From Personal Myth to Beyond: Louise Nevelson

Ways of Worldmaking: Louise Nevelson


Seeing, rather than looking, cultivates the intelligence of our perceptions, and ultimately our minds.  Vision is invested with a latent intelligence.  When we utilize language to articulate our thoughts and feelings about what we see, words become the vehicle to represent new insights, experiences and new worlds. 


Louise Nevelon’s Mrs. N’s Place, 1964-77, takes us to a world, which for Nevelson was always secretive.  But she invites her spectators into her vastly expansive realms, most often painted in black, white, or sometimes gold.


How are we to engage?  How are we to see the reality behind the visage of obscurity?  Nevelson seems to say that by offering you a glimpse into her own secretive enigmatic cosmos, you can also discover your own.


I thought about what I learned in graduate school at Columbia about the denotative and connotative functions of representation in semiotics (Roland Barthes) and thought to myself that the way to the enigma in these sculptures is through that murky and subjective place, the connotative sphere.  That is the “how” something is represented and not the literal what. 


When I write about art, I like to explore language and often use a dictionary and thesaurus merely to make verbal associations and connections between words to start a chain of thoughts and new insights.  That process is exactly what I would do with this sculpture given the fact its bleak but at the same time rife with the busyness of a very creative mind. 


Metaphors are in particular an excellent medium to explore a domain of experience external to yourself and that which is within.  Metaphors are expressions of our internal schemata, those mental constructs that make up our personal psychology and the way we look at the world.


The worlds we construct are myths.  Language, and especially metaphor, is an expression of that myth.  So, when looking at art, our emotional and intellectual reaction to it is a dynamic process of evaluation and reassessment between ourselves and the world, of myth. 


Now to break down our own myths, the schemata of those myths that we impose upon our perceptions, Roland Barthes recommends deciphering the signifying functions of a myth.  Mythical representations have a surfeit of signifying functions that assume a message that need not be supplemented, is already there, and have a history and past.  A myth postulates some kind of knowledge. 


It’s actually best to observe Nevelson’s sculptures without knowing anything about the artist or the artwork at all first.  Explore for yourself first what you see, then play with metaphors, and learn about the artist.  Find those Ways of Worldmaking that Nelson Goodman describes, where the words and pictures create the worlds. 


“But although language and art both become emancipated, in this fashion, from their native soul of mythical thinking, the ideal, spiritual unity of the two is reasserted upon a higher level…But there is one intellectual realm in which the word not only preserves its original creative power, but is ever renewing it; in which it undergoes a sort of constant palingenesis, at once a sensuous and a spiritual reincarnation.  This regeneration is achieved as language becomes an avenue of artistic expression.”  Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth. 


Louise Nevelson, Mrs N's Place, 1964-77.jpg