Louise Nevelson

By - Apr 4, 2018


Among my mother’s 23 friends on Facebook are my ex-husband and my mother’s former best friend, Max. I am not on speaking terms with either of these individuals and neither, I hope, is my mother. My former husband was living a double life for the last three years of our union and Max, my mother’s former best friend, is dead. Of these unfortunate circumstances my mother and I say exactly nothing. There are one or two people who regularly “like” my mother’s posts. I am not among them.
     Max seems to have been an OK person. My mother met her recently, within the last decade, and there are a total of four details I can recall regarding the life of Max:

  1. Max had an adult son who was a classical musician (I do not recall his instrument)
  2. Max was a woman artist who had a family instead of a career
  3. Max and my mother occasionally communed in nature in Connecticut where both Max and her second husband and my mother and my father, who is my mother’s first husband, have second homes
  4. Max died swiftly of terminal cancer (I do not recall which kind)

     I became aware of the last of these details by way of an art object that appeared in the living room of my parents’ second home. The home has an open floor plan on the second floor and the art object had been given pride of place. It stood on an antique chest (scrolling ribbon work and elaborate lock) directly across from the top of the stairs. Attaining the second floor you met the gaze of the object’s numerous intriguingly drilled orifices, its segmented wooden arm, its awkward paraedolic splendor. The object appeared to be tooting. It was stiffly, silently tooting and motionlessly marching and pointing all over the room. It was a masterwork of late modernism, partaking of a style definitively and exhaustively explored by the artist Louise Nevelson. The art object, which was admittedly all but silently shouting that it recognized and pretty well comprehended that it was a rip-off of a Louise Nevelson, was painted a not entirely unappealing terra-cotta rose. It was a little less than two feet tall. It stood before a window facing south.
     When I first saw this object I carefully indicated to my mother its resemblance to the work of Louise Nevelson. I attempted to proceed with tact. I gingerly inched out of the shadows, choosing my words with care, wanting to know, did my mother suspect that there might be any way Max had been at all familiar?
     “I got that out of her garage,” my mother said. We were going to have dinner in 15 minutes. The open floor plan meant that views of the kitchen with its steaming pasta pot were available. My father had dropped off to sleep on the sectional.
     Because I still thought this was a joke, this willing selection of an obviously derivative kitsch item, I suggested, “It spoke to you?”
     My mother continued, “After she died her husband, really sweet guy,” this pronounced with no feeling, “said I could take something. She had a studio.” 
     “Oh,” I said, as a veil brushed sleepily across the room. “She’s dead?”
     “Yes,” my mother said. “Just like Louise Nevelson.”

There has always been a lot of math going on around me, and lately I am learning more about it. For example, my mother has recently been playing more and more tennis, despite her dislike of the sport. She does so because my father’s tennis game has been growing increasingly weak, due to his age (77), and because tennis was my father’s one great love in life. It is unclear, in this sense, whether my mother is somehow acting as a bridge between my father and his one great love, the game of tennis, or if, in a continuation of other questionable behavior on her part, she is quietly robbing him of his most private joy. That my mother has also used my father’s love of tennis as at once a cloak and rationale for her infidelities, complicates the story, or, rather, the math, of which, as I have mentioned, there has been a lot. 
     Also complicating our math is the fact that my mother, unlike my father, has no great loves. This is the math that the shameful fail to see: Those who feel no shame can also feel no love. They may feel other things, but love is absolutely denied them. This is why shame, not tragic fate, is the other—the double and/or opposite—of luck. Those who are capable of shame are also capable of much else.
     My mother, though shameless, understands this math. This is why she has had to do so very much in order, as she puts it, “to survive.”

I, meanwhile, am my mother’s large adult child. I use this language partly in jest. You will find it on the Internet. People say (i.e., type), “large adult son.” They mean something has gone wrong. They mean that an adult son is still around, lingering for ease of comparison. There is another meme I consider nominally related. The text is something like, “Don’t talk to me or my son ever again.” The idea is schoolyard or mall or parking lot as libidinal zone, the awkwardness of attachment, how it looks like Dad is wearing an invisible apron as he stiffly shields his offspring from some important villain. Once I saw someone caption an image of a large Perrier bottle beside a small Perrier bottle with this text. That was outstanding.
     I am my mother’s large adult daughter. I am not really that large, and I am not even particularly adult. I can, in theory, for example, bear children for several years to come, which for a woman means, I believe, that she is still quite young. 
     Regarding the meme invoked above, re: talking and sons, I am not entirely sure what my mother is trying to protect me from. My mother from time to time comments on my youth in an abashed way. “You are so young!” she whispers, touching her own face. “Your skin,” she murmurs, stroking her hair. Yet I do my own taxes, indicating, by way of contrast, my relative lack of naiveté.
     Several years ago, long before Max’s death, my mother recounted a nightmare she had had about Connecticut. In the nightmare, my father was dead, and my mother was forced to live “in town.” She said that in the nightmare she did not own a car because she could not afford one and was forced to walk, on the actual sidewalk, to the actual grocery store. My mother said that she was alone in the house “in town” and had to attempt to save money, an undertaking she found extremely frightening. My mother told me this as she drove. 
     My father, who does not really speak to me, was asleep in the backseat.
     These are a very few of the extremely few scenes I am able to relate from the long-term standoff that constitutes my primary human relationship.

