Nevelson, Louise (1899–1988)

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Nevelson, Louise (1899–1988)

One of the greatest 20th-century American sculptors who struggled through the 1930s and 1940s, then made a fortune after age 60 by recycling junk found on New York streets into assemblages and by designing environmental sculptures. Name variations: Leah, Leike. Pronunciation: NEV-el-son. Born Leah Berliawsky on September 23, 1899, in Pereyaslav, 50 miles southeast of Kiev, Russia (modern-day Ukraine); died of cancer on April 17, 1988; daughter of Isaac Berliawsky (a wood and junk dealer) and Zeisel (called Minna in America) Smoleranki; attended public schools, graduating from Rockland (Maine) High School in 1918; studied painting and drawing withTheresa Ferber Bernstein and William Meyerowitz and voice withEstelle Liebling in New York, 1920; studied at the Art Students League with Kenneth Hayes Miller and Kimon Nicolaides, 1929; studied in Munich with Hans Hofmann briefly in 1931; apprenticed with Diego Rivera and studied modern dance withEllen Kearns , 1932; studied at Atelier 17 under Peter Grippi and Leo Katz, 1953–55; married Charles S. Nevelson, on June 12, 1920 (separated 1931, divorced 1941); children: son Myron (Mike, b. February 23, 1922).


United Society of American Artists (1959); Chicago Institute (1959); Ford Foundation gift for Tamarind Workshop, Norfolk Museum (1963); honorary degree from Western College for Women, Oxford, Ohio (1966); honorary degree from Harvard University (1967); Brandeis University Creative Arts award for sculpture (1971); Skowhegan medal for sculpture (1971); AIA award (1977); American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal (1983); National Medal of the Arts from President Ronald Reagan (1985).

Brought by family to America (1905); father became a junk dealer (c. 1910); began to educate herself in all the arts as well as metaphysics; her husband lost his fortune (1924–29); went to Europe to study art, spending the winter in Paris (1932–33); worked for the WPA (1935–39); had first solo show, at Nierendorf Gallery (1941); traveled to Europe (1948), Mexico (1950); works acquired by the Whitney Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art (1956–58); teamed with dealer Arnold Glimcher (1961); work included in U.S. Pavilion, at the XXXI Biennale Internazionale D'Arte, Venice (1962); completed 26 editions of lithographs at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop, Los Angeles, and became president of Artists' Equity (1963); her sculptural wall, Homage to 6,000,000 II, purchased by Israel Museum, Jerusalem; gave a gold wall, An American Tribute to the British People, to the Tate Gallery, London; elected president of National Artists' Equity (1966); had first retrospective exhibition at Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and elected vice-president of International Association of Artists and head of Advisory Council on Art of the National Historic Sites Foundation (1967); diagnosed with cancer (1987); died at home in April and memorial service held (October 1988) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Works in permanent collections:

Art Institute of Chicago; Birmingham Museum of Art; Brandeis University;Carnegie Institute; Farnsworth Museum, Rockland, ME; Joseph H. Hirshhorn Collection; Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, NY; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts of Houston; Newark Museum of Art; New York University; Princeton University; Queens College; Riverside Museum; Tate Gallery, London; University of Nebraska; Whitney Museum of American Art.


aluminum sculpture, South Mall Project, Albany, NY (1968); Cor-ten steel sculptures, Binghamton, NY, and Scottsdale, AZ (1972); monumental wood sculpture, World Trade Center, NY (1972); Bicentennial Dawn, Federal Courthouse, Philadelphia, PA (1976); Erol Beck Chapel of the Good Shepherd, St. Peter's Lutheran Church, NY (1976).

