In Focus

Interview as Assemblage

On 17 November 1963 the British critic David Sylvester interviewed Nevelson in London on the occasion of her solo exhibition at Hanover Gallery, which ran for a month from early November until early December. The interview, which was recorded and broadcast on BBC radio on 6 April 1964, is now held in the sound collection of the British Library.1 The following excerpt from the BBC recording features Nevelson discussing the making of her early walls, including Black Wall (Tate T00514). In the interview Nevelson distinguishes her subsequent use of pre-fabricated boxes from the found materials she used in her early walls, describing how they were produced and her approach to composing the contents of each unit.[NP0523W].mp3

Interview with Louise Nevelson by David Sylvester, 17 November 1963

In relation to Black Wall, a number of points about this interview are relevant. According to a letter from Hanover gallerist Erica Brausen, Nevelson visited Tate to see Black Wall on two occasions while she was in London, so her specific reference to the work was probably informed by the recent experience of seeing her sculpture again.2 Although Nevelson claims in this interview that Black Wall was the first wall she ever sold, several other multi-part box constructions drawn from the larger installation of her landmark 1958 exhibition Moon Garden Plus One had in fact been sold before Black Wall was bought by a Parisian dealer in early 1960.3

When this interview excerpt was re-transcribed in 2015, a number of inconsistencies were identified between the broadcast and the transcript of the original recording. Part of the interview was also published in Sylvester’s Interviews with American Artists in 2001, and comparison with that book revealed further discrepancies between the broadcast and the published text.4 One might expect repetitions, disjunctions, pauses and other interruptions to be removed in the process of editing an interview for broadcast, but Sylvester’s editing went much further.

Some of these alterations significant changed the meaning of Nevelson’s comments. For the BBC broadcast, Sylvester edited out a section of the interview in which Nevelson explained that, in one work, she ‘reversed the box to get texture’ and that she sometimes would ‘break up a form, or break up a box to get a certain texture, or a rugged edge.’ Given Nevelson’s interest expressed elsewhere in fine detail and texture, the omission of the details about her process represented a significant alterations to its account of her working process. In Interviews with American Artists, Sylvester made changes that were different again, evidently adapting this published version from the transcript, rather than the original interview. Where Nevelson describes how particular ‘forms belonged to a certain box’ and if ‘you use smaller forms it isn’t quite right, for instance, Sylvester’s book alters the word ‘forms’ to the rather less rigorous sounding ‘pieces’, subtly shifting aligning her practice with craft and decoration.

Sylvester’s best-known interviews are those he conducted with the painter Francis Bacon between 1962 and 1987. In the preface to the 2002 volume of these published interviews, the critic reveals how they were prepared for publication: recordings were not merely transcribed and edited, but stitched together from a number of different conversations. Moreover, questions were sometimes invented to conceal the extent to which the text was assembled from scattered parts:

the sequence in which things were said has been drastically rearranged. Each of the interviews, apart from the first, has been constructed from transcripts of two or more sessions, and paragraphs in these montages sometimes combine things said on two or three different days quite widely separated in time. In order to prevent the montage from looking like a montage, many of the questions have been recast or simply fabricated. The aim has been to seam together a more concise and coherent argument than ever came about when we were talking.5

This account proves useful in understanding Sylvester’s treatment of the Nevelson interview. Indeed, the critic’s practice of editing may even be said to resemble the assemblage approach taken by Nevelson when arranging her walls. Just as she positioned found forms into boxes, and arranged those boxes into larger compositions – which were themselves subject to further rearrangement, by herself and by others – so too were the component parts of her interview broken up and rearranged by Sylvester. Although his discussion with Nevelson was not subjected to the drastic rearrangements that Sylvester described of his interviews with Bacon, it still represents a refashioning of the original material into a different form. In doing this, he may have wished to avoid what he described elsewhere as the ‘crushing authority’ of the recording or transcript, although the accuracy of the transcript is itself open to question in this case.6

Despite the inconsistencies between the broadcast, the transcript and the printed publication, Sylvester’s discussion with Nevelson represents an important early interview with an artist who had only recently emerged as a figure of international significance.7 Moreover, the clarity and candour with which Nevelson describes her artistic processes in this interview contrasts strikingly with her later interviews, characterised by increasingly mystical accounts of her creative processes – through ‘random ruminations’ and ‘hermetic pronouncements’, as playwright Edward Albee later described her style – and matched by a ‘spotty’ memory for the facts of her biography.8 Her interviews are themselves assemblage creations on Nevelson’s part, the specifics of which do not always hold together.9 Despite its manifold transformations, this interview represents a refreshingly straightforward account from an artist at the peak of her international success, describing the processes by which Black Wall and works like it were made.