Nevelson, Louise

views updated May 14 2018


(b. 23 September 1899 in Kiev, Russia; d. 17 April 1988 in New York City), acclaimed abstract sculptor whose long maturation period culminated in a rich body of work in the 1960s that exemplified the creative energy of the medium at that moment in the art world.

Nevelson, born Leah Berliawsky, was one of four children of Isaac and Minna Zeisel (Smolerank) Berliawsky. The family immigrated to the United States in 1905, settling in the small coastal town of Rockland, Maine, where her father prospered in the lumber business and her mother was a homemaker. Because of her Russian-Jewish heritage, Nevelson always felt like an outsider in the provincial New England town. She once remarked, "I never made friends because I didn't intend to stay in Rockland, and I didn't want anything to tie me down." Nevelson inherited her parents' passionate belief in freedom and independence of thought, a radical orientation in politics, and a crusader's attitude toward women's rights. For most of her life she felt different from her peers, and she took pleasure in accentuating this difference through her unconventional fashion style. Thick sable eyelashes and distinctive head-wear that framed her beautifully contoured face became Nevelson's personal trademarks.

Nevelson had little interest in school except for her art classes, where she excelled. Her art teachers, who were quick to recognize her talent, dubbed her "the artist." In 1918, shortly before her graduation from Rockland High School, Nevelson met a wealthy shipping company executive, Charles Nevelson, and they were married two years later in Boston on 12 June 1920. The couple moved to New York City, where Nevelson studied voice, drama, and art. She later observed, "I had the foresight to understand that all of these arts were pretty much one. All of them were essential; one supported the other."

In 1922 her son was born and, as a result, it was not until 1929 that she pursued art as a career, beginning by enrolling at the Art Students League. In 1931, finding marriage too restrictive, she separated from her husband (they divorced in 1941) and left her son with her family in Maine in order to study with the renowned artists Hans Hofmann and Diego Rivera. From 1933 to 1958 Nevelson gradually developed the style for which she became famous in the 1960s, drawing heavily on cubism and surrealism.

In 1958 her painted black wood environment, Moon Garden + One, exhibited at Grand Central Moderns in New York, demonstrated the theatricality of her work and also confirmed the debt her work owed to cubism. Always at the forefront, she was the first artist to create a whole environment, proving her affinity with drawing, collage, and architecture. Sky Cathedral, an important piece mounted in that exhibition, was an extravagant composition of stacked wooden boxes overflowing with found objects. The Museum of Modern Art acquired it in 1958, and this proved to be a significant breakthrough. As a result, in 1959, at the age of sixty, Nevelson was invited by the Museum of Modern Art to create a full exhibition. For that setting, she installed a sensational all-white environment, Dawn's Wedding Feast, and the critics deemed it "colossal."

Nevelson flourished in the dynamic 1960s. Her work continued to be exhibited in prestigious galleries, and these years were crammed with commissions, exhibitions, and honors. She started to work with gold in 1961, and her exhibition The Royal Tides was shown at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York. In 1963 Nevelson became the first woman artist to have a one-person show at the selective Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, and in 1964 she began her affiliation with the prestigious Pace Gallery in New York. The Whitney Museum presented the first major retrospective of her work in 1967.

During the 1960s major international collectors became aware of her innovative work. In July 1962 she won the grand prize in the First Sculpture International at the Instituto Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires, and that same summer she represented the United States at the thirty-first Venice Biennale. Her three rooms of "wall furniture," painted in black, white, and gold, greeted visitors to the U.S. pavilion; her exhibition was one of the few real sensations of the entire biennale.

Nevelson's growing prestige led to her involvement with various artists' associations. In 1962 Nevelson became the first woman president of the National Artists' Equity, and she succeeded in increasing the membership, especially among younger and avant-garde artists. In 1966 the socially conscious Nevelson joined with other artists to produce the Los Angeles Tower for Peace. The exhibition was a sixty-foot tower covered with pictures donated by artists from Los Angeles, New York, and Europe to protest the United States' policies in Vietnam.

