“Leonard Baskin: I Hold the Cracked Mirror Up to Man” at Farnsworth Art Museum. Photo by David Troup

Two compact exhibitions at the Farnsworth Art Museum corroborate an old adage, which I will alter here more superlatively: Excellent things come in small packages. Though “Leonard Baskin: I Hold the Cracked Mirror Up to Man” (through Jan. 15) has been up for quite some time, that show and “Louise Nevelson: Dawn to Dusk” (through Dec. 31) are apposite statements for our particular moment in time.

Both shows represent the work of Jewish artists, which, with the approaching Hanukkah holiday, seem timely. Furthermore, Louise Nevelson was born Leah Berliawsky near Kyiv in present-day Ukraine but fled the Tsarist regime’s pogroms in 1905 with her family, eventually settling in Rockland.

Nevelson’s background is not only a reminder of this region’s ongoing history of conflict, but also of the censorship and persecution Ukrainian-born artists like Alexander Archipenko, Kazimir Malevich (though of Polish descent) and others faced – first under imperial, then Communist, systems. And inhumanity of many stripes – toward Jews, Native Americans, Black and brown people, victims of war – is the subject of Baskin’s exhibition.

As challenging as Baskin’s imagery is, it’s worth remembering during the year’s most acquisitive, commercialized holiday those who are less fortunate, or find themselves in circumstances that make joyous celebration nearly inconceivable.

Years ago, when I was studying journalism and art history at New York University, I managed the lunch crowd at a Greenwich Village restaurant called Café Loup, which was frequented by writers, intellectuals and artists. One day the door flung open and in strode a woman with heavy black kohl around her eyes, her head wrapped in a long black scarf that trailed behind her as she parted the waters of the restaurant. Louise Nevelson knew how to make an entrance. She had come to lunch with her friend Dorothy Dehner, the painter and sculptor who had been married to the mercurial artist David Smith for 23 years.

Louise Nevelson, “The Endless Column,” 1969-1985, Painted wood sculpture, Bequest of Nathan Berliawsky, 1980.35.30, © 2022 Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo courtesy of Farnsworth Art Museum

Back then, what I knew of Nevelson’s work were mainly her all-black constructions, though a few years later I would discover her immaculately white 1977 “Chapel of the Good Shepherd” at St. Peter’s Church in midtown Manhattan (now under restoration). At the Farnsworth, a wall legend accompanying Nevelson’s seminal 1959 white constructed environment, called “Dawn’s Wedding,” quotes her explicating her initial detour away from the black works that had made her famous: “For me, the black contains the silhouette, the essence of the universe. But the whites move out a little bit into outer space with more freedom.”


Freedom, in fact, was Nevelson’s modus operandi. Which means that what’s most interesting about this show is less these familiar works than the adventurous explorations she engaged in on the road to arriving at them.

Among the surprises here are Nevelson’s early paintings, through which she tried on diverse genres as she developed her own signature. For instance, with its rounded forms, color palette and Art Deco aesthetic, a 1929 work like “Female Nude” bears the stylistic imprints of Kenneth Hayes Miller and Chaim Gross, two of her teachers at the Art Students League in New York.

Louise Nevelson, “Woman with a Red Scarf,” 1946, oil on board, Bequest of Nathan Berliawsky, 1980.35.24, © 2022 Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo courtesy of Farnsworth Art Museum

The angularity and bright hues of her 1946 self-portrait, “Woman with a Red Scarf,” resemble the work of German Expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Even though it was painted in 1946, three years before she visited Mexico for the first time, the Central American influences of “Two Women” – from the attire to the Tamayo-esque paint application – indicate she was already familiar with the work of the great Mexican muralists.

Freedom of experimentation – as well as an obsessive quest to find her own voice – is also apparent in Nevelson’s journey through various mediums. In the course of the show, we witness her creating art with paint, carved wood, cast bronze (the show is particularly strong in these holdings), collage (of both cut paper and wood), embossed handmade paper, silkscreened fabric, jewelry and more. We see paintings, sculptures, fabricated environments and even a stage design for a 1984 production of the opera “Orfeo and Eurydice.”

