My first realization that there was such a thing as outdoor art sprang from an assignment my class was given during the brief six-month period when I talked my way into the NYU film school in what may have been its first year of existence.
I was shocked to find out that actual film-making wasn’t yet on the agenda for the film school. But we watched a lot of old movies and learned how, in our Perception class, to remove our socks and smell our feet. We also walked blindfolded around Thompkins Square Park, a notorious place to score and use drugs back in the 60’s. We must have provided an extra buzz to the dope fiends, a bunch of college students stumbling like zombies around the benches. Len Lye taught us to draw on film, so that we made early color corrections and animations before digital programs made it simple. Mort Subotnik taught us about synthesized music.
We at least watched films at the NYU film school. At Columbia as well I spent much of my time in the Thalia Theater across from the Broadway campus, watching Godard, Resnais, Truffaut, deBroca, Lelouche, Antonioni, Fellini – the French and Italian “new wave” of humanistic films. It gave me the sense that Wim Wenders created later with Wings of Desire, that there were angels, living gargoyles, in the Berlin architecture who channeled our thoughts and our actions towards the poetry of plinths, corbels, cornices, pediments, columns, caryatids – ghosts in the machine.
I especially loved and still love Godard’s 1963 Le Mépris, or Contempt, based on Alberto Moravia’s 1954 novel, Il disprezzo. I loved the apparent endlessness of the sea being filmed by Fritz Lang in the film within the film, and the religious ascension of the Grecian stairs at the Casa Malaparte, designed in 1937 by Adalberto Libera, on a high wing of rock overlooking Lang’s immortal Tyrrhenian sea. The sea stacks of the Faraglione are just in the corner of its view. There are 99 steps down to the sea, and the house itself is a ziggurat of upward steps. Georges Delerue’s magnificent theme repeats endlessly to bring out different colors each time: infidelity, anomie, eternity, sun, betrayal, beauty, love, and death. L’amour and la mort sound similar in French, and Godard plays on that in his magnificent trailer for the film: a marvelous story of love in a tragic setting, a tragic love story in a marvelous setting. The trailer contains all the magic of the film and the music:
Watch the trailer for Le Mépris
Between the immense sadness of the blank sea, the broken statue with its destroyed stare into the past and the future, the displaced Fritz Lang film with its insane American producer while the real film happens around it, Michel Piccoli’s neglect of his beautiful wife, offering her to the producer to get the writing job, Godard’s puns that he telegraphs with large type on the film, taking the film out of its flat dimension into a metaworld of language, and the final futility of it all which I won’t reveal – during all these plot lines Delerue’s music plays the same ostinato, linking them, underlining how they all bounce off one another to create that dim grey summit to which the Malaparte stairs lead.
The other worthwhile part of film school was our assignment to write an essay about outdoor sculpture in the city. I think in fact that Tony Rosenthal’s 1967 Astor Place Cube was the first outdoor sculpture installed in the city. I must have written about it weeks after its installation. It was fabricated by Don Lippincott, who had just started fabricating works of art in 1966. It led in a way to Nevelson’s Trilogy.
Lippincott also fabricated works by Calder, di Suvero, Dubuffet, Liberman, Lichtenstein, Judd, and Nevelson, several examples of which found their way to Tippet Rise. The Cube has shapes etched into its flat planes similar to Nevelson’s later 1979 Trilogy. She assembled Joseph Cornell boxes of objects she found while walking around New York: scrap timber, joinery offcuts, moldings, dowels, spindles, chair backs, finials.
These modern bas-reliefs undercut the religious origins of Renaissance bas-relief by stressing the domestic irony of bad marriages: love reduced to pieces of furniture. The columns of Roman temples become spindles, cylindrical shafts based on mitotic cellular structures that separate sister chromatids, so that even ordinary shapes on a banister or the back of a chair are metaphors for our own microbiology. Rather than the anatomical bas-relief of Donatello, Nevelson’s biological bas-relief tells stories of oppression hidden in the cellular makeup of disastrous suburban marriages similar to her own.
Small elements of this furniture were adopted by other artists, so that the part came to symbolize the whole. Vast metaphors like Nevelson’s Sky Cathedral were referenced by designs in children’s playing blocks, so we are surrounded by Nevelson’s dark materials without realizing it.
The impregnable fortress of The Cube, reminiscent of the martial architecture of the Monitor and the Merrimac, is made playful, like a child’s playing block, by placing it on its tip and allowing it to spin at the whim of a passerby. It is both forbidding and inviting, static and interactive.
