Louise Nevelson at the Fondazione Roma Museo, Palazzo Sciarra

The Golden Pearl, 1962
Courtesy of Fondazione Marconi, Milano
© Louise Nevelson by SIAE 2013
Continuing the trend it began in 2009 with the stunning Niki de Saint Phalle exhibition, and again in 2011 with its Georgia O’Keeffe show, the Fondazione Roma Museo recently put the spotlight on another major twentieth century woman artist with a major monographic exhibition of the work of American sculptor Louise Nevelson. Born in 1899 in Perislav, Ukraine in what was then part of the Russian Empire, Nevelson emigrated with her family to the United States when she was just three years old, and died in her adopted homeland in New York, her favourite city, in 1988. Curated by Bruno Corà, the retrospective took a comprehensive look at the artist’s entire oeuvre over what was a long, and productive working life, showcasing 70 key works, which included early drawings and terracotta works from the 1930s, with a stunning collection of assemblages and collages from the 1950s and 1960s, right through to mature works from the 1980s. Whilst her late monumental site-specific pieces in COR-TEN steel could not be exhibited, of course, there was a highly enjoyable documentary film about her studio process in creating these massive sculptures, and true to the highest standards we've come to expect from this excellent gallery space, there were also enormous photographic panels illustrating these works.

Over the past few years the Fondazione Roma Museo has become one of my favourite galleries in the city, with each show thoughtfully curated and somewhat theatrically designed with props and exhibition spaces designed to aid the viewer in understanding an artist's work. By contrast, the Nevelson show was presented more simply, but this worked beautifully given the complexity of her art; each assemblage was hung at just the right height and with absolutely perfect lighting,  accentuating every shadow, and transforming her painted monochromatic wooden assemblages into multi-panelled polyptych altarpieces. Whilst the influence of Cubism and Dadaism, and even Abstract Expressionism in the scale of her later works, and comparisons with artists such as Duchamp, Picasso and Schwitters, who recycled everyday objects into their art, easily came to mind, when confronted with Nevelson's work face to face, one quickly appreciated the uniqueness of Nevelson's own visual language, and the sheer scale and drama she brought to cast-off wood scraps, when sprayed with black, white, and occasionally, gold paint.

Homage to the Universe, 1968
Courtesy of Fondazione Marconi, Milano © Louise Nevelson by SIAE 2013
Homage to the Universe (1968), a hugely ambitious, room-filling assemblage, painted monochrome black and displayed in its own gold painted space, exemplified the endlessly engrossing complexities and changing rhythms in her work. Benches were installed along the opposite wall and sitting down to gaze a while at this monumental piece provided a contemplative pause mid-exhibition.

Robert Mapplethorpe captured her larger than life personality in a wonderful late portrait photograph - an elderly woman, eyelids smudged with mascara from her trademark false eyelashes, yet utterly formidable, she gazed out at us in one of the smallest rooms at the end of the exhibition. A darkened room, with the air of a sacristy containing ancient art treasures, three gold assemblages sat side by side - The Golden Gate (1961-70), Royal Winds (1960), and the exquisite The Golden Pearl (24 elements) (1962). It was a fitting end to a marvellous exhibition.

Louise Nevelson was organized by the Fondazione Roma-Arte-Musei with Arthemisia Group and supported by the American Embassy in association with the Nevelson Foundation of Philadelphia and the Fondazione Marconi of Milan, and ran from 16 April – 21 July 2013 at the Fondazione Roma Museo, Palazzo Sciarra, Rome.

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