In later years Nevelson's prominence attracted impressive commissions for public environments. Princeton University commissioned her monumental Cor-ten steel outdoor sculpture in 1969, and during the late 1970s Nevelson left her personal mark on the city she loved. In December 1977 her beautifully decorated Chapel of the Good Shepherd for Saint Peter's Lutheran Church on Park Avenue was dedicated. In 1979 the Louise Nevelson Plaza was installed in the canyons of lower Manhattan on Maiden Lane.

Nevelson's early life presaged the fight for women's rights in the 1960s. Long before the antiestablishment mood of the 1960s, Nevelson had freed herself of social conventions. In the 1960s women were demanding equality and recognition, but Nevelson had used her prodigious energy to insert herself into the male-dominated world of sculpture much earlier. Fame had come late to this self-proclaimed "original creation," and Nevelson savored it until the end. She worked until her death from lung cancer in April 1988; her body was cremated. On 11 September 2001 one of Nevelson's massive sculptures, Sky Gate, which had hung in the mezzanine of One World Trade Center since 1978, was destroyed in the terrorist attacks that took place on that day.

Biographies of Nevelson include Colette Roberts, Nevelson (1964); Arnold B. Glimcher, Louise Nevelson (1972); Laurie Wilson, Louise Nevelson: Iconography and Sources (1981); Jean Lipman, Nevelson's World (1983); and Laurie Lisle, Louise Nevelson: A Passionate Life (1990). Other useful sources are Nicholas and Elena Calas, Icons and Images of the Sixties (1971), and Diana MacKown, Dawn and Dusk: Taped Conversations with Diana MacKown (1976). Significant articles written about Nevelson's life during the 1960s include "All That Glitters," Time (31 Aug. 1962), and "Los Angeles: Tower for Peace," Art News (Apr. 1966). An obituary is in the New York Times (18 Apr. 1988).

Margaret Garry Burke

Nevelson, Louise

views updated May 08 2018


NEVELSON, LOUISE (1900–1988), U.S. sculptor and print-maker. Arriving in the United States in 1905, Nevelson grew up in Rockland, Maine. Her father owned a lumberyard, an important influence on her mature sculpture when Nevelson adopted wood as her most significant material. She took her husband's surname after her marriage in 1920, the same year that the couple moved to New York. Her artistic apprenticeship spanned several years, including private painting and drawing lessons with William *Meyerowitz and Theresa *Bernstein, followed by studies at the Art Students League (1928–31, 1933). Nevelson's drawings and canvases from this period are figurative and expressionistic in nature. In 1931, she studied in Munich with Hans Hoffman, where she became familiar with Cubism. In 1932, Nevelson, along with Ben *Shahn, assisted Diego Rivera with his Rockefeller Center mural.

Nevelson made her first sculpture in 1934, at which time she took a class at the Educational Alliance with Chaim *Gross. Working in terracotta, bronze, and plaster, Nevelson executed blocky, figurative sculptures. Under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration, she taught sculpture at the Educational Alliance in 1937. She exhibited paintings and sculpture influenced by Cubism and Surrealism at her first solo show, held at New York's Nierendorf Gallery in 1941. In the 1940s she began to make sculptural environments around themes, such as The Circus – The Clown Is the Center of His World at the Norlyst Gallery in New York (1943). Her sculptures grew increasingly abstract through the 1940s, influenced in part by non-Western art. In 1947 she also started making etchings, drypoints, and aquatints.

Around 1954, Nevelson began designing large wood, Cubist-inspired abstract constructions. In 1956, Nevelson made her first wall sculptures. The dramatic Moon Garden + One (1958) established Nevelson's reputation. Open-faced, stacked wood boxes filled with disparate found objects such as furniture legs, broom handles, spindles, and other wooden abstract shapes, covered the walls of the Grand Central Moderns Gallery. The installation, which included the enormous Sky Cathedral (Museum of Modern Art, New York), was painted a uniform black in an effort to occlude the original identity of the objects and to unite them.

Subsequent reliefs retained a monochrome appearance, painted entirely in either black, white, or gold. The all-white installation Dawn's Wedding Feast appeared in 1959 at the Museum of Modern Art's "Sixteen Americans" exhibition, and gold sculptures showed at The Royal Tides exhibition at the Martha Jackson Gallery (1961).

