Nevelson exhibition: a small house on a foreign planet

"Louise Nevelson: Atmospheres and Environments," on view here at the Whitney Museum, is the ideal museum show of the season. It creates an enchanted world which draws the Hansel or Gretel in each of us into mysterious forms and structures. A world so perfectly built, installed, and lit that we completely forget for a moment that we are in a museum.

The occasion for this event is Nevelson's 80th birthday, which the Whitney decided to celebrate by inviting her to reassemble environmental installations not seen for more than 20 years. Roughly 70 elements from these environments have been reunited from collections in France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, England, and the United States.

The artist has taken pieces from seven major works created between 1955 and 1961 and refashioned them into four large installations. These include "The Royal Voyage," "Moon Garden plus One," "Dawn's Wedding Feast," and "The Royal Tides." But the exhibition's most fanciful piece is "Mrs. N's Palace," which she began in 1963 and completed in 1977. It is her largest work and can be entered and examined as though it were a small house on a foreign planet. It is one of the most fascinating pieces of sculpture -- if such it is -- created in recent years, and serves as an anthology of Nevelson ideas, moods, and forms.

It is difficult to be objective about Nevelson's work. And that is particularly true when it is seen in an exhibition as beautifully designed as this one. We don't enter rooms, we enter environments consisting of darkened, mysterious areas filled to capacity -- and frequently beyond -- with thousands off oddly shaped and assembled pieces of wood. At times we are in near-darkness and perceive only what dim lights pick out of a structure literally bristling with detail. Or we turn a corner and are drawn toward and into a buildinglike construction that also reminds us somehow of a cave.

Nevelson is the alpha and the omega of that world, its creator, absolute ruler, and final arbiter. The rest of us can only enter it by suspending much of our own realities -- and we risk our objectivity by doing so .

A cluster of simple sculptural pieces -- black against a light background -- greets us as we get off the museum elevator. These works are stark and uncompromising. Their shapes are simple: often a large, bulky form with comblike teeth projecting from it, or a softly rounded form repeating itself in subtle variations. The effects is one of dark silhouettes against light.

They are beautiful just as they are. But, considering the more complex nature of Nevelson's art, one sees them primarily as components of her formal vocabulary which find their truer identity within the dense constructions and environments she creates.

The Whitney has gone all out to give her the best possible opportunity to show her art to its best advantage. An entire floor of the museum has been so successfully transformed into Nevelson-land that one doubts it could have been done better. Nothing is allowed to interfere with the hushed, watchful waiting so central to her art. Color is totally excluded, and light is permitted only to the extent necessary for us to be aware of her sculptures' presence and identity.

Within this framework she has created an airless, moon-lit, waiting world. A world without sun, sound, or movement. Nothing in it ever changes. If left alone for a hundred years it would look exactly the same at the end of that time -- except for a century's accumulation of dust.

It's a world begun with one piece of wood and finished by adding another and another -- and another. In it, reality is a cumulative event in which identity is established by stopping at a certain point. Nothing ever grows in this world , nothing ever decays. There is no moisture, no natural light, and no sense of time.

But mostly there is no sense of life. The more I walked around, among, and within these structures and gave over to their controlled perfection and to the perfection of the environment within which they existed, the more arid and lifeless my own sensbilities became.

Such endless accumulations of pieces of wood eventually wear one out. And I think that is so because metaphors are missing. We ask ourselves for what purpose was all this time, energy, and talent expended -- and receive no answer. When all is said and done, these structures -- beautifully designed and executed as they may be -- remain just things. And the world within which they exist remains an arid, lifeless universe closer to the world of science fiction than to art.

There is something hauntingly inhuman about Nevelson's world. It is too perfect and too logical. But that is less important than the fact that it is totaly and absolutely invented.Unlike other "perfect" art such as Mondrian's and Reinhardt's, it has no roots, no resonances of reality. One revels and delights in what she does and how she does it -- and then leaves for art that is truly engaging, or for the real world in which we can feel and breathe.

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