Louise Nevelson was a sculptor rather than a painter, and thus outside TCOP’s usual focus, but I saw Albee’s play last weekend, and I’m sure all artists will appreciate it. Set on a sparsely furnished stage, the play begins with a smarmy interviewer, archly played by Larry Bryggman, explaining to the audience that we are about to see him conduct a posthumous interview with artist Louise Nevelson. Nevelson, by way of a finely nuanced Mercedes Ruehl, enters, and, after a bit of discussion about her introduction, the interviewer describes her as “a great American sculptor.”
“You said it not me,” Nevelson says shaking her head. She may hesitate to call herself great, but clearly she agrees with his assessment, and confesses that she always knew she was special. Not that special meant better, she carefully points out, just different from everyone else. Albee uses Louise Nevelson’s biography to tell his own story, which for many artists will sound strangely familiar.
Nevelson was born in Russia and moved to Maine with her family when she was a small child. At nineteen, she married a wealthy New Yorker, and moved to the city, where she played the role of a socialite and mother. Nevelson, as Albee portrays her, knew that she wasn’t living the life she was meant to live, and eventually she left her husband and abandoned her son to pursue art making. She tells how she eventually got a show, only to be devastated when none of the work sold. After the gallery returned the artwork, she burned it all. Nevelson endured twenty difficult years that included long bouts of depression and alcoholic binges before her work was finally recognized, but she persevered nonetheless. She was looking for something, Nevelson tells the audience, but she just wasn’t sure what it was.
As the interviewer and Nevelson unwind her story, trying to sort out what actually happened from the oft-repeated legends the artist had fabricated over the years, a compelling portrait of single-minded determination and grit emerges.
Edward Albee’s Occupant, Signature Theater, New York, NY. Just extended through July 13.