Louise Nevelson, Shadows and Flags, 1977
In Edward Albee’s play Occupant, a biographer is interviewing Louise Nevelson, who has recently died. “I’ve never interviewed someone who is dead before,” says the interviewer, to which Nevelson (can we say characteristically?) responds, “Well, I haven’t been interviewed since I’m dead.” Nevelson, as much as Beuys, was a master of self-mythologization. So Albee’s posthumous Nevelson is a little put out to discover that, after her death, her reputation hasn’t held up in the way she’d hoped. “You have to introduce me? People don’t know who I am?” She sounds like Maria Callas, but the biographer mollifies the blow: “God, half the people in this country don’t know who their senators are, much less who does the sculpture…”
It’s true, Nevelson’s reputation has faded. But she’s always meant a tremendous amount to me, in part because my first New York apartment after college was in her building, 29 Spring Street, on the corner of Mott – photographed here by Ugo Mulas. And I have always loved, over at Lincoln Center, Nevelson’s 48-foot wall sculpture inside Pietro Belluschi’s theater at Juilliard, hands down the best work of Brutalism in the city. Nevelson, less than a figure of art history, is for me a guardian of a certain New York, a lost tradition of modernist commitment to the form of the city, and perhaps that’s why it seems so fitting that (nearly uniquely among artists) she actually has a part of the city named after her. Louise Nevelson Plaza was not a posthumous appellation; it was so named in 1978, with Nevelson there herself, with Ed Koch by her side. She was a living legend, a silly phrase that nevertheless seems the only apt one.
Shadows and Flags comprises seven steel sculptures. One towers up like a grasshopper on its hind legs, while the others are a bit squatter, more architectural. Like a fair number of modernist sculptors, Nevelson always liked to keep the resonance of representation within her work, though she never divulged much. These, however, are New York sculptures, works that embrace the verticality of their setting. They’re no more intelligible than the Dubuffet around the corner, but they have an indexical imprint of the city on them, in form and in biography.
In 2008, Shadows and Flags had to be removed from the plaza for restoration. They had been damaged, coated in corrosive dust after September 11, 2001. One of the sculptures had been hit by a truck. And the New York Federal Reserve, New York’s other ground zero, site of Lehman Brothers’ last stand, decided it needed more security, and so Nevelson’s design for the plaza had to be modified, with benches replaced and sculptures rearranged. It looks all right down there now. It’s hardly a travesty. But in case you needed reminding of the force of history in Lower Manhattan, Nevelson also designed, in 1977–78, a wooden frieze for 1 World Trade Center, titled Sky Gate. It was a complement to these works, and it is gone forever.
Shadows and Flags stands at the intersection of Maiden Lane, William Street, and Liberty Street.