INCONVERSATION

LAURIE WILSON with Betsy Baker

Laurie Wilson
Louise Nevelson: Light and Shadow
(Thames & Hudson, 2016)


The art historian and psychoanalyst Laurie Wilson has written a new biography, Louise Nevelson: Light and Shadow, which is being published this month by Thames & Hudson. Born Leah Berliawsky in 1899 near modern-day Kiev, Ukraine, Nevelson came to the United States with her family in 1905. They settled in Rockland, Maine. At age twenty, she entered into an arranged marriage to a New York millionaire. Ten years later, she left him, giving up her young son and social status to become an artist. After struggling in poverty for three decades, she finally gained wider recognition at age fifty-nine and was celebrated for her groundbreaking large-scale abstract sculpture. She became one of America’s early art stars, a woman who made it entirely on her own in an art world dominated by men. She remained active as an artist until her death in 1988. On the occasion of the publication of Louise Nevelson: Light and Shadow, Wilson spoke with Betsy Baker, and their discussion ranged over the entire career of the artist.

Betsy Baker (Rail): One thing that struck me in reading Light and Shadow was the remarkable support of Louise Nevelson’s family throughout her entire life. It was a long time before they could give up supporting her. Before marrying, she had stressed her commitment to art to her husband-to-be, and he acknowledged it. But things did not go so well. She felt constrained by the marriage, and by motherhood. When she decided to leave the marriage, her mother was fully, and magnificently, supportive.

Laurie Wilson: Which was remarkable for Louise’s mother—a woman in 1930, who was born in the 1880s and came from a sort of peasant family in the Ukraine. But she was a free-thinking, modern Russian woman in America—well, that’s one way of looking at her; she was very old-fashioned in other ways. But everyone could see that Louise had been very perky and lively as a child and as a teenager, and once she was married to Charles Nevelson, she just closed up and lost all her vitality. And her mother said, “This is not the girl I remember,” and supported her when she wanted to leave. She also took care of Louise’s son, Myron, who was always called Mike.

Rail: It’s especially remarkable that all the family members were okay with her leaving her husband, given his wealth and position.

Wilson: By that time the husband had lost all his money. I don’t think that’s why she broke up with him, though, because in many ways she hadn’t liked him even when he was wealthy. But he lost money before the Depression, and when the Depression really hit, he lost whatever was left. So they kept moving downscale from fancy places, lower and lower and lower, and finally to Brooklyn, which was not at all what she had in mind for herself when she left Rockland. He had very little money when she left him. And neither did she.

Rail: During the decades of real hardship that preceded her eventual success, not only her mother but her brother and even her son, when he grew up—and to whom she had not exactly been the world’s most attentive mother—sent her money on a continuing basis. They must have been proud of her and had confidence in her; it couldn’t have only been a matter of family charity.

Wilson: I think that’s true. Even as a young girl, they saw her as the artist, the creative one. She got all of them to do creative activities. She also defended her younger sisters from the anti-Semitism in Rockland as best she could. So all of that is at least part of my theory of why the siblings stayed very close. The only one who did really well during the war was her brother Nate, who had a hotel. He was supporting one of his other sisters as well as sending money to Louise. For sure, the whole family believed that she would succeed eventually. And they knew she wouldn’t waste the money: Nate would come into town and say, “Please, let me buy you some shoes,” and she would take the money and buy art supplies. Her parents eventually bought a house for her so she wouldn’t be homeless—literally. The fact that her son sent her money when he was in the merchant marines during the war was absolutely astonishing.

Rail: Splendid, really. But she had such self-confidence and will and commitment during the long, difficult years when she was building her career!

