J.D. Welch - User Experience Design

A Study of Louise Nevelson's Transparent Sculpture VII

Regarded as one of the most influential sculptors of the twentieth century, Louise Nevelson's body of work is large and varied, from monumental outdoor works in steel to room-sized installations made of found wooden objects; prints to elegant Plexiglas constructions. In the collection of the Neuberger Museum at SUNY Purchase, one of these peculiar transparent sculptures is represented in the permanent collection.

A particularly beautiful example of her spare aesthetic, the piece has a surprisingly simple individual history, having been purchased from the first and only show to focus on this series. However, it is an interesting example of the range of Nevelson's work. In this paper, I will introduce the history of this piece and its formally similar companions and discuss their significance in the context of Nevelson's oeuvre by citing critical commentary contemporaneous to their initial production as well as the later treatment of these pieces in literature about her work.

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According to the Neuberger Registrar's File, the work is number four of an edition of six, and was purchased by Roy Neuberger from Pace Gallery in 1968, where it was shown in an exhibition entitled, fittingly enough, "Louise Nevelson: Transparent Sculpture." The show ran January 13-February 14 of that year. In the Neuberger's collection since its creation, the piece has been on view in the second-floor galleries since 1993.

Constructed of clear Plexiglas, measuring only 20 ¼" x 11 9/16" x 6 ½", this work is intriguing as it bears minimal formal resemblance to Nevelson's larger, more "definitive" pieces like Sky Cathedral or Dawn's Wedding Chapel, which emphasize materials and their assemblage-like production technique. The extreme rectilinearly of Transparent Sculpture VII is in contrast to most works in her sculptural oeuvre, which relies more on found objects (in the case of the wooden pieces) and a more organic organization.
The transparent pieces are characterized as being "constructed of Plexiglas but made of light (Lipman 157)." The massing of rectangular forms is enhanced with many decorative screws and various patterns of incised, curved lines. The monumental feel of the piece is striking given its small size, and while the material is a departure from Nevelson's previous work, the importance of light and texture continue to be key elements in the composition.

As far as the condition of the piece goes, it is unfortunately a bit scratched up and isn't presented in the most effective manner; the vitrine interferes with the viewer's understanding of the extremely subtle details and generally it looks unfortunately stranded in the middle of the gallery. At any rate, the piece is a fine example of the work from this short phase in Nevelson's career.

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Even though Transparent Sculpture VII is hardly instantly recognizable as Nevelson's work, it is not a singular anomaly-- there are a number of formally similar works (created for the same 1968 show), as well as similar pieces called the Canada Series. Additionally, the works were fabricated in editions, so there are many versions of Nevelson's work in plastic floating around. Several of the sculptures were given by the New York State Council on the Arts as New York State Awards in 1968. Recipients included Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Art on Tour, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Eastern Airlines, Endo Laboratories, The Ford Foundation, Hudson Valley Philharmonic Society, Lake George Park Commission, Paley Park, Society for the Preservation of Landmarks in Western New York, and the Waterford Historical Museum and Cultural Center. This disparate list of owners also includes the transparent works being represented in the collection of the Whitney, the only museum-owned of the series to be included in a 1983 monograph (Lipman 157-59).

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These pieces were first shown over thirty years ago, and while there isn't a large-scale review of the 1968 Pace Gallery exhibition, several publications published short reviews. Since then, the pieces are treated in monographs and catalogue raisonnes as another phase of Nevelson's work, however they have not been the major subject of exhibitions.

A review of the 1968 show touches on the anomalous nature of these pieces, noting the distance from her usual style and scale:

Now the walls [of her other pieces] are small-scale and transparent, sparkling Plexiglas, still compartmented with a fairytale fragility which makes them seem like tiny office-buildings of ice. They are very pretty, but their persnickety delicacy seems meant for the jewel-case or the boudoir. They legitimately continue her preoccupations with light, but now deal in transparency, reflection and refraction rather than shadow and concealment. Opening them up this way seems to expose and arbitrariness of design and scale (E.C.B. 22).

This critic only gives praise calling the work "sparkling" and "pretty" and relegates the importance of the pieces to decorative objects best suited for the home. Another critic characterizes them in another set of less-than glowing terms: "expensive-looking, very 'simple' geometric constructions in transparent plastic" and goes on to say more generally of her work during this period: "one wonders whether the randomness of the 'found' still has even a place in a style whose energy seems focused on fitting together modular units (S.B.:70)." Possibly contributing to the feeling of "modularity" is the fact that the transparent pieces were not created by hand, as much of her work is, but were fabricated in a Saint Louis workshop (Lipman 155). Martin Friedman, in a 1970 book focusing on Nevelson's wood sculpture, reflects the general dismissive air of the critical response to the transparent sculptures by asserting them as somehow inferior to her other work:

"Although she has recently made small, precise Plexiglas cube constructions and overseen the translation of several of her earlier wood pieces into cor-ten steel sculptures, the genesis and essence of her art is in her special use of wood, with which she creates seemingly weightless shapes whose iconography relates them to the past as well as to the present (frontispiece)."

