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The Sculptures of Louise Nevelson

The Grand Dame of Sculpture at the de Young

Inhabiting a museum building that is itself a sort of sculpture -- the de Young’s angled walls, jutting towers, and twisting, broad steps are considered by many to be works of art -- Louis Nevelson’s creations have found a fitting stopping place, resting for the moment at Golden Gate Park in their monochromatic glory. Nevelson, sometimes referred to by critics as “the grand dame of sculpture, joined the party (at least publicly) late in her life.

Though she’d been working for many years prior, she made her public debut in 1959 when she was invited by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to participate in "Sixteen Americans". Debuting with an all white sculptural installation -- when invited she told curator Dorothy C. Miller, “Dear, we’ll make a white show” -- Nevelson brought her prowess to a lineup that featured the likes of Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg, and Frank Stella. Johns was twenty-nine, Kelly was thirty-six, Rauschenberg was thirty-four, and Stella was a wee twenty-three. Nevelson, on the other hand, was sixty-years old.

Nevelson’s sculpture makes an art of the cast-off: she melds blocks of found wood into precise constructions, then colors them monochromatically; all the pieces in the exhibit, for instance, are black, white, or gold. The daughter of a wood-cutter and a junk-dealer, Nevelson gives intense care to geometric precision in her work. The sculptures -- some of them massive, even room-sized like "Mrs. N’s Palace" (which took the artist thirteen years to make) -- are three-dimensional catalogs of lines and shapes, taxonomies of craft that seem almost to rise up like skylines of great cities.

Filled with compartments and a minute sense of exactness -- the lines lead the eye across the work -- Nevelson is nonetheless much more than a professional recycler. Calling her work more akin to drawing than any other form, Nevelson utilizes the repetition of Warhol but with a masterful injection of her own creations, rather than, as in Warhol’s case, pop culture imagery. She borrows, finds, but then, in contrast to the pop artists who were rising to fame around her, she pushes the synthesizing much further, into something starkly new.

In the end her constructions are masterful: Nevelson thrusts us into the utterly self-contained world of her sculpture, leading us directly into the abstract wonder of her imagination. These sculptures, instantly recognizable as products of Nevelson’s hand, teem with objects we identify: toilet seats, chair backs, table legs, crates, barrel lids, wooden spools, blocks, table leaves, arabesque ornamentation, even coasters. Occasionally, Nevelson drifts into the representational -- a nice gesture toward the so-called “real” -- by depicting, vaguely, things like the Golden Gate Bridge in "Golden Gate" or a foggy day (as only a patterned wooden block painting blazing white can) in "Morning Haze".

A woman and a Jew -- her family emigrated from the Ukraine in the early nineteen hundreds when she was six -- Nevelson downplayed the importance of “woman” or “Jew” in her artmaking. They represented personal, cultural and, of course, inescapable influences on her sculpture, but Nevelson preferred to talk about the art and its successfulness (or lack thereof) –rather than the person making it. Nonetheless, writes guest curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport, “Nevelson’s use of wood was extraordinarily liberating. It gave her, as a woman artist, a medium apart from the welded metal of her peers.” Grand dame, indeed.

“The Sculptures of Louise Nevelson”
At The de Young Museum
Runs through January 13, 2008.
Admission: $10, Seniors 65 and over $7, Youths 13-17 $6, College Students with ID $6, Children 12 and under FREE.