Though often classified as a Neo-Dadaist assemblage artist among the ranks of Joseph Cornell, Robert Rauschenberg and Lucas Samaras, Nevelson’s oeuvre defies one specific categorization. Influenced by the organic, amorphous forms of the Surrealists and the colossal totemic Mayan sculptures she was exposed to during a brief stint as Diego Rivera’s assistant, Nevelson found inspiration all around her. Just as one was forced to continually scan the surfaces of a Jackson Pollock drip painting, eyes darting back and forth to take in the various shapes, colors and texture, one would also stand, mesmerized, by the ambiguous relationships between the familiar and abstract objects that comprise the networks of Nevelson’s environments. Finally, Nevelson’s choice to cover each work with only black, white or gold paint—a nod to Minimalism—allowed the forms to be visually unified while obscuring the found objects’ pasts and intended functions. This combination, Nevelson describes, “is like a marriage; you are not the total actor you play with another actor and my play with the others are my materials. So there’s a constant communication for a oneness, for that unity, for the harmony and for the totality.”
The present work, executed in 1959-1961, is an all-encompassing sculptural environment that epitomizes Nevelson’s artistic output. An assemblage wall that stands at an impressive 89 inches high and 93 inches wide, Sky Cathedral is placed directly on the floor to confront viewers—literally inviting them into Nevelson’s private sphere, thus creating an entirely new realm of their own. Each of the 30 boxes is intricately designed, illustrating the artist’s dedicated practice of collecting, sawing, gluing and nailing found objects together on an intimate scale. However, once jigsawed together and painted a uniform yet illuminating black, the boxes create one monumental, cavernous whole that stands as an homage to collecting. Whereas Joseph Cornell, Nevelson’s contemporary, compartmentalized and juxtaposed his found objects into small, self-contained spaces, Nevelson’s preference for sheer volume, scale and presence manifests in Sky Cathedral. The result is a stunning three-dimensional wall that is defined by its variegated forms and objects layered with multiple histories.
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