Wilson: Yes. For years I tried to understand how she had that much confidence. Some of it, I think, came from knowing that the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem had said at her birth, “This child is born for greatness.” That was a family story she kept hearing. But probably much more important was her art teacher in Rockland, who from the first grade to the end of her time in high school told her, “You’re the artist. You can do this,” and always gave her the best grades. I interviewed one man who was in high school with her and he said, “She was clearly the best. She was the best colorist.” That’s interesting for someone who ended up doing a lot of black and white! She got a lot of support all the way through school, and she didn’t have the competition she might have had in a New York City school. It was a big shock for her to come to New York and find out she wasn’t quite as good as she had been led to believe, but it didn’t stop her.

Rail: It was when she went to the Art Students League that she first went up against—

Wilson: Yep—lots of competition. By then she really believed in herself, and nothing except her art mattered to her. It was the only thing that gave her a foundation in life. She didn’t like being a mother; she didn’t like being a wife. She certainly didn’t want to be a housewife, so working in the studio—that was it.

Rail: Among the major factors in her success were her dealers—except for one, Sidney Janis, with whom she had a serious falling out. But the rest—Karl Nierendorf, Colette Roberts, Martha Jackson, Arne Glimcher—were important in establishing her. She befriended them, just as she befriended the curator Dorothy Miller and other key supporters. She seems to have turned most of her professional ties into friendships. Even when she worked at Lippincott, Inc. years later, making steel sculptures, she was friends with the guys who worked there. Her personal magnetism must have been powerful.

Wilson: She had a reputation for being aloof and distant, but when she was actually with people she was warm and friendly and curious and supportive and there for them. She had a number of friends who weren’t well known, women friends who were making sculpture in the ’40s and ’50s, mostly the ’50s, and they weren’t useful to her, but she respected them because they were making art.

Rail: Did any of them have success later?

Wilson: Well, yes—Dorothy Dehner.

Rail: In that postwar period, there was no market to speak of for anybody, so it’s not as though Nevelson’s career was exceptionally drawn out. Success came late for many artists then.

Wilson: Right. They didn’t expect to be financially solvent from their work.

Rail: She also had critical support right from the beginning.

Wilson: Right. The New York Times reviewers, and also Emily Genauer, who moved from paper to paper, were very positive, almost throughout her career. Hilton Kramer was positive, too, though not always—he didn’t like the gold works, for instance.

Rail: By the early ’60s, there was a market for Nevelson’s work—is that right?

Wilson: She finally began to make money in 1959 when Martha Jackson gave her a contract of $20,000 a year—that was the moment where she was suddenly solvent on the basis of her work. And it was the first time she could give money back to Mike. As soon as she had the money, she gave some to him every month. Complicated story.

Rail: Would you say the Sixteen Americans show (1959 – 60) was one of the things that brought her to broader public attention? There she was, with that huge, dramatic, all-white, room-filling installation at the Museum of Modern Art, along with several artists who were already becoming successful. Jasper Johns had been on the cover of ARTnews in ’58 and Robert Rauschenberg was already well known, and Frank Stella, the youngest in the show, was controversial, and was drawing a lot of support. Ellsworth Kelly was there, too, and Jack Youngerman.

Wilson: Yeah, the exhibition was a big deal for her. I always think of them as these young men, and she’s this older woman—

Louise Nevelson in 1978. Photo: Cecil Beaton.

Rail: Almost two generations older than some of them! She’s a generation older than Kelly—born in 1923—and he’s more or less the oldest of the younger ones. Then you get Jasper born in ’30 and Frank in ’36. Frank was barely out of school. Louise was one of only two women in the show; the other was Jay DeFeo.

Wilson: She got a lot of good press out of the Sixteen Americans; her big sculpture installation, Dawn’s Wedding Feast, impressed people, hugely. That’s when Arne Glimcher realized he wanted to work with her. And the same with Ralph Peterson, the man who later commissioned the chapel she did for Saint Peter’s Church in the Citicorp building on Lexington Avenue. He had seen that show and was stunned by it.

Rail: The chapel is white, like Dawn’s Wedding Feast.