Louise Nevelson was an artistic genius. She applied her talents not only to the sculptures which would eventually earn her a prominent place among the crème de la crème of American art history, but also to her own persona as the legendary Empress of Modern Art. Her life was the hard-won success story of an artist so driven to succeed that decades of little or no recognition could not thwart her efforts. By the time she finally received widespread critical acclaim and the accompanying financial riches, Nevelson was in her 60s. Even after her position in the art world was secure, she suffered alternating periods of severe depression, drunkenness and rage. Several times in her life, she had visions, convinced that she saw portions of her sculptures shift or energy moving through space. Once able to, she spent lavishly, and, near the pinnacle of her career at age 70, she typically worked in her studio wearing long, fake black eyelashes to emphasize her dark eyes, a sable coat over jeans and a plaid shirt, with an exotic scarf hiding her hair like a turban. Those who did not know her story might have found it hard to imagine that as a strikingly beautiful young artist she had once stood in front of expensive shops in order to pick up men who would take her inside to buy her clothes and fancy meals. Materials for her sculptures were frequently gathered early in the morning when she walked the streets of New York with a wheelbarrow to pick up junk before the city trash haulers collected it from the gutters.

She was born Leah Berliawsky in 1899 to Isaac Berliawsky and Zeisel Smoleranki Berliawsky , Jewish parents whose ancestors had lived from the cutting and sale of wood in a village near Kiev in anti-Semitic tsarist Russia. Russian Jews were restricted as to where they could live and which occupations they could practice, and they were periodically murdered by the non-Jewish populace with government approval. Consequently, thousands of Jews emigrated to North America around the turn of the century. Several members of Isaac's family escaped these conditions to settle in New England, but as the youngest son in a family of 14 children he was expected to stay behind to care for his parents. After his father died of cancer, in 1902 he too left Russia, taking along only his mother who intended to live with one of her daughters. Isaac left his pregnant wife Zeisel behind with their two children, Nathan and two-and-a-half-yearold Leah, intending to earn enough money in America to send for them. Separation from her father was so traumatic that Nevelson did not speak for a year and a half, the first of many periods of withdrawal and depression in her life.

Louise Nevelson to her school librarian">

I want to be a sculptor, I don't want color to help me.

—Nine-year-old Louise Nevelson to her school librarian

Via cart, train and steamer, Isaac reached America. Settling in Maine, he worked first as a woodcutter. Later he was employed in a lime quarry in Rockland, a shipbuilding and mining town, with only two dozen Jewish families, which served as a summer playground for the rich who arrived by yacht or steamer to stay in luxury hotels. When the time came for Isaac's family to join him, 28-year-old Zeisel endured the awesome overland journey from the Ukraine to Hamburg, then travel by steamer to Liverpool, with her three young children. During the Atlantic crossing, Zeisel fell into a lingering state of depression from being permanently separated from her parents.

Bernstein, Theresa Ferber (b. 1903)

American painter. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1903; married William Meyerowitz (a painter).

Isaac had arranged for a relative to meet their steamer in Boston when it arrived from New York. The first thing this man did was to give them all new names to go with their new country; at that moment, five-year-old Leah became "Louise." Reunited in Rockland (1905), the family lived for several years in a rooming house near the docks with other immigrants. Now known by the name Minna, Louise's mother immediately became pregnant again. Isaac worked as a peddler and junk dealer using a pushcart to haul discarded items from the local dump—an unglamorous recycling business which did, however, provide a good livelihood. During World War I (1914–18), when ordnance was valuable, he made bullets from scrap metal. It is possible that he was a bootlegger, which could account for the government's denial of his request for citizenship in 1916. He also sold used lumber and eventually got into construction, which led to purchasing heavily mortgaged real estate. The first house he built for the family had no outside plumbing and no glass in the windows (later he modernized it). By the time Nevelson was in high school, the women in her family dressed more expensively than most; in fact, her mother overdressed in matching black fur hats and coats, following the trend of European aristocrats of her day. Isaac was also willing to pay for expensive piano and voice lessons for his three daughters.

Nevelson was chosen to be captain of the girls' basketball team; nevertheless, she always felt the stigma of having been a poor, Orthodox Jewish immigrant, as well as a junkman's daughter. Despite her dazzling facial beauty and tall (5′7"), athletic figure, she had no prospect of finding a husband locally. Learning English was difficult for her because the family spoke Yiddish at home. As a teenager, she already showed her rebelliousness against conventional, patriarchal, New England small-town society by dressing in eccentric ways. Throughout her life, she rearranged the facts and chronology of her existence to create her own reality; for example, she told people her father was a merchant or had a warehouse of antiques, although she acquired her scavenging from him. And she had a lifelong infatuation with aristocracy and royalty.