Tony Rosenthal, Alamo (The Astor Place Cube), 1967
Louise Nevelson, Sky Cathedral, 1958
Nevelson made sculptures of her family, made up of the jigsaw collages of shadows turned into cogs, people assembled from leftover furniture, mixed in with Mayan, Olmec, and Aztec symbology, where glyphs represented animals, planets, and stars, a cosmology woven into statues of their leaders. So her own parents became star people, covered with cosmic Mayan tatoos and suggestions of domestic furniture: the trivial and the eternal mixed. Family was to Nevelson the enemy of art. But it also became, in her hands, transcendent.
I spent three hours sitting near The Cube, writing down my impressions for class, bonding with it, watching children spin it. I’ve lost the essay I wrote, but those words were early intuitions that evolved into Cathy’s and my dreams, which became flesh in the fields of Montana.
Nevelson’s family waves as they progress like homesteaders towards the summits of the Beartooth mountains, nomads but also settlers, like the Mayans.
The boxes and the shapes were left over from Nevelson’s studying cubism with Hans Hofmann in Munich in 1931. Such partitions are also found on many friezes throughout the former empires of the Mayan, Olmec, and Aztec civilizations.
In 1949, Nevelson went with Diego Rivera, her mentor at the time, to Mérida, and then in 1950 and 1951 to Mexico and Guatemala.
In Mérida, she and Rivera visited the Hacienda San Pedro Ochil, a former plantation headquarters where abandoned harvesters lay rusting. Rivera and Nevelson bought wood molds used to make irrigation pipes; Rivera suggested they could be building blocks.
Here is Nevelson’s first sculpture using the irrigation molds:
Her Sky Cathedral was based on the nunnery at Uxmal:
Her use of black came from the darkening of the temple stones with time and the flickering of moonlight on them, creating shadows and light. By using box walls to frame her found objects, Nevelson created shadows on the contents.
She was also inspired by the stelae at Quiriguá in Guatemala and by Manuel Ortegón’s modern Mayan stelae at the Parque de las Americas in Mérida.
The rusting harvesters in the fields at Tippet Rise are similar to the harvesters in Mérida, one of Nevelson’s inspirations. Harvesters have their machinery on the outside, so they themselves are assemblages of industrial parts. The tradition is to leave them where they die, as they are hard to move, so they become agricultural sculptures, metaphors for an agrarian culture.
The one anchor throughout all of Nevelson’s career was Arne Glimcher, the founder of Pace Galleries. During decades of critical hostility and disinterest, he gave her steady shows and moral support. He negotiated with her patrons as her fame grew. He worked with us in setting up Trilogy the way Nevelson originally intended. He is the final authority on her work, her intentions. We think she would approve of Trilogy’s final resting place.
So, as the foreign elements of Le Mépris create its ultimate identity, if you jumble up bas-relief, Hofmann’s cubism, Cornell’s Museum boxes from the 1940s, Mérida’s harvesters and irrigation molds, Uxmal’s nunnery, Quiriguá’s and Ortegón’s stelae with Nevelson’s sense of poetry, you get her groundbreaking evolution, the 1958 Sky Cathedral, where the template of the Mérida nunnery is expanded with domestic furniture parts mixed with harvester cogs and hinges into a collage of the night sky, the starlight which flickers over the Mayan, Olmec, and Aztec ruins, painting Nevelson’s changing moods from the domestic ruins of her marriage. The sky is a cathedral, but the modern household is more of a ruin. The poetry of the title softens and beautifies the sculpture’s darker layers. The masks of ancient myths have been pulled aside, and the Wizard of Oz is revealed behind the screen - technology, in the guise of harvester parts, masking his inadequacy. But, towering above it all, are the Mayan temples of Nevelson’s invention.
Picasso turned Papua New Guinean masks into the faces of the prostitutes in Guernica, mixing the protective house shields with Cubism to leap beyond his original influences.
Shakespeare used passages throughout his plays from North’s Plutarch, from Ovid, and from Ariosto’s Orlando furioso.
Mozart used folksongs as melodies for his operas. Art often rides on the shoulders of giants.
Nevelson’s familial torment prefigures the modern breakdown of the family, while maintaining the appearance of propriety as the father and mother wave to each other in Trilogy (as unhappy couples at the time took great pains to appear happy). Their daughter, Nevelson herself, remains in a nascent state, flattened on the ground, her symbolism dormant. But she will bloom in the future, when all the elements that shaped her can be celebrated.
In paying homage to the indigenous and European roots of Nevelson’s collages, the pentimento, the underlying inspiration of the works can be seen to take on equal weight, and combines with the increasing respect accorded to the nearly lost Mayan, Olmec, and Aztec civilizations, where now modern Mexican and Guatemalan societies are mounting a dynamic revival of their ancient and prescient cultures.