Wilson: The chapel is white partly because the pastor at Saint Peter’s had in mind a place in Sweden called House of Prayer that he remembered and loved—a kind of a serene white place. When she was preparing to work on the chapel she made two mock-ups, one in dark blue and one in white. Nobody can find the mockup in dark blue; they can’t find the one in white, either, but there are photographs. And Peterson picked the white one; he had his own reasons, but he definitely remembered the Dawn’s Wedding Feast. That’s how the chapel came together, quite a bit later, in 1975 – 77.

Rail: Imagine if it had been blue! Although she sometimes threw blue light onto her sculptures.

Wilson: Yes, that was her preference. Do you remember how it started? It was the Moon Garden + One when she was showing at Grand Central Moderns. She set it up and then decided she didn’t want any light at all—it was all black, and she wanted it to be completely mysterious. The owner of the gallery came in and said, “This is a liability. We can’t have people walking around and not seeing.” So he took a blue scarf from his secretary, threw it over a lamp, and it made this eerie blue light, and that was it. They all liked it, and after that Nevelson kept on using dim blue light with her big black installations. I once asked her how she felt about people’s responses to her work and she said, “I didn’t care at all,” which is not true, and she went on: “I’m the only one who needed to have a response.”

Rail: Yeah, sure.

Wilson: Right. [Laughter.]

Rail: Nevelson is not usually discussed as part of the New York School, and yet she pretty much parallels it in many ways, and was simultaneously developing through the same years—she’s the same generation as de Kooning. But she surfaces later. Could you talk a little bit about her interaction with the Abstract Expressionist artists—which ones she was friendly with and which ones she was most influenced by?

Wilson: They all knew each other from the WPA (Works Progress Administration) days, so they went back a long stretch. The ones she was closest to were Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko, also about her age. And Rothko, according to her assistant, came to visit her a week before he killed himself. They were very close spiritually and, in some ways, psychologically. They respected each other. She obviously knew de Kooning, and she became more friendly with him later. I don’t know if you could say she was influenced by those painters, but those very large paintings—she could see that large paintings were okay, so why wouldn’t large sculpture be okay? And many critics at the time took note of the affinity.

Rail: As for scale, she went beyond the painters; they were confined to the canvas, whereas she got the whole room.

Wilson: Nothing confined her, and that’s why she was delighted to move outdoors.

Rail: I think a lot of large-scale work is stronger indoors. With her outdoor sculpture, you don’t have that same feeling of almost bursting boundaries.

Wilson: I think for Nevelson there were two different categories: The wood pieces had to be indoors; you had to walk up close to them to examine their components and detailing, and then walk away and see the whole composition. The metal sculpture, once she got really going with it—some of it is quite fantastic. There’s one in San Francisco in the Embarcadero Center that just goes up and up and up, and as you look at it and walk around it, it keeps on changing and developing, and it connects with the buildings around it. I think her metal sculpture has been unfairly seen as not as good as her wood sculpture. Some of that may come from Martin Friedman. He did a show of Nevelson’s wood sculpture at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and he told everybody that she was only good at wood and she shouldn’t have switched to metal. I believed that until I started working on this biography, because I hadn’t looked very much at the metal sculptures.

Rail: Am I right that she started using metal in 1965, the year David Smith died?

Wilson: The year after.

Rail: Do you think that’s coincidental?

Wilson: I’m sure it’s related. He had admired her work in 1942 at her second Nierendorf show, and that’s when they became friends. But he was the sculptor who worked in metal, so she didn’t do it. She never said that, but it’s too coincidental that she would suddenly start working in metal a year after he died. There were other pulls, though; for instance, Arne Glimcher wanted her to do public sculpture, and he took her up to Lippincott for the first time. But she had done some metal things the year before that.

Rail: Let’s look back a little farther. The question of her roots in Surrealism, which you discuss at some length, is curious. Would you say, over the multiple contacts you had with her and what you’ve read, that she contradicts herself?

Wilson: Oh, of course.

Rail: I was looking at an interview with Nevelson that David Sylvester did, and David is trying to draw her into discussing organic references and the like. She refuses. And David says, “So there is nothing of a sort of Surrealist thinking of ambiguity of certain forms?” Louise: “Not in my thinking.”