One fascinating pairing happens diagonally across one side of the gallery. To the left of the entry is a wall case containing several of Nevelson’s collaged wood pendants, some with gold-painted overlays, mostly from the 1980s. In the corner diagonally opposite the case is “Series of An Unknown Cosmos I,” a 1979 wood and paper collage on plywood that unquestionably prefigures the jewelry. It almost looks like a study for those body adornments.

Louise Nevelson, “Series Of An Unknown Cosmos I,” 1979, Wood and paper collage on plywood, 36 x 24″, Gift of Louise Nevelson, 1985.23.25 Photo by Dave Clough

By then, Nevelson had long established her particular magic of composing collaged wood forms in her truly – to correctly use a word that has become hackneyed today – iconic works. Yet she still meandered into different media, working out ideas through a plethora of techniques.


That is the mark of a great artist: the refusal to stand still, to reject continual replication of the work for which people have come to know you. By the time she charged into Café Loup in the early 1980s, she’d done most all of this. I’m glad I didn’t know the extent of it. Otherwise, I might have been too tongue-tied and starstruck to simply greet Nevelson and Dehner and usher them to table 14.


It’s hard to imagine that Leonard Baskin was ever a happy human being. A sculptor and graphic artist, this was the man, after all, who founded one of the earliest and most influential art presses in the United States in 1942, which he called Gehenna, a term that means “place of misery” and is sometimes used as a synonym for hell. He was 17 and a student at Yale, and World War II was three years on.

Lynchings of African Americans had been happening for almost two centuries by then. The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by an atomic bomb was just three years away, and the development of the hydrogen bomb a decade into the future. Not inconsequentially, he felt deep empathy for all this suffering. As the son and brother of rabbis, he was already well versed in a legacy of persecution. One senses in “Cracked Mirror” Baskin’s visceral revulsion to our human capacity for cruelty.

Leonard Baskin, “Hydrogen Man,” 1954, woodcut, 62 1⁄4 x 24 3/8 inches, Collection of the Farnsworth Art Museum, Gift of Kenneth N. Shure and Liv M. Rockefeller, 2007.23.1 Photo courtesy of Farnsworth Art Museum

And this is why this is an important – with a capital “I” – exhibition to see. As they like to say in academia these days, “trigger warning”: It’s a downer and profoundly unsettling. Behold “Hydrogen Man,” a woodcut on paper that measures 3 feet by almost 6 feet. It is a picture of a man reduced to bones and raw fascia muscles who appears to have been flayed (or the skin vaporized clean off his body).

It is a haunting and horrific image. Yet it is made even more so when we realize it was printed from a nearly life-size single block of carved wood. Baskin’s choice to work at this scale (the scale of many works in this exhibition) must have intensified his own identification with his subjects. He was producing images of tortured souls in his own proportions. To land this notion indelibly in our psyche, the exhibition produces an actual block of wood, carved on both sides, that he used to produce two of his disturbing life-sized prints.


Leonard Baskin, “Man of Peace,” 1952, woodcut, Collection of Kenneth Shure and Liv Rockefeller, © The Estate of Leonard Baskin Photo courtesy of Farnsworth Art Museum

The small gallery these works occupy is packed with similarly upsetting references, including lynchings (“The Hanged Man”) and the Holocaust (“Man of Peace” and several other works). Yet, as depressing as Baskin’s messages are, you might leave the show inexplicably exhilarated. I suggest this is two-fold.

First, these are works of conscience, and no matter how uncomfortable works of conscience make us feel, there is an inherent aliveness in being aware of our discomfort (its opposite is the deadness of numbing our feelings against these sorts of truths). The more conscious we are, the more we sense the entirety of our human experience, including the innate dignity of our higher selves and our ability to be kind and compassionate.

Baskin acknowledged that, though humans have “made of Eden a landscape of death,” we are still noble, even “glorious” beings because we possess an ever-present hope of redemption. Second, it is awe-inspiring to behold an artist’s power to invoke our aliveness. Baskin once wrote that “forging works of art is one of man’s remaining semblances to divinity.” And that, quite simply, is why art matters.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected] 

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.