The Zen of the Zag

I live in Durham and often, on my way into or out of Raleigh, I dash into the NCMA’s West Building for 10 minutes to visit one specific piece of art—Louise Nevelson’s Black Zag CC (1964–71, added to in 1977). I think I make the guards nervous, striding past all the other work to get to it. It’s wonderful to have a state museum of art like the NCMA, to be able to develop a personal relationship with a work of art like this.

I’ve loved Nevelson since I was a kid, having seen her work in museums in Washington, D.C., particularly the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Nevelson’s balance of order and chaos—many different things contained within definite rectangles—always appealed to me. It seemed like a good way of thinking about aesthetic composition, history or politics, or even personal situations. Nevelson makes sense to me as a visualization of analytical thinking, which I equate to beauty.

Thank goodness Nevelson never used color. Black Zag CC is a uniform flat black. Her works are always monochrome—black, white, gold, even some clear Lucite. Color moves shadow into secondary consideration, and shadow is crucial to Nevelson’s boxes. Shadow conveys the tension between presentation and concealment, as well as whatever ambiguous intermediate levels she can establish between those poles. These are the compositional components of her sculpture, whether it’s freestanding or on the wall like this piece.

Black Zag CC comprises six rectangular areas, or boxes. Each is easily recognizable as a discrete element, although some protrude into or overlap the others slightly. But it’s not a tile game—you can’t imagine them rearranged. The particular box at the center must be the center box. This is a strictly composed work.

Still, I love how this piece divides neatly in several different ways according to how I choose to look at it. A modularity of vision, not of composition.

I can see it as having two parts. There’s the typecase on the right side, with its intense internal detail, largely presenting the shadows of its grid. So the rest of the piece becomes unified into one image, its convex faces reflecting light, conveying their flatness. The typecase seems like what’s inside all the other boxes, as if it’s been opened to reveal its inner workings. Only the very center of the work shows a compromise—a thin rectangular frame that echoes the fundamental unit of the typecase, floating atop a curved, 100 percent black depth.

Another way of seeing two parts is to concentrate on that central box. It images a camera, with the thin rectangular frame becoming the aperture and a set of vertical ribs in the shadows of the box becoming a large-format camera’s bellows. The five perimeter boxes almost become photographs of different subjects, spit out from the center like Polaroids.

From either of those dualities, I can then see the piece as having three parts. The complexity of the upper left area emerges as singular, with the protruding frame, the dangling, miniature column, and the secondary frame of a chair’s back. Certainly there are more levels behind even the chair back. It recedes almost infinitely.

And can I just say, I love the dangling miniature column. Is it the later “addition” to the work that the wall text mentions? I cannot get enough of the column. It bothers me that I can’t get down to its scale; I can’t get my vision in behind it to see what the back of it looks like. What a brilliant decision, to put a small dangling thing in this work, and to frame it so that it doesn’t simply protrude off the front and draw attention to itself as compositionally contrary to the rest of the work. It’s the only part of the work on the scale of one’s hand. Everything else is for the eye. But the column would fit neatly into your hand. You could carry it around. It wants touch, not gaze.

Once I am this far into the components of a few of the boxes, it’s easy enough to just decide to see all six boxes individually. The wonderful lower left box that looks like two vertical doors sliding open to allow a figure to step through. Its figure’s outline abstractly feminine—a skirt and a breast. The box captures a moment of excitement, a verge, an emergence, a single frame of a film. Then there’s the central lower box, playing organic leaf or frond forms across a background wall or lath. The play of curved line against straight line brings these two lower boxes together.

The central upper box becomes a cipher. It’s the least interesting box, on its own, but it anchors the others. They can seem to radiate out from it, since its two curves mimic a sun and a sky. Perhaps it’s a nod to landscape as the one underlying visual metaphor for all art.

Some of Nevelson’s body of work is overtly metaphorical or deals with gender norms, like Dawn’s Wedding Chapel. But I see this midcareer Black Zag CC as a sheer study in her compositional approach. How she decides to put this next to that, and how she builds different modes of correspondence between proximate things—the complexity just turns me on. It sounds stupid, but I get a little breathless sitting in front of it.

That complexity of thought, to me, is beauty. And it’s why I visit Black Zag CC whenever I can.

Chris Vitiello is an arts and performance writer based in Durham.


Image: Louise Nevelson, Black Zag CC, 1964–71, final addition 1977, painted wood construction with fabricated, found, and bought elements; wire and metal hardware; and Formica frame, H. 48 x W. 59 x D. 9 in., Purchased with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest)

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