Wilson: Well, organic reference is not what she took from Surrealism. She took other things: working fast, working from the unconscious, having the work talk back to you, the material talk back to you—all that back-and-forth part. I absolutely think she took those things from Surrealism, because Surrealism was everywhere when she was developing. She took the wit and the mystery of Surrealism. She had a terrific sense of humor, and if you’re open to it you can see it in the work, because some of the combinations of objects are not only fascinating to look at but some of them are pretty funny.

Rail: How about that toilet seat, tucked into one of the big assemblages? Could you say something about Duchamp?

Wilson: I’m not sure Duchamp was much of an influence. I guess finding a readymade, finding something already made, yes, but what she did with it was totally different.

Rail: You’ve stressed the fact that she was the only female artist of her generation who achieved major success on her own.

Wilson: Well, if you compare her to Frida Kahlo, who had Diego Rivera, or Elaine de Kooning, or Georgia O’Keeffe, who had Stieglitz—Louise did not have a man at her side who promoted her. In fact, I think after her marriage she didn’t want to be with anyone who was better educated or smarter, so she had these various lovers who were physically strong and who had natural street smarts, but weren’t going to compete with her.

Rail: I was looking at the ARTnews issue about women artists from January 1971. Nevelson was one of the contributors to an artists’ symposium. Her statement included this: “Single-mindedness, concentration, and absorption in one’s work come through the unfolding of the individual’s self-development and should not have anything to do with masculine/feminine labels.” Do you think she was a feminist?

Wilson: I think she was a pre-feminist. She did not join the feminist groups; there were other people—Louise Bourgeois among them—who went to all the meetings and took advantage of early feminism. Nevelson didn’t feel she needed to do that. On the one hand, she did not want to be classed as a “woman artist.” But she was in favor of women getting their due as artists. She’d had her big retrospective in 1967 at the Whitney, and she could afford to call herself the grandmother of feminism.

Rail: So she did think in those terms.

Wilson: I think Louise really believed in supporting women without having to be “a woman artist.” She had been part of women’s groups before. Any place she could exhibit she would exhibit. There was one year she was in twenty-three different shows, each organized by different groups, some of them women’s groups.

Rail: That was one of the interesting things you brought out: that she would show absolutely anywhere. That seemed to work well for her.

Wilson: She didn’t exactly need to do it at the beginning. She’d had success in the WPA days—high honors for one of the WPA shows—where, incidentally, there were lots of women artists. Later, though, things went down for her, and when she was trying to find her way back—after she’d been to Guatemala and Mexico—she said to herself, “I’m just going to make it.” Someone told me she had a public relations person. I never found out who that was, or whether that was true, but Isamu Noguchi and Jackson Pollock, I think, used Eleanor Lambert. So Nevelson knew that some artists used publicists. Anyhow, at the time, she wanted to make it, so she showed everywhere and said, “I’m a yes woman.” Literally, if anybody asked her, she would show.

Rail: During her travels to Guatemala and Mexico she became deeply interested in pre-Columbian art, especially the sculptured temples. Let’s look at some other historical roots. What about other examples of large-scale structural works? Would she have known about Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau?

Wilson: Probably. She, like many artists who were around in the late ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, looked at every art magazine, went to every exhibition. I can’t believe that she wouldn’t have known of its existence. She claimed she had never seen a Schwitters before, which is a total absurdity. The Gallatin Gallery of Living Art had works by Schwitters all the time. But she was like, “No, I’ve never seen that before.”

Rail: The other Louise—were they friends?