Louise Nevelson, after whose art my mother’s friend Max shamelessly styled her own, was an American sculptor. Louise Nevelson lived for nearly a century, from 1899 to 1988. She was born in the ancient city of Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi, formerly Pereyaslav, in central Ukraine. In 1897, there were some ten thousand Jewish persons living in Pereyaslav. In 2017, there are fewer than 100 in Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi, which is renowned for its museums. 
     Louise Nevelson’s paternal grandfather was a dealer in wood. Nevelson’s father Isaac Berliawsky was a merchant who emigrated to America in 1902, sending for his wife and children three years later. Nevelson’s best-known works are monumental wooden sculptures painted a single color, usually black or white. To my eye, they appear charred.
     Louise Nevelson is associated with such American artists as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. It is said that Nevelson began working with wood during the late 1930s when, impoverished, she and her son wandered the streets of New York looking for scraps to burn. Her son later became a sculptor.
     Like Louise Nevelson, Max gave birth to a son who became an artist. Unlike Louise Nevelson’s son, Max’s son is better known for his art than his mother was for hers. Louise Nevelson identified strongly with her father, at least as far as her professional life was concerned, and her relationship with her son was always strained. Max, on the other hand, understood motherhood as a surpassing achievement, though she had a first name that might, sight unseen, allow her to be mistaken for a man.

Ah, gender! How you have continued, in spite of the optimistic tidings of my middle school teachers, to be a pressing concern! Truly, it is a remarkable thing, how thoroughly my life has been defined by my female status. It is worse now even than it was when I was 11, when I was 16, when I was 25, because now I understand the social differentiation of sex. I feel as if I am crouched over in permanence, waiting out my biological clock, praying that the strike of midnight will unsex me, to use Lady Macbeth’s helpfully plain verb, though I know that it will not. No matter how old I become, it will always have been possible for me to have “had” children. The infinitesimal lessening of onus here constitutes a pillar of women’s liberation, so called. 
     I am one of the animals. I live among the other human animals and am one of them. Nothing animal is outlandish to me.

My mother, who never comments on the early termination of my marriage, has always had things to say, regarding the project of becoming an artist. Although she has had a number of friends who were artists, even before the advent of Max, most of her artist-related pronouncements are not very nice. Artists are poor and unrecognized. Society mocks them. Artists are deluded by the success of a small number of artists who arbitrarily meet with forms of reward that have no intrinsic or necessary relationship to the objects they produce. Everything in the project of art making is hazard and/or luck and/or prostitution. Those who labor on in obscurity do so at risk of madness. Their lives are unsanitary.
     The not-insignificant irony of this particular aesthetic theory is that my mother is herself a pretty creative type. I would not go so far as to call her an artist, but she is a talented liar.
     I wish now to discuss with you my mother’s great artistic feat in life, the work that has for so long consumed her. I wish to discuss also the ways in which her great feat has impacted me. I am part of my mother’s great feat, although my role is but a supporting one, if not that of an infans extra. I am a part of my mother’s masterpiece, if distantly. I stand before it, and I tremble. I fear it more than solitude plus genteel penury in any Connecticut town.
     This is to say that, unable to resist the siren song of symmetry, a.k.a., the math, a.k.a., the vibrating abyss and/or much-doctored scorecard that is our family, my mother invited her lover to the release event for the publication of my latest novel. It took me a couple of weeks to figure out that this had occurred, the appearance of the lover, I mean. The lover is, unlike my mother’s friend Max, not dead and, in fact, when I think about it, probably he looks more vital than ever. I saw him but did not quite see him, there. I learned who he was through another friend, who once held a subordinate position in the workplace where for many years my mother was an important individual. 
     “Oh,” the friend said to me, out of her beer, “so-and-so was at your reading. He was lurking at the back. Remember how years ago he took me to that Bob Dylan concert? I thought that was so inappropriate.” I was nodding to her because I could remember. “I remember,” my friend said, “because he was there that weekend with his much younger girlfriend and later I heard his wife sing at the funeral for—.” My friend was continuing to speak. She was explaining how so-and-so, my mother’s former colleague and, we all believe, her lover was unfaithful to everyone he knew, not just his wife, his younger girlfriend, or, for that matter, my mother. And so-and-so stood at the back of the reading for my new novel, too. So-and-so was ancient and handsome and living and did not attempt to speak to me. He was probably younger than he’d ever been.
     My father, meanwhile, sat there. My father did not even glance at the back of the room. He was holding a guide to better tennis.