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The Square Root of Louise

Think outside the box." By the end of the 20th Century those four simple words had taken on the aura of a mantra -- an irrefutable nudge toward creativity, innovation, and yes, artistry.

It's a good thing the great sculptor Louise Nevelson didn't think in such terms. In fact, it was thinking inside the box, or boxes, that brought Nevelson lasting acclaim. Today her adopted name -- she was born Leah Berliawsky in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1899 -- is synonymous with what Robert Cumming's Art: A Field Guide characterizes as "open-sided boxes made into reliefs, each box containing an assortment of forms created from wood scraps, and painted in monochrome, usually black." I haven't run across a more succinct summation of Nevelson's signature style.

"Anywhere I found wood," the artist has been quoted as saying, "I took it home and started working with it." It has been widely speculated that Nevelson's fascination with scraps of wood had its origins in the family lumber business. Perhaps, but it took her more than half a century of artistic exploration to arrive at that signature style. The long journey is the focus of "Louise Nevelson: Selections from the Farnsworth Art Museum," now at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood.

Although it's a relatively lean show that includes only three dozen or so pieces, the work runs the gamut of her career. The exhibition features one of her earliest works -- Female Nude, a late-1920s oil painted while Nevelson was enrolled at the Art Students League in New York -- as well as one of her final ones, The Endless Column, a large wall relief consisting of three sections, one created in 1969, the other two added in 1985, three years before the artist's death.

The emphasis is on the evolution of the famous Nevelson style, and as historical documentation the exhibition is a smashing success. A dozen or so pieces from the '30s and '40s will probably come as a surprise to anyone who knows Nevelson only from her box assemblages. The show is scattered with reminders that Nevelson didn't settle primarily on sculpture until the mid-1950s, although the shapes that would dominate the sculpture can be found in many of her early works in other media.

Along with Female Nude, the first gallery includes York Avenue, New York City, a 1934 oil on board. It's one of only two known Nevelson cityscapes, painted after she had re-enrolled in the Art Students League following a brief stint studying with Hans Hofmann in Munich. Another female nude from the 1930s is a simple graphite line drawing, and there's the carved wood relief Female Figure that hints at influences from tribal art.

Among the show's treasures are two pieces displayed in the tiny gallery nestled in the heart of the Art and Culture Center. One, Maine Meadows, Old County Road (c. 1931), is a wonderfully kinetic oil on board, with the road of the title snaking its way through a rural landscape dotted with buildings and backed by rolling hills. It's an unusually buoyant piece for an artist often noted for severity in her demeanor and austerity in her work, perhaps because the setting is outside Rockland, Maine, where Nevelson's family settled after moving to the United States from Russia in 1905 (and where the Farnsworth Museum is located). There are even not-so-subtle suggestions that Nevelson anticipated the artistic celebrity that awaited her in the far-off future: The thin strip of sky at the top of the painting is sprinkled with the outlines of oversize five-pointed stars. ("I've always felt like a star," Nevelson once declared, likening the stars she used in more than one painting to crowns.)

The other star in that little gallery is Still Life with Pitcher, an oil on canvas painted when Nevelson was still in her twenties. The highly realistic composition is standard-issue still life -- a table topped with a vase, three peaches, and a crumpled piece of fabric -- but it's executed with remarkable confidence, especially when you note that Nevelson couldn't resist skewing the image ever so slightly, as if to warn viewers never to assume too much about what direction she might take with any given piece.

The long, narrow gallery adjacent has been turned into a dramatic showcase for four small Nevelson sculptures: Mother and Child II, Martha Graham, Bronze Bird, and Seated Figure. Except for the 1952 bird, they are undated but thought to be from the mid-1940s to early 1950s. Two are bronze, one is terra cotta, and one is cast stone, although all four are black and displayed in freestanding cases in the otherwise all-white, brightly lit space.

Some of Nevelson's documented influences, including Mayan statuary and the Cubism of Picasso and Jacques Lipchitz, are readily evident. But I have a hard time getting around the essential blockiness of these and other sculptures in the show dating from roughly the same era. Their energy seems turned inward, almost as if they're closing down in front of us. The exception is the bronze rendering of Martha Graham, whose work in modern dance Nevelson admired and was inspired by. It's a more figurative piece, although traces of the blockiness linger, offset by elongated limbs that suggest movement.

Around the corner in the museum's main gallery is the exhibition's first bold articulation of the quintessential Nevelson style, even though it's painted white rather than black. Dawn Column I (1959), a slim vertical assemblage, was part of the larger work Dawn's Wedding Feast, which was included in a show called "Sixteen Americans" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The column was one of nearly a dozen metaphorical witnesses to the wedding ceremony.

Dawn's Wedding Feast was the follow-up to Nevelson's contribution to "Moon Garden + One," the 1958 exhibition at the Grand Central Moderns gallery that had finally given her the recognition she deserved. The show featured her first wall construction, Sky Cathedral (which is now in MoMA/NY's permanent collection), part of an all-black installation created specifically for the show.

The Art and Culture Center show includes only one piece that perhaps hints at the impact Nevelson's presence must have had at "Moon Garden + One." It's a large three-part wall installation called The Endless Column, which started out in 1969 as a basic rectangular box featuring three tiers of machine-shaped wooden forms rather than found odds and ends of wood, all painted the familiar matte black.

But Nevelson returned to the piece and expanded it for a 1985 exhibition at the Farnsworth Museum, adding two more rows of boxes atop the others and a pair of slender forms, mounted separately to each side to form a triptych. I can't help seeing this elegant work as a sort of altarpiece -- Nevelson's shrine to the corner of modernism she staked out for herself and occupied so graciously for the last two or three decades of her life.

If there's a complaint to be lodged against "Selections from the Farnsworth Art Museum," it's that the exhibition needs more of those famous wall assemblages to complete its portrait of the artist as a titan of her time. Without them, it feels oddly incomplete. I even double checked with the front desk to make sure the show wasn't continued on the museum's second floor.

Thanks to the generosity of Nevelson and her siblings, the Farnsworth has the second-largest collection of the artist's work, surpassed only by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Surely a few more of the pieces that earned Nevelson her international fame and acclaim could have been made available for this otherwise fine exhibition. The Nevelson name will no doubt attract museumgoers hoping to see more of the kind of work they associate with her. It's a shame some of them might come away a bit disappointed.

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Michael Mills

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