Nevelson was an average student in school, but even her grade-school teachers recognized her exceptional artistic talent. Her parents cared little as to which particular career she pursued, but they firmly expected that she (and not Nathan, the oldest and only male) would be the one in the family to achieve grandeur, perhaps as an actress or movie star with her sparkling eyes, dark brown hair and olive complexion. Meanwhile, Nevelson watched her mother take to her bed for months at a time, and, while Louise empathized with her misery and sought to please her, she resolved not to repeat her mother's life of victimization.

Louise took the commercial course in high school, and to graduate she interned as a legal stenographer. Bernard Nevelson, a Jewish New York shipowner, visited the attorney's office at which she worked and invited Louise, whom he found attractive, to dinner. Bernard may have fallen in love with her, but, already married, he arranged for his 38-year-old bachelor brother Charles to meet her. Before their first date, Louise told her mother that she thought Charles would propose and that she would accept because a woman simply needed to have a husband. Given her previous resolution not to wed, she probably saw marriage to a man she frequently described as a "Wall Street millionaire" as the only escape from life in Rockland. Marriage to Charles Nevelson would also make her first in her family to acquire U.S. citizenship. Moreover, her only role models in Rockland were her art teachers who had worked their way through art school, yet whom she ridiculed for being "dried up old maids." The couple had a long engagement, allowing time for her to visit New York. Louise later said that Charles, whom she never loved, promised his virgin bride many things before their marriage; these included expecting no housework, being sympathetic to her artistic ambitions, and giving her unusual freedom for a wife. In any case, a few months before her 21st birthday in 1920, they were married by a rabbi at a Boston hotel and set off for a honeymoon-business trip to New Orleans and Cuba.

In New York, Louise Nevelson settled into the social life of wealthy Jewish society—shopping, playing cards, going to teas and concerts. In the exciting, postwar metropolis, she was exposed to the arts for the first time, and she tried to educate herself in all of them. During the ensuing years, she wrote poetry; took acting lessons from Princess Norina Matchabelli (from whom she first heard about the fourth dimension); studied voice and modern dance; had minor operatic roles; and took great interest in metaphysics. Gradually, however, she moved toward the realization of her childhood dream of becoming a sculptor. At age 30, about the time she saw Picasso's cubist paintings, which made an indelible impression on her, Nevelson enrolled at the Arts Students League, the only American art school devoted to avant-garde ideas and artistic freedom.

The ecstacy of her search for self-fulfillment was interrupted by the loss of the Nevelsons' fortunes (1924–29) and by the unexpected birth of their son Myron (Mike) less than two years after the marriage. When told she was pregnant, Nevelson hyperventilated. The child was born by Cesarian section, and his birth triggered in Nevelson a serious depression, which she managed to pull out of by throwing herself into art. The tension increased in her marriage as she rebelled against motherhood, while feeling guilty because she loved her son but did not want her ambition thwarted. As she began to dress more eccentrically and enrolled in evening classes, Charles became more critical and controlling. She moved out in 1931. By then, Charles, who still hoped to get her back, could only afford to give her $10 a week in exchange for which she cleaned his hotel room and took care of his laundry.

Nevelson's family realized how unhappy she was, and still held onto their expectation that she would somehow become famous. They supplied the money for her art study abroad. In Paris during the winter of 1932–33, a lonely Nevelson, torn by maternal guilt, wrote suicidal poetry. When she returned to New York, she briefly rejoined Charles and Mike but soon moved out definitively.

During the 1930s, Nevelson could not make a living from the sale of her work. At times, she stole or moved when she fell behind in the rent. Admittedly sexually promiscuous, she used her lovers to buy her the extravagant things she had become accustomed to enjoying when she and Charles were rich. For example, she met arriving ships at the wharf to solicit the stevedores who came ashore with their paychecks, or she "window-shopped" on Fifth Avenue. When women friends asked her how she got the gorgeous clothing she wore to openings and parties, her velvety voice responded in crude but truthful language: "By f—ing, my dear, f—ing."

