An Inquisitive Dab at Modern Art: Nevelson’s “Sky Cathedral”

Louise Nevelson’s piece titled Sky Cathedral is an emblematic rendition of an assemblage art – one of the prominent stylistic conventions of abstract expressionism. The work exerts a persuasive perspective of the artist, appearing natural and logical in the composition of objects that make up the holistic picture. There is a great degree of intuition involved; the beholder that will notice the elaborate harmony attained within complexity. Perhaps, assemblage is best accomplished only when emotional intuition surpasses rational reasoning.

Before examining the details, it is critical to understand that the most vital aspect of assemblage is that there is no single focus. This is precisely demonstrated in Sky Cathedral, where the focus is scattered and fragmented. The absence of a linear perspective therefore catalyzes the merging of divergent identities.

Sky Cathedral, Louise Nevelson (1958)

As menacing as it might first appear, the “monumental wall assemblage” is a stylistically austere artwork. The mood is grim and somber, yet equally placid. The rigid contours materialized in the form of boxes seem to reinforce the overall ambience, while also directing structural regularity. It propagates to the beholder, a relieving experience, as the seemingly box-shaped shelves create a harmonious visual milieu despite differing sizes and dimensional ratios. Likewise, in Sky Cathedral, the constant juxtaposition between the consistency of lines and the disturbance of size regularity (of the box) is the proposed expression of assemblage.

The individual identities of the discarded packing boxes are combined into a single, solidary identity through Nevelson’s choice of matte black. There is significance behind black, as it holds a noble quality to Nevelson’s cause of creating an assemblage art. It is crucial to note the colour black can be created by mixing all the colours of the spectrum, which runs parallel to the phenomenon of disparate objects coming together to create a bricolage.

Black certainly retains a heavy, brooding, and overpowering quality, of which resonates profoundly with the use of space in the artwork. Despite the acute contrasts between the objects in terms of size, shape, and scale, the dull luster of black unifies the distinctly discrete elements. A more peripheral effect of the black matte is the flat, soft dullness that it creates, while the core effect is the created sense of uniform overlap between the objects. Moreover, the old, classic nuance of wood is muted with the matte texture that makes the holistic work into an unfading and eternal piece. However, its antiquity is exhumed again with the lighting illuminating from above, making the work look as if it is a high-relief wall sculpture, evoking an archaic sense of aesthetics. In this sense, the alliance of black matte and the naturally dry characteristic of wood fulfills the creation of an amalgamated identity.

As much as black stands as a timeless colour signifying mystery, authority and magnificence, it is also a colour embedded deeply within religious contexts (religious attire, for example, chiefly adopts black accompanied by white). Upon taking a more holistic approach in viewing the artwork, the architectural style prevalent in Gothic cathedrals becomes strikingly familiar. Hence, the title itself is not a completely arbitrary or irrelevant composition to the artwork, but rather an evidently explicit reference to the impression that cathedrals tend to emit.

Clermont-Ferrand Cathedral (Source)

Another familiar feature involves the individual objects, of which range from door handles to table legs. In this manner, Sky Cathedral confirms that the distinct identities of the disparate pieces of furniture can be sculpted into constructing a unified identity. It is also a remarkably clever play on the modern notion of generating meaning through curatorship.

The incidental product of assemblage in Nevelson’s work is organized complexity – a duet of order and variation. The unrestrained medley of furniture pieces combined with the consistently structured lines of the boxes proves to be an eloquent testament to the concept that the marriage of order and variety is what easily translates into the construct of beauty.

All things considered, Nevelson’s Sky Cathedral fits neither into the reductionist nor the anarchic mannerism of modern abstract art, but instead places itself in the middle of the spectrum, engendering both qualities. The chaotic mix of miniature identities and the subtle transformation of those identities through disposition and colour is what makes Nevelson’s work an invaluable addition to the genre of assemblage.


(Featured Image Source)


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