other results not in greater complexity, but in homogeneity.

The artist Willie Cole, seen in a video at the end of the exhibition, speaks of Nevelson’s art in terms of “embalming.” Inadvertently but with devastating precision, Mr. Cole hits the black and rusty nail on the head. Nevelson’s pieces aren’t memento mori; they’re just dead.

Their handsomeness is derived from their inertia. Nowhere is this clearer than Mrs. N’s Palace (1964-77), a shack-like enclosure that’s less Temple of Dendur than house of horrors. Nevelson’s gift for juxtaposition is undone by her theatricality. Here she replaces stoic spectacle with outright hokum. It’s funereal bombast with mood lighting—a sad and all-but-laughable achievement.

Not for nothing is Nevelson hailed as a progenitor of a numb-to-its-core movement like Minimalism or the didactic excesses of most installation art. Nevelson’s sculpture ultimately privileges the artist’s prerogatives over art’s vitality. We’re left with monuments of personality rather than homages to life. The latter can be picked out here and there, and to impressive effect. Don’t fool yourself, though: Nevelson the Legend wins out over Nevelson the Artist. It’s a disheartening dénouement.

The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend is at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue, until Sept. 16.