Wilson: They had been friends in the ’40s and early to mid-’50s. By the later ’50s and early ’60s, Louise Nevelson became hugely successful, when Louise Bourgeois was not. It took Bourgeois quite a lot longer to surface. I interviewed her a few times, because I wanted to know what their relationship was like; I knew that Bourgeois and Nevelson had been friends, but that at one point Nevelson had just stopped the friendship. She did that with other people as well—she would reach a point where, for whatever reason, she stopped the friendship. When I went to interview Louise Bourgeois, she said, “All of Nevelson comes out of my work; if you look at Nevelson, you’ll see the development coming from my work.” I said, “Okay”—I was working on my dissertation at the time—”that’s very interesting, can you show me some photographs of the work to which you’re referring so I can make the connection?” And she said, “Come back next week.” That happened about three weeks in a row. There were no photographs. It was a wishful thought. At the time I interviewed Bourgeois in the mid-’70s, she was doing well, but she wasn’t the huge success that she became after Nevelson died. It was as though once Nevelson was gone, there was room for Louise Bourgeois to rise to the top.

Louise Nevelson in 1958 with Sky Cathedral. Photo: Dan Budnick.

Rail: After Nevelson’s death in 1988, there was a seventeen-year hiatus when her work was seldom seen. Without going into legal complexities, how much of it do you think had to do with problems with the estate, and how much of it was a question of changing taste and so forth?

Wilson: I think almost everything had to do with problems of the estate, because suddenly her work was off the market. There were two battles going on that were in the news all the time.

Rail: In reading your account of that period of quasi invisibility, I wondered whether the many public commissions she did late in life might also have played a part in the falling off of attention. Because on the one hand, public art makes work available to the population at large, but on another level, it often takes an artist out of the immediate environs of the professional art world, especially if those public commissions are far afield. Do you think that was a factor?

Wilson: Probably not, because at the same time she was doing the large metal pieces, she was making her wood sculpture and showing every year at Pace. She liked jumping around. She would go to Lippincott’s for a week, and come back to the studio and work with wood, or make a series of prints. The estate was, in a sense, locked up until 2005. From 1988 to 2005 is a long stretch of time. That’s when she was out of public and critical consciousness, and it’s hard to get back in if you’re not there. Although she seems now to be selling well.

Rail: You knew Louise Nevelson for quite a few years in the ’70s, is that right?

Wilson: I interviewed her for my dissertation in ’75 and ’76, and a little bit in ’77.

Rail: You wrote your dissertation about Nevelson, and then you contributed to the catalogue for the Atmospheres and Environments show at the Whitney Museum in 1980.

Wilson: That’s right, which she censored. That exhibition was an environmental show; I wrote five essays, because that’s what they wanted. She took a look at them and she said no, and I had to go back and start again. I had to rewrite them from a toned-down, formal point of view.

Rail: What did you put in that she didn’t like?

Wilson: Psychological interpretations—why she did this work, and how it was related to mourning and her feelings about marriage. She didn’t want any of that. She wanted me to just look at the art and describe what I saw. That was my lesson in censorship.

Rail: That’s interesting, because so many of her titles involve male and female personages and weddings and so forth. Her titles seem to reveal a lot about her personal preoccupations.

Wilson: There are many artists who want you to look at the art and talk about the art, and not overload that with something biographical. I was naïve in thinking that she would find what I wrote just fine.

Rail: Hadn’t you spoken with her about such subjects beforehand?

Wilson: Oh, absolutely. She just didn’t want that in the catalogue, didn’t want it to turn up in Arts Magazine. As far as she was concerned, Edward Albee’s essay, which was the catalogue’s introduction, was the main thing. She was thrilled that he was doing that essay. I had five essays about her work, but Albee’s introduction was about Louise: “The Nevelson,” the persona and so on. I was not famous; Albee was famous. They were good friends. She was pretty nice to me in terms of being willing to talk about everything and anything, at least.

Rail: And now you’ve written this book. You’ve been working on it for eight, nine years?

Wilson: Eleven. I had started it earlier, and picked it up again in 2007. I had promised her I would write a book.

Rail: If she had resisted some of the things you said in the catalogue, she must’ve come around, wanting you to write a book.