Due to her late start, marriage, and part-time study, by her late 30s Nevelson was quite frustrated. When finally allowed to exhibit her work in a show of young sculptors at the Brooklyn Museum in 1935, she was the oldest artist in the group. From later that year until 1939, she was employed as an art teacher by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal agency that created jobs for the unemployed. By 1937, her penniless husband left New York to find work. He filed for divorce in 1941.

During World War II, Nevelson's situation was somewhat improved, although she was drinking a good deal. Between 1933 and 1945, she maintained a friendship with the painter Louis Eilshemius who eventually gave her 181 paintings. Her son Mike supported her by sending home checks from his salary in the merchant marine. By providing sexual favors for the owner, she had her first solo show in 1941 at the Nierendorf Gallery, an exhibition that at last won her critical acclaim. But when nobody bought the sculptures, Nevelson experienced more depression, binged and exploited men. The war brought Surrealists to America; and their

artistic movement influenced new work of Nevelson's, which was constructed from junk and debris selected for their forms and then painted all one color, starting with a "black period." In 1943, when after a daring show of circus figures nothing sold, she destroyed 200 paintings and most of her sculptures to avoid storage fees. A further blow was the death of her beloved mother.

After the war, Nevelson's brother Nathan and her sister Anita bought her a house on 30th Street, and having her own home seemed to stabilize her mentally. But with the death of her dealer Karl Nierendorf in 1947, she lost the encouragement of a man who had compared her to Picasso. Without him to represent her, the art establishment ignored Nevelson. Now looking middle-aged, she frequently passed out and insulted people at parties and openings. In 1948, after she had a hysterectomy, her sister took her to Europe (1848) and to Mexico (1950) to help her shake off depression and resume sculpting.

In the 1950s, after she recovered from menopause, Nevelson's energy intensified. She made terra-cotta animals, birds and figures as well as etchings related to Mayan culture. While she won more acclaim, sales of her works were typically $200 or less—too little to make a decent living. In 1954, she started teaching in a continuing-education program for $40 a week. When her house was slated for demolition as part of a slum clearance project, she started to work in wood again. As neighboring structures were razed, she set out at three or four o'clock in the morning with a wheelbarrow to gather free materials. Joining the Church of Scientology seemed to bolster her creativity; but, in 1957, she experienced such fear in the process of doing a sculptural self-portrait that she abandoned working in the round. Thereafter, she started to make the filled boxes, and then walls of filled boxes, that became her hallmark. Toward the end of the decade, many of her walls were donated to major museums and her house was overflowing with sculptures. Yet, almost 60, she still had too few sales to be financially independent.

In 1958, Martha Jackson invited Nevelson to join her gallery in an arrangement in which she advanced the artist $20,000 against sales of her work. This enabled Nevelson to purchase a building at 29 Spring Street in lower Manhattan. In 1960, she would sign a similar two-year contract with Daniel Cordier Gallerie in Paris. Despite recognition, she was stubbornly bitter about her years of neglect and was known to become obscene and offensive in public. (When she was omitted from an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art [MoMA], she attended the opening and urinated on a tub of ice cubes.) Of her lingering resentment, Nevelson would later tell Barbara Braun of Publishers Weekly: "Wouldn't it have been nice, when I was struggling, the complexion was in the right place, the ass was in the right place, if someone could have given me something to make it a bit more cheerful." As some of the anger passed, she shifted the color of her sculptured walls from black to white, which she said represented a transition from living in the shadows to a marriage with the world. The inclusion of an all-white room-sized assemblage of hers in a show at MoMA during 1959 put the official stamp on Nevelson's recognition by the art establishment.

