"The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend"
de Young Museum, San Francisco
October 27, 2007 — January 13, 2008
San Francisco has had a couple of Nevelson sculptures in public spaces for several years, both of them Corten Steel, painted black: "Sky Tree" (1977), located at the Embarcadero Three in the Financial District, and "Ocean Gate" (1982), on view at the de Young’s Sculpture Garden (previously at the Legion of Honor.)
The Hackett-Freedman gallery in downtown SF had a show of Nevelson's work in 2004, including several of the large wall reliefs and mixed media collages, as well as some very early figurative sculptures.
But seeing the retrospective that just opened at the de Young made me finally comprehend her work. After passing through the first three rooms, I started thinking that she was more focused on line than form. And then I came to the room with her works on paper, where a big wall plaque has this quote from the artist:
"I have never left two dimensions, because I've always been doing etching and lithographs and drawing . . . If you really go through just one piece of mine, you can see drawing."
The first room (her earliest work) is mostly figurative pieces, including a row of rock-like terracotta forms that are scribed with faces and petroglyph symbols. (Right: "Moving-Static Moving Figure", Terracotta, 1945, from the Whitney)
The next, and darkest, room contains the Moon series and the Sky Cathedral. The dim light is a silvery blue that gives the black wood sculptures a graphite sheen and enhances the edge views.
The viewer then enters a bright room full of all-white sculptures, "Dawn's Wedding Feast" with bride, groom, and cathedral sculptures. This group was reassembled with loans from more than a dozen locations.
The huge, black, stacked-boxes sculpture, "Homage to 6,000,000 I" (1964), a loan from the Osaka City Museum of Modern Art in Japan, requires multiple looks. It's almost too big to take in from one viewpoint. It reminded me of an Irving Norman painting: the use of multiples, in which I could see machinery, bombs, bullets, bodies, and barriers.
(Above: "Mrs. N's Palace", from the NYT)
Two free-standing dwellings sat next to each other. One, a small, porous, gingerbread "Dream House" . . . the other a life-sized, luxury cottage called "Mrs. N's Palace." Apparently, she worked on the "palace" for thirteen years.
The wooden sculptures are made from multiple pieces of wood, all different sizes and shapes, stacked and pressed together to create an overall shape. The monochromatic paint covering the pieces forces the eye to follow the lines within the forms. She was drawing with wood.
My favorite review of the show, from its previous life in New York: link