Wilson: I had to be interviewed by her in order to be allowed to do this. And she said, “Now, dear, your job is to tell the world that after Picasso, I’m the most important 20th-century artist.” And I thought, what have I gotten myself into? Unbelievably self-preoccupied, this person! I frankly didn’t like her very much. I was fascinated by what she said, and I liked her work, but as a person she was hard to take. Later on, when I came back to work on her book and started reading more and interviewing other people, I began to see why she was so self-preoccupied. She wanted to succeed, and as a woman artist if you didn’t stay self-focused, you weren’t going to make it. So my view of her changed quite a bit.

Rail: From the ’70s up until now, the art world has changed enormously. How has your view of her work changed, or hasn’t it?

Wilson: I got to know her sculptures of the ’70s when I went back to work on her, because my dissertation only went up to 1960. When I saw what she could do in the ’70s, I was hugely moved and impressed as to how beautiful the works were. They hadn’t been part of my study. In the interim, I’d written a book on Giacometti and was moving in another direction. I still think she’s an extraordinary artist. She did finally have her due when she was alive—being exhibited all the time made people realize how good she was. But after she died, when she disappeared for seventeen years, they sort of forgot who she was. I don’t know what to say about changes in the art world—I know there are a lot of young artists who have great admiration for her and feel she’s an inspiration.

Rail: Is the title of your biography an homage to Dawns and Dusks, the book of interviews she did with her longtime assistant Diana MacKown?

Wilson: I guess it is. She considered herself the architect of light and of shadow, so these were her terms, as were dawns and dusks.

Rail: Here’s an interesting quote from Dawns and Dusks: “When one gets worldly success, so to speak, recognition, it is as hard to take success as failure. […] Being a public person requires quite a lot of things. After all, self-protection. You have to know how to handle it. I think some pretty good creative minds don’t want the responsibility. For myself, it was only after I was established that I didn’t feel the need to pound my head against the wall.”

Wilson: She got very good at the public part. She’d had some training in drama in her mid-twenties that helped her, gave her a kind of poise. She was influenced by charismatic women, and she herself had this quality already in her youth. I talked to someone whose cousin or niece had a sweet sixteen party; Louise went with her husband and was dressed very elegantly. This observer said that all of a sudden, everyone was around Louise. All the young people were talking and listening to her. She was the center, she was the most alive. She knew how to use the persona. All her life, she made sure she had things that were unique about her—the outfits she put together or invented, and later, the furry eyelashes—and what became clear to me is that it was to get people to look at her work. Because once you started looking at her, she would guide you to her work. It was pretty canny.

Rail: Are there other points you’d like to bring up?

Wilson: We haven’t said anything about her spirituality, which was very important to her, although she didn’t talk about it that much. She was not religious, but she felt the importance of spirituality—something she called the “fourth dimension”—which was a popular idea in the teens and ’20s. The Malevich group used the idea of the fourth dimension as an art concept, but there were the Blavatsky spiritualistic people using it as something else. It’s hard to explain, but she had an image of an ideal harmony that she was trying to bring from the fourth dimension to the third dimension with her work. It sounds crazy, but she believed in that. She was very influenced by Krishnamurti, who had this understanding of deep spirituality.

Rail: His lifespan was not far from coinciding with hers, incidentally. In her framework, would the fourth dimension be something otherworldly?

Wilson: Yes and no. I can tell from the expression on your face that you think of that the same way most people in the art world do.

Rail: Did she go to séances?

Wilson: No, she was not into magic. When Max Weber came back from Europe and wrote about the fourth dimension, he had been influenced by the Cubists and Matisse; he said it was a solid, acceptable concept, not a far-out or weirdo thing.

Rail: The fourth dimension seems to have, in all cases I can remember, some application to abstraction. Did it also have this sense in her work, or does she take it further or in some other direction?