The 1960s were characterized by a revival of sculpture in America. Nevelson represented the new wave, since she was a colorful personality as well as a major artist. She added new materials—mirrors, plexiglass and aluminum—to her boxes. Her sales grossed $80,000 in 1961, indicating that she was firmly established in the commercial market. After winning two prizes, in 1962 she sold her first museum piece to the Whitney Museum for $11,000. Then came her "metallic gold period." She dressed in gold lamé clothing with matching shoes at the opening of her gold-painted sculptural walls. Disappointment with sales at the Jackson Gallery led Nevelson to transfer to the Sidney Janis Gallery, a move which left her broke. She was saved from misery by a Ford Foundation fellowship as guest artist at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles where she completed 500 lithographs valued at $150,000 and restored her self-confidence.

By the end of the 1960s, Arnold Glimcher of Pace Gallery became her dealer, which he would remain for the rest of her life. Glimcher wisely advised her to take commissions for monumental outdoor metal sculptures. These free-standing designs represented a return to sculpting in the round. Glimcher's idea paid handsomely; by the end of the 1970s, Nevelson was one of the three best-known outdoor sculptors in the U.S., along with Henry Moore and Alexander Calder. She once remarked: "I enjoy the fact that a woman artist in America can collect wooden scraps from the street, put them together and sell them to the Rockefellers for $100,000."

To evoke a persona in keeping with her status, Nevelson dressed in Arnold Scaasi's custom-designed clothes, which were made from rich fabrics like brocade, velvet, lace, and tulle, often with sequins. She overdressed as her mother had in furs and fine clothes to make herself feel beautiful again, and in her late 70s she did appear on the international best-dressed list (1977).

In 1979, the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland opened its first Nevelson exhibit. At a luncheon held in her honor, the mayor presented her the key to the city before 400 townspeople. In New York, the 1979–80 season celebrated her 80th birthday with Mayor Edward Koch presenting Nevelson with a cake and dancing with her to the tune "Louise." In 1980, the Whitney Museum held a retrospective show of her work with the catalog essay written by Edward Albee.

With the help of studio assistants and her companion of 25 years, Diana MacKown , Nevelson continued to do good work into her 80s and was in fact at the height of her ability. Always a chain-smoker, in 1987 she was diagnosed with lung cancer that metastasized to her cerebellum. She died at her New York home in April 1988, contented with her life. In accordance with her wishes, her remains were cremated and no funeral was held. Six months later, a memorial service took place at the Medieval Sculpture Hall of the Metropolitan Museum, one of the museums to which she had donated several million dollars' worth of art. In 1969, John Canaday had described Nevelson in The New York Times: "You would have to saw her in two and file one half under 'Mystic Romantic' and the other under 'Rational-classical,' but all you would prove is that she is in a class by herself."


Braun, Barbara. "Louise Nevelson," in Publishers Weekly. December 16, 1883.

Glimcher, Arnold. Louise Nevelson. 2nd rev. ed. NY: Dutton, 1976.

Gordon, John. Louise Nevelson. NY: Whitney Museum of Art, 1967.

Lipman, Jean. Nevelson's World. NY: Hudson Hills Press and Whitney Museum of American Art, 1983.

Lisle, Laurie. Louise Nevelson: A Passionate Life. NY: Summit, 1990.

Slatkin, Wendy; The Voices of Women Artists. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993.

Watson-Jones, Virginia. Contemporary American Women Sculptors. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1986.

Wilson, Laurie. Louise Nevelson: Iconography and Sources. NY: Garland, 1981.

suggested reading:

Andersen, Wayne. American Sculpture in Process: 1930–1970. Boston, MA: New York Graphic Society, 1975.

Kramer, Hilton. The Age of the Avant-Garde. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973.

related media:

"Dawns and Dusks: taped conversations with Diana MacKown," NY: Scribner, 1976.

"Louise Nevelson: art & life; an interview with the daring and distinguished sculptor" (27 min. phonotape), Center for Cassette Studies, 1973.

"Louise Nevelson in Process," in volume 3 of Portrait of an Artist (motion picture and videocassette, 30 min., color), directed by Susan Fanshei and Jill Godmilow , produced in Chicago for WNET-THIRTEEN for Women in Art, 1977.

"Louise Nevelson, interviewed by Arnold Glimcher for Archives of American Art" (phonodisc), Washington, DC: Archives of American Art, 1973.

June K. Burton , Associate Professor Emeritus at the University of Akron, Ohio