Louise Nevelson


Louise Nevelson, “New Continent”, 1962, Painted Wood, 197.5 x 309.2 x 25.7 cm, Saint Louis Art Museum

Louise Nevelson, “Big Black”, 1962, Painted Wood, 274.9 x 319.5 x 30.5 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Louise Nevelson’s artwork began as tabletop collages of found wood, then grew through wall sculptures before metamorphosing into complete environments. She began her work with the Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. After leaving the WPA, Nevelson incorporated European cubism and surrealism into her work. This, combined with her personal vision and experience, earned her a prominent position in America’s avant-garde art world of the 1950s and 1960s.

Born Leah Berliawsky in Pereyaslav, fifty miles southeast of Kiev in 1899, Louise Nevelson was an American sculptor known for her monumental, monochromatic wooden wall pieces and outdoor sculptures. Her family emigrated to Rockland, Maine in 1905. Isolated in her early years from the other two dozen Jewish families in the town, Nevelson excelled in her high school’s art courses and wanted to attend, upon her graduation in 1918, the Pratt Institute in New York. Her plans changed with her marriage to wealthy businessman Charles Nevelson; the couple moved to 300 Central Park West in New York City. 

After giving birth to her only son Myron Irving in 1922, Nevelson embarked on an increasingly bohemian lifestyle, in which she explored Eastern religious movements and spiritualism. She began art classes under painter and printmaker Kenneth Hayes Miller and master of drawing and educator Kimon Nicolaides at the Art Students League. Nevelson also worked in theater under the tutelage of  stage and screen actress Norina Matchabelli, who acted under the stage name of Maria Carmi.  In 1924, the Nevelson family moved to Mount Vernon, New York, a move which parted Louise Nevelson from her city life and its artistic environment. Not willing to be just a socialite wife, she separated from her husband during the winter of 1932 and later divorced him in 1941.

In 1931 Louise Nevelson sent her son to live with family and traveled to Europe. Staying in Munich, she studied with painter Hans Hofmann, who became a pioneer in abstract expressionism. There Nevelson found the element of cubism that would become her guiding light: the structuring of abstract compositional elements within a geometric grid that brought order to seeming chaos. Upon her return to America, she moved into her own house on East 30th Street in Manhattan and in 1935 had her first exhibition, a collection of small semi-abstract figures modeled in clay. Nevelson convinced gallery owner Karl Nierendorf in 1941 to act as her representative which resulted in four solo exhibitions of her work at his gallery.

In the 1940s, Nevelson began producing Cubist figure studies in stone, bronze, terra cotta, and wood. Influenced by the monumental totemic sculptures she encountered on Mayan culture trips to Mexico, Nevelson began to work on a larger scale in her own work, creating sculptures that encompassed the viewer. Her work began to be acquired by institutions in New York City such as the Whitney and Brooklyn Museums and the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. In 1958, Nevelson joine the Martha Jackson Gallery, where she was guaranteed income and became financially secure. That year, she was photographed and featured on the cover of Life magazine. 

Louise Nevelson had her first solo-woman show in Europe in 1960 at the Galerie Daniel Cordier in Paris. In the 1960s she designed works for the Jewish Museum in New York, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church in Manhattan. For her 1962 work “New Continent”, Louise Nevelson assembled found architectural elements such as chair legs, balusters, and moldings within the thirty-six wooden compartments of her work and then painted the construction white. She juxtaposed the geometric grid