Wilson: Once she was doing abstraction, she just kept on doing abstract works. I think it gave her a sense of spiritual grounding. She was Jewish, but I don’t think the religious Jewish heritage meant very much to her. It wasn’t very important to her family. So finding something in the art world that was also deep and profound appealed to her. It was one of the crossover connections with Rothko, who in his own way was also spiritual. Most artists who have that quality tend not to talk about it. Giacometti didn’t talk about his interest in alchemy, even though that was at the core of the Surrealist project. Because they thought about alchemy as creative transformation, not just turning lead into gold, but turning raw stuff into art. In some ways that’s also what Nevelson thought she was doing. She was taking these scraps of wood she picked up everywhere and giving them new life. There was something grounding for her about having some consonance with spiritual ideas.

Rail: Do you think that spiritual ideas come into play in her design of the chapel at Saint Peter’s Church? The installation is called The Chapel of the Good Shepherd.

Wilson: I think the people at Saint Peter’s really wanted an important artist, and Ralph Peterson had seen and loved her work. I don’t think either her religion or her spirituality was at play.

Rail: Do you think that for her, as a non-practicing Jewish person, working on a Christian chapel had a spiritual meaning?

Wilson: She felt that all religions at base came to the same thing.

Rail: The same question comes up with Rothko’s chapel in Houston, originally Catholic, now non-denominational. As for Kelly’s chapel that is under construction in Austin, that’s being characterized from the outset as non-denominational. But the Nevelson chapel is a working church—it is Lutheran.

Wilson: Absolutely. She’d already done sculptures for synagogues in Great Neck and Boston, so she had done works in a place of worship. It felt like she was honoring the basis of all religion. And Peterson said things like, “God is not a Lutheran.” He felt in sync with her spiritually. He’s a huge fan of her work. He really loved her as a human being.

Rail: In Eleanor Munro’s book about women artists, she sees Nevelson’s chapel as an unsuccessful work.

Wilson: Well, there were differing views. It was made at the same time as Mrs. N’s Palace—both date from 1977, and both opened to the public almost simultaneously. Munro loved Mrs. N’s Palace, and so did many people. And sometimes people took sides.

Rail: The Saint Peter’s chapel is still under restoration, so I couldn’t go in when I went over there recently. Looking through glass panels in the door, which allow a partial view, I could see that one of the walls on the left holds a diagonally oriented relief.

Wilson: It’s a huge triangle called The Trinity.

Rail: More often she made rectilinear structures of assembled boxes—based on an implied, or actual, underlying grid—to bring dissimilar things together. That chapel is the first time I saw a large piece composed on a slant.

Wilson: It’s a delta; the widest part is at the top and then it narrows down. Sitting there next to it is a bit overpowering, but from a distance it’s extraordinary. You also see diagonals in work from the late ’80s. She let loose then, with diagonals shooting off into space in wood pieces that are really spectacular.

Rail: On the right-hand side, another relief seems to have quite an affinity with the Mayan buildings that she was interested in.

Wilson: She had reason to admire pre-Columbian art. Everybody in the ‘30s saw how important it was. MoMA did exhibition after exhibition of pre-Columbian art. Because she knew Diego and Frida, she went to Mexico and saw some of those things there. But the real transformative moment was when she went to Guatemala and saw the huge sculpted stelae at a Mayan site. Before that, she had visited the Natural History Museum with Max Weber to see replicas. She was so moved by those sculptures that she had to see the originals. So she persuaded her sister, who was better off financially, to come with her, and within a couple of weeks they were in Guatemala.

Rail: Somewhere I saw a mention of her in connection with Joaquín Torres-García. Was she interested in him?

Wilson: I never heard her discuss his work, but—

Rail: Maybe it’s simply the pre-Columbian interest, for both.

Wilson: Torres-García also worked in a grid. So there are ways in which you could say yes, clearly, they’re related. But what she did with composition is, to me, much more complex and powerful.

Rail: I wonder if they knew each other.

Wilson: Possibly. She knew everybody. She went dancing with Mondrian. The art world, as you know, was much smaller. If you knew people, you knew people.

Rail: What a good place to end: dancing with Mondrian!

Contributor

Betsy Baker

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