You know her work when you see it, and you see it in nearly every 20th-century collection: the imposing wall of stacked boxes washed entirely in matte black paint, each box entombing cracked wood spindles, newel posts, perhaps a small cabinet door. The effect is off-putting and aggressive, like a bank of amplifiers at a rock concert. Sepulchral, architectural and ever recognizable: It's a Louise Nevelson, all right.
Yet Nevelson didn't hit her artistic stride until she was well into her fifties. (She died in 1988 at age 88, though some sources report her a year younger.) That leaves 30 years of adult working life we don't know much about. That period, from the late 1920s to the late 1950s, is explored in the 37-piece traveling exhibition "Louise Nevelson: Selections From the Farnsworth Art Museum" now on view at the St. John's College Mitchell Gallery. The exhibit records decades of uneven artmaking, showing Nevelson like you've never seen her: a second-rate sculptress of neo-cubist figures; an average paint handler trained at New York's Art Students League; an imitator of Jean Dubuffet's primitive style. In other words, an artistic mind that hadn't yet bloomed.
It took Nevelson a while to get her footing, in art and in life. She was born Louise Berliawsky in Kiev, in the Ukraine, and moved to Rockland, Maine, with her family when she was 6; her father had found work in lumber there. An outsider determined to be an artist, she found a ticket out of town in husband Charles Nevelson, whom she married at age 20. The pair moved to New York City and soon had a son. In New York, Nevelson dabbled in her various talents -- she considered herself an actress and pianist as well as a painter -- and later divorced her husband.
Through those years, artmaking remained a mainstay, though Nevelson's output was uneven. The pictures at St. John's, from the cache of Rockland's Farnsworth, are particularly well-suited to illuminate the early years. Though the museum wasn't around when Nevelson was a child, the artist and her family nevertheless donated many works to the institution, plenty of which represent early efforts. Now the museum holds the second-largest Nevelson collection, after New York's Whitney.
Here we meet a young artist with plenty of warts. A 1927 "Still Life With Pitcher" finds Nevelson's rendering wanting -- her shadows look more like ghost images than forms cast by a light. A female nude painted two years later has drapery as lumpy as mashed potatoes. Still, Nevelson managed to produce the luminous "Maine Meadows, Old Country Road" around 1931. That pastoral's green hills are nearly iridescent.
A creative turnabout in the 1940s found Nevelson making large, earth-colored, paint-rich canvases peopled with primitive figures of the kind Dubuffet made famous. One picture also has the heavy black outlines of Matisse. Other works manifest interest in tribal art. Though most of these paintings are derivative, a few stand out. "Woman With a Red Scarf," from 1947, boasts a sitter, thought to be the artist herself, with a wicked stare and icy eyes. Patches of lime, lemon and orange paint emerge from a dark blue ground. The piece is fierce.
And then there are the figurative sculptures. Of these, it's hard to find even one first-rate work. An ungraceful cubist knockoff, "Figure of a Woman" is an armless terra cotta lump sporting a pompadour. A sculpture of a child renders the youth with a head shaped like a football and a triangular, owlish nose. The ladies lounging in "Two Women" sport shoulders better suited to a linebacker.
The clunky pieces are a too-literal interpretation of cubism. By showing various viewpoints simultaneously, as if looking in a cracked mirror, Picasso and Braque conveyed the complexity of representation in a brand-new way. Nevelson, however, interpreted the movement's name to the letter, transforming figures into heavy cubes and rectangles.
By the late 1950s, she wisely banished the figures and embraced the geometries. In the winter of 1958-59, she was included in a group show at the Museum of Modern Art. She was turning out the kind of mature works we know her for: muscular sculpture-painting hybrids made from stacked boxes and found wooden gewgaws, including items she'd scavenged from alleys, painted all-black and sometimes all-white, that sit on the floor but also hug the wall.
A single totemic sculpture that was originally part of the MoMA installation is on view at St. John's. "Dawn Column I" is a pillar of white-painted assembled wood. Here Nevelson incorporates spindles, newel posts and found scrap board into a lanky work that stood as one of 10 "witnesses" flanking the nuptial-themed installation. The piece is machinelike, a kind of futurist-cubist hybrid. Its shape echoes human form, but the work remains solidly abstract.
Though painted white, the work's many shadows fill in the gray scale; deep caverns appear nearly black. Painting literally with shadows is a triumphant achievement, one Nevelson never quite achieved in those early still lifes on canvas. Likewise, her all-black pieces (one of which, "The Endless Column," is on view here) show how light can hit black and lighten it nearly to white.
But mature ideas are not the subject here. "Louise Nevelson: Selections From the Farnsworth Art Museum" shows us that the woman who produced such prepossessing, elegiac and formalist works stumbled along the way.
Louise Nevelson: Selections From the Farnsworth Art Museum at the Mitchell Gallery, St. John's College, 60 College Ave., Annapolis, Tuesday-Sunday noon-5 p.m., Friday 7 p.m.-8 p.m., 410-626-2556, through Oct. 30.