He chooses to set up his comment by saying something along the lines of'despite the transparent sculptures' she can still make good art.
Around the time of their initial production, the only other mention of the work in the art journals seems to consist of a photo of Transparent Sculpture V included with an article in L'Oeil and a mention in the Art Quarterly of the accession of a version of Transparent Sculpture I to the collection of the Albrght-Knox (for what it's worth).

On a more interesting note, however, the literature offers a connection between the transparent series and some of her work of the next few years. In an unsigned, extended caption for a 1968 photo in Arts Magazine, the sculptures as a group are given the title "Ice Palace;" the full title for the transparent work illustrated in this case is Model for Atmospheres and Environments: Ice Palace I (Arts 1968:22), distinguishing this particular work as a sort of maquette for the larger cor-ten pieces that carry the Atmospheres and Environments name. Lipman also mentions the "Ice Palace" title. In many later steel works, the formal treatment of simple vertical rectangles intersected with removed circular segments is very possibly derived from the transparent work, although the change in scale and materials creates very different sculptures.

Later commentary on the series is more positive, including such phrases as "[the] Plexiglas sculptures, totally abstract, represent Nevelson's most sophisticated and original departure from traditional Cubism" and the assertion "the material that Nevelson chose for these handsome pieces is Plexiglas, but they are really made of light (Lipman 155-7)." The later literature of course has the benefit of hindsight, and the place of the transparent series in the continuity of Nevelson's work is more apparent (and recognized), as demonstrated in the following passage:

"She began to explore the lightweight and reflective properties of black- enameled aluminum and of black and clear Plexiglas. Instead of blocking the viewer's vision with a solid wooden wall divided into compartments with shallow recessions, she chose to create transparent , skeletal structures. (Lipman 153)"

Instead of focusing on the differences between these sculptures and everything else she did, Lipman tried to reconcile the transparent works as part of the logical progression of her work.

Glimcher intriguingly puts forth the idea that "to negate the end connotation of a retrospective [1967, Whitney Museum], Nevelson showed the first of a new series of works: a transparent Plexiglas sculpture entitled Ice Palace (Lipman 155)." The sort of pivotal position given to these works in Glimcher's analysis discusses the "skeletal impression" and "distillation of sculpture (155)" as key elements.

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Nevelson's innovation in plastic shown in the winter of 1968 was short-lived, however, and the pieces shown in her next exhibition, at the same gallery, only a few months later, return to a more familiar style: "[she] again shows black wood constructions (in which she has no peer) after successfully using transparent plastic (Arts 69)."

Also interesting (and worth mentioning in this discussion) is that Roy Neuberger's purchase of this piece is not Nevelson's only interaction with the Neuberger Museum: in 1976 she showed a group of large-scale steel sculptures at the museum. "I presented Nevelson with a simple offer. The space was hers to show any group of works, so long as they had not been shown previously in a museum setting (Neuberger 4)."

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This piece may not be the most significant object ever produced by Nevelson, but it is a fascinating sculpture for its detailed and very beautiful formal qualities as well as the relative rarity of objects from the Nevelson's brief foray into plastic that allowed its production. The work is thus most significant for its singularity and is therefore a wonderful addition to a collection that showcases many 'non-famous' (yet still interesting) works by 'name-brand' artists.

Sources

"Accession Records, 20th Century Sculpture." 1968. Art Quarterly, Winter, 452.

"E.C.B."* 1968. "Reviews and Previews: Louise Nevelson." ArtNews, March, 22.

Friedman, Michael. 1973. Nevelson: Wood Sculptures. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co.

Glimcher, Arnold B. 1972. Louise Nevelson. New York: Praeger Publishers.

Lipman, Jean. 1983. Nevelson's World. New York: Hudson Hills Press.

"Louise Nevelson's Transparent Sculpture." available at: http://www.gewaterford.com/museum/transparent_sculpture.htm

Neuberger Museum, SUNY Purchase. 1977. Nevelson at Purchase: The Metal Sculptures.

Neuberger Museum, SUNY Purchase. n.d. Registrar's File for Transparent Sculpture VII.

Newman, Robert. "Louise Nevelson." Arts Magazine, May, 58.

"Past Recipients: New York State Governor's Arts Awards." available at:
http://www.nysca.org/PastRecipients.html

"Review:Louise Nevelson at Pace." 1969. Arts Magazine, March, 24.

Russell, John. 1968. "Aimez-Vous Documentia?" L'Oeil, August-September, 32- 39.

"S.B."* 1969. "Reviews and Previews: Louise Nevelson." ArtNews, May, 70.

Whitney Museum of American Art. 1967. Louise Nevelson: A Retrospective Exhibition.

* I was unable to locate the names of the authors of these articles. Several subsequent publications have used the initials as well, so I have to assume that they are unknown.