Nevelson expanded her materials in the second half of the 1960s, creating sculptures out of aluminum, Plexiglas, and Cor-ten steel. In 1964 Nevelson made the Holocaust memorial Homage to 6000000 (private collection) using her iconic stacked boxes filled with wood collage elements. The first version was painted in black, but a second version, installed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in 1965, was painted white. In the early 1970s Nevelson received several commissions, including sculptures for Temple Beth-El, Great Neck, New York (1970); Temple Israel, Boston (1973); and seven metal sculptures for the Louise Nevelson Plaza in Lower Manhattan (1979).


A.B. Glimcher, Louise Nevelson (1976); L. Nevelson, D awns and Dusks: Taped Conversations with Diana Mackown (1976); Louise Nevelson: Atmospheres and Environments (1980); J. Lipman, Nevelson's World (1983); L. Lisle, Louise Nevelson: A Passionate Life (1990).

[Samantha Baskind (2nd ed.)]

Louise Nevelson

views updated May 23 2018

Louise Nevelson

Louise Nevelson (1900-1988) was an American abstract sculptor who explored both the density and transparency of materials. Her imagery was based on surrealist and cubist models.

Born in Kiev, Russia, Louise Nevelson emigrated with her family to the United States in 1905. She studied painting at the Art Students League, New York City, from 1929 through 1930 and traveled to Munich in 1931 to study with Hans Hofmann. In the mid-1930s, she turned to sculpture. In 1944, a piece designed an abstract sculpture composed of wood was shown to the public for the first time. In her early work she uses traditional materials and processes, and the images are almost exclusively figures, as in Mountain Woman (1949-1950).

By the mid-1950s Nevelson had emerged as a significant force in American sculpture. She constructed free-standing and relief pieces in wood that was finished in a monochromatic hue. Black Majesty (1955) is a series of totemic events vertically projecting from a horizontal pedestal. At the same time, the presentation of her pieces became environmental in scope, and she often exhibited them under a common title or theme, for example, The Royal Voyage (1956) with jagged forms sprawled on the floor as well as mounted on pedestals, The Forest (1957), and Moon Garden plus One (1958).

Some comparisons have been made between Nevelson's work of the 1950s and concurrent attitudes in American painting, such as abstract expressionism. However, her compositions—while at first glance open-ended and freely handled in their assembled state—exhibit greater control, both formally and in their mythopoetic intent. Like some contemporary sculptors, she used cast-off materials; but her ingenious framing and pedestal devices, such as the relief, the box, and the column, in addition to her painterly concerns with light and dark, set her apart.

By the end of the 1950s Nevelson had moved from black and natural surfaces to overall white in the memorable series Dawn's Wedding Feast. The scale of this exhibition seemed to forecast her large single wall reliefs Homage to 6,000,000 I (1964) and Homage to the World (1966). She, again returned to wood painted black (triangular) in Silent Music I (1964).

In the mid-1960s Nevelson came to prefer compositions with fewer elements, more rigidly controlling the relief space. She turned to such new materials as black lucite, aluminum, and magnesium, as in Atmosphere and Environment. In Environment she achieved open, freestanding structures that are as concerned with volume as with mass. In her work of the late 1960s she used welded vertical shapes; however, she also continued to execute wood constructions.

Nevelson's artwork of the mid-1970s, she utilized cast paper in Dawn's Presence (1976). The early 1980s and mid-1980s, she worked with detailed PHSColograms in Keeping Time with Fashion (1983) and painted wood in Mirror Shadow XI (1985). Remembered for her natural abstract sculptures, her death in 1988 marked a significant loss to the world of art.

Further Reading

The most comprehensive work on Nevelson is John Gordon's, Louise Nevelson (1967), published on the occasion of the Whitney Museum retrospective exhibition of her sculpture; Louise Nevelson (1970), by Mary Hancock Buxton is valuable for the artist's later work; Louise Nevelson: Prints and Drawings, 1953-1966, by Una E. Johnson (1967); and Louise Nevelson (1969), exhibition catalog of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and College of Fine Arts, University of Texas; useful for general background is a work by the editors of Art in America, entitled The Artist in America (1967); Nevelson's updated artwork can be located in Imaging Incorporated (1995-96); Early Nevelson (1997); and Pace Editions Inc. (1976); □

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Louise Nevelson