The Farnsworth: Nevelson still coming up short

By Rufus Foshee | Jan 16, 2010
Courtesy of: Tate Gallery, London Louise Nevelson's "Gift to the British People," now in the Tate Modern in London.

Being in Louise Nevelson's American hometown, it is understandable that the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland wants to spread its wings and toot its horn a bit. Truth is, it has little Nevelson work that is significant.

This has a history. The Farnsworth paid $60,000 for an Andrew Wyeth piece when the same amount of money could have purchased all of Nevelson's "Dawn's Wedding Feast," with money left over, at the Museum of Modern Art in 1959. The museum did not purchase a Nevelson work until 1979, when the late David K. Anderson sold it a "Wedding Column" for $11,000, one third the price her dealer was asking for similar columns.

This hometown was one of the last places on earth to acknowledge who the museum now calls "one of America's most important sculptors of the 20th century and one of the most significant women artists the nation has produced." The museum chose to leave out that Nevelson was a Jew from a Wasp town, facts that played a large part in her development.

I can still hear Nevelson's condemnation of the Wasp types in Rockland who resented her mother who was not only beautiful but also beautifully dressed.

I can also hear her granddaughter trying to explain her use of black. Might it be nothing more than the ugliness her family experienced in her hometown before she chose to escape to a marriage to an older man in New York?

Nevelson knew she was an artist and she never relinquished the effort required to get it done. That was what made the difference between ambition and delivery. She delivered.

Some people like to say that living well is the best revenge. Revenge was not something that bit into Nevelson's creative powers. Her vision was much greater than that, as anyone who understands her work well knows.

As objectionable as Arne Glimcher, Nevelson's longtime dealer, is, one cannot blame him for never allowing Nevelson to give her hometown one of her major works. But he did allow her to give a magnificent gold construction to the British people.

Nevelson's youngest sister Lillian Mildwoff and her husband, Ben, and Nathan Berliawsky and his wife, Lillian, made gifts to important museums including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum and the Brooklyn Museum. They were promoting Nevelson's career.

Being an innovative artist, Nevelson got the attention of the Europeans more quickly than that of the Americans. Nevelson was not the only American artist slow to gain recognition in the mid-20th century. When Jackson Pollock committed suicide in 1956, his work was not selling. While Nevelson often talked of cutting her throat, she held out to age 88, a rather respectable age for so acute an alcoholic.

Her parents would send brother Nate to New York with money to buy Louise a dress, but when Nate arrived she told him to forget a dress, she wanted a drink, and off they would go to a bar. The habit never changed, though she did manage to stay off the bottle for periods.

All the same, the work got done. When Nevelson was constructing "Dawn's Wedding Feast," 1959, and just before I first met her, I lived only a few blocks away where a park divided Little Italy and Chinatown. A close friend worked with Nevelson. He gave reports that she worked and worked until she got it done and then went to bed drunk to sleep away the exhaustion.

The Farnsworth may toot its horn, but it has mostly Nevelson chotskies. I was in and out of her home at 29 Spring St., often daily, for years in the early 1960s. The paintings the Farnsworth takes such glee in parading were never considered anything important. She knew she was not a painter, though the debate raged on for years as to just what she was, sculptor or collagist, as if it mattered what it was called. This was typical of the public distracting itself to keep from confronting what was important in the work of an artist.

The Farnsworth might gain better traction with its public relations if it just stated that it has some of her representative works, nothing grand, not a major construction of her long career in either black or white, though it does have a late black one that was pieced together.

If former Farnsworth Director Marius Peladeau, also responsible for first showing Robert Indiana, had not mounted a Nevelson exhibition in the Farnsworth in 1979, well, who knows ... But because of Peladeau's foresight, the artist lived to see a major exhibition in a museum in her American hometown.

Nevelson held no one in contempt more than her brother-in-law Ben Mildwoff. Relations were still so strained in 1979 that Ben drove his wife, Lillian, to the exhibition at the Farnsworth, but did not attend himself. They never got better because with fame and wealth, Nevelson did not mellow; her arrogance grew.

At the Farnsworth not long ago, a woman expressed displeasure with Nevelson's treatment of her family and friends in her lifetime. I engaged the lady in a conversation later by asking her, "How many difficult people have you known who have contributed nothing?"

Georgia O'Keeffe, for example, could only be reached at a public telephone in the public square where she lived out the end of her life.

Though Nevelson did have a phone in her kitchen, she had someone answer it for her and deliver brutal messages to some who called, including her sister Lillian. The person who answered that phone is still with us. She feels badly for treating those who called as Nevelson instructed. I remind her that I think everyone understands she was an employee following instructions from the chief executive officer.

It is Nevelson's work in white from "Dawn's Wedding Feast," 1959, that is more in demand and brings higher prices than anything else. No major example from that environment has been offered for sale for nearly 20 years so it is hard to ascertain what prices an example might bring. The owner of the best examples still in private hands will not even lend them for important Nevelson retrospectives.

If the Farnsworth keeps touting about what a vast Nevelson collection it has, it may discourage collectors with important Nevelson examples from offering them to her hometown. In addition, her son Mike and his wife are making it difficult for anyone who wants to reproduce images of her work. By such methods does one's reputation grow.

Laurie Wilson's biography of Nevelson, on which she has worked a long time, may not be published for years. It is much needed. As I said to Laurie when she first contacted me, "There is no reason for another book with Nevelson's name on it unless it persuades the reader that Nevelson is a great artist."

The other books on Nevelson are at the coffee table level.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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