Feature image by Lynn Gilbert.
Julia Bryan-Wilson is an art historian of enormous productivity, insight, range, and flair, with copious writing and curating credits, abundant laurels from diverse institutions, and generations of student acolytes. Her library to date includes Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era(University of California, 2009, named a best book of the year by theNew York TimesandArtforum);Art in the Making: Artists and Their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing(with Glenn Adamson, Thames &Hudson, 2016); andFray: Art and Textile Politics(University of Chicago, 2017, aNew York Timesbest art book of the year and winner of the Frank Jewett Mather Award, the Robert Motherwell Book Award, and the Association for the Study of the Arts of the Present Book Prize). Great books all, but only representing a fraction of Bryan-Wilsons contribution to culture.
To understand her voice in toto, one also has to check out her literally hundreds of journal essays, magazine reviews, museum catalogue pieces, anthologies, and artists books, or take one of her classes on modern and contemporary art (generally framed through a queer lens, and always running far afield of the traditional American canon). Decades of labor in the factories of academia and contemporary art have turned her into that rare kind of figureat once ubiquitous and semi-shrouded, a scholar of sterling citizenship whose perfect bindings come as signal events.
All of which is to say, the arrival of her new monograph on the under-understood midcentury artist, Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), is a big deal. Its no surprise, either, that the book casually demolishes many of the basic premises of the artist monograph. Divided into four smaller books, thus inviting the reader to approach from multiple angles, and incorporating many grassroots voices into the weave of argument, alongside those of august scholars and the occasional first-person musings of the author herself, the book is at once idiosyncratic, politically avant, and effortlessly, gracefully polyphonic.
Its a major book by a major art historian that also reads as a missive from a ridiculously erudite friendor at least it does to me, someone whos known Julia since we were both about twenty years old, who put on art shows with her in the DIY wilds of Portland in the 90s, and whos learned half of what I know about art from our never-ending and thoroughly joyous conversation.
Jon Raymond: Lets start simple. How far back does your fascination with Nevelson go? Were there any pivotal moments that led you to write this book? Any signs or portents that guided you?
Julia Bryan-Wilson: I had never written a monographic book beforethat is, a close study of a single artistand I came to her as my subject gradually and hesitantly. I was apprehensive about how I would approach Nevelsons impressively large and impressively repetitive oeuvre. But I kept returning to her art, especially her wood-based assemblages painted black. Why did this idiom emerge for her in the 1950s and why did she pursue it so insistently until her death?
Within art history, Nevelsons sculpture is both pervasive and strangely neglected. Though I might have encountered Nevelson pieces in museums as a student, she was not included in the 20th century Western art surveys I took. Nor has there been a robust critical literature dedicated to her as there has been for, as a counter-example, Louise Bourgeois.
In trying to trace my own exposure to her art, I realized she was hiding in plain sight throughout my lifeshe was featured in Highlights for Children magazine when I was a kid, and she installed a prominent public sculpture in a busy intersection in Houston, TX where I grew up, etc. At the same time, I recall looking through the standard art history textbook as a teenagerH.W. Jansons History of Artand there were no women included at that time, literally not one.
I recall looking through the standard art history textbook as a teenagerH.W. Jansons History of Artand there were no women included at that time, literally not one.
When the revised edition came out in 1986, Nevelson was one of a small handful of women mentioned. And she was one of the select few female artists who became visibleand in fact widely knownin her own lifetime. As a feminist interested in how the category of art is shaped by power and gender, I felt there was a larger story to tell about visibility and erasure via examining Nevelsons peculiar (influential yet diffuse) presence.
To me the answer to this problem is not simply to include more women artists in textbooks, or to exclude men from them as in Katy Hessels popular The Story of Art Without Men.
JR: Nevelson famously repurposed used wood in her sculptures. You repurpose and rebut many old art reviews. Interestingly, Robert Hughes isn’t the worst. I wonder if you have any methods or principles around engaging with earlier reviews and criticism? How do you decide what you want to resuscitate in those texts?
JBW: I love this question and its true that I found some unexpectedly useful readings of Nevelsons work by many types of writers. I tried to be non-sectarian in my approach to the criticism because Nevelson had rabid detractors and ardent supporters, and the party lines that emerged around her especially in the 1970s now appear laughably rigid. Masculinist critics I usually dismiss, like Hilton Kramer and Hughes, took Nevelson seriously, while many of the critics affiliated with postmodernism whose work has been very meaningful to me really hated her work.
Her works legacy has suffered because of moribund categorizations around formalism and autonomy that were fiercely debated at the time and do not interest me much at all. So, while I draw on the complicated responses of professional art critics of the moment, I look also to alternative sites for interpretation: to her queer fans, to feminist poems written in homage to her, to childrens art inspired by her, to contemporary artists who see her as pivotal for their own work. Those responses are so rich and rewarding because they are so untethered from pretty airless artworld debates.
JR: You also insert yourself in the book inmanysubtle andfun ways. The art historian shows her face, so to speak. How big of a deal is that in the discourse of academic art history?
JBW: I think its less and less of a taboo for the art historian to speak from their own investmentsand within feminist art history and queer theory that has long been a crucial strategy. For me its a balancing actthe lens of the personal can be a generous route in for some readers, but a focus on my individual experience can also be limiting. This is not a memoir, but it does investigate, from the situated stance of my own embodiment, how Nevelsons work might be relevant todayindeed, more relevant than ever.
Julia Bryan-Wilson’s Louise Nevelson’s Sculpture is available now from Yale University Press.