I am sure those who frequent the Cincinnati Art Museum have specific artworks or galleries they look forward to visiting. For me visiting these artworks induces a hyper-awareness of the space, forms and color that surround me and provide a sensation like no other. Several places at CAM hold this distinction for me. One of those places is the Damascus Room, a reconstructed interior room from Syria during the Ottoman Empire, this exquisite room of embellished wood panels transports me to another place and time. However, one place draws me in more than any other. To get there, I climb up one of the twin circular staircases of the Great Hall that highlight the extraordinary Romanesque architecture of the museum. I head left through the Impressionists and European works and find myself in a small gallery in the back eastern corner of the museum that hold gems of American Art since World War II. Paintings by Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, and Willem De Kooning hang there, but I am most drawn to Louise Nevelson’s monolithic sculpture, Nightscape III.
Nightscape III is composed of found and cut wood moldings contained within twelve distinct rectangular boxes all painted black and assembled into one large 5’x9’x1’ rectangle. In this artwork Nevelson pushes form within these boxes, grounding the rhythms of texture and shadow. The scale of the piece allows my mind and body to sink in, pushing the outside world into the periphery. I am allowed to explore the silhouettes of line and shape that are buried in the depths of black. Interestingly enough Nevelson stated her work was “not wood, not black and had nothing to do with death” (Lisle 189). Perhaps she was hoping her work would transcend the material qualities; for me it does. As for her use of the color black, from an additive standpoint, black is the absence of color; however in the subtractive “pigment based” world it is considered to be all color. In the end Nevelson’s decision to use black was not about western notions of black but about unifying disparate elements to consider them as whole. Black allows the shapes, forms and texture to dance in the shadows. My eyes slowly adjust to these subtle shifts of light to reveal the textures contained within. Smooth curvilinear plys of wood create strong juxtaposition against the rigid diagonal cuts of some the vertical elements. Small magical beams of light are visible in the depths of blackness. Upon closer inspection these are created by a few knotholes in the wood, letting light escape into the black black. The varied grains of wood each tell a small history of a piece of timber but come together to form the whole.
I can imagine the dance of wood, hands and nails used to create the artwork; Nevelson a tall vibrant 75 year old woman standing over wood crates and discarded scraps to compose new life into the world. I can visualize her in the studio contemplating, arranging and moving the forms to create the artwork. The artwork itself reveals the process of its creation, the performance of its creator. Interestingly enough Nevelson was an accomplished dancer and on several occasions performed with her sculptural work. Just as Jackson Pollack created fields of textured color that reveal his process of dripping paint onto canvas, Nevelson articulates wooden forms, to give them new life.
The ultimate recycler, Nevelson could be found combing the bays of the Atlantic for driftwood, searching building sites and the streets of New York for wooden crates and all sorts of scraps and bits of wood. Nevelson describes working with pieces of old wood contained in this piece, thus: “you enhance them, you tap them and hammer them and you know you have given them ultimate life, a spiritual life that surpasses the life they were created for” (Lisle 183).
Many of Nevelson’s works were created as installations, transforming entire galleries to create new environments for our senses. At other times, they were broken up to be sold by the piece or even by the foot. Although Nightscapes III takes place on a single wall in the Cincinnati Art Museum, I envision it continuing beyond, replicating itself to fill the entire gallery.
Nightscapes III is an important work for me because it bridges so many ideas prevalent in Post-Modernism. It bridges Cubism with its formal use of color and boxy containers, to Post-Modernism with its eclectic assemblage of found objects to Abstract Expressionism with its use of the curvilinear and abstract structures. From a conceptual point of view the work is primal, drawing me into its mystery as if I were looking into the abyss. On the one hand I have the mystique of the unknown and on the other my personal reflection, not mediated by narrative, but a place where I can escape into a new reality.
Nightscapes III is a powerful artwork that transcends its materials to reveal the process of the artist. Yet, it hints at a larger architectural landscape of an urban environment. Nevelson’s work cuts across Modernism and Post-Modernism, yet she also helps move beyond the male-centered Modernist world of art-making by becoming one of the most dominant and productive artists of the 20th Century. Nevelson remains as one of the most important woman artists in the 20th Century. She saw beauty in the found object and claimed that history through her scuptural collages. She recognized and fed the dancing shapes so they could create the shadows that play with light, texture and form. Next time you are at the Cincinnati Art Museum, find Nevelson’s Sculpture, take a seat and sink your eyes into the depth of its shadows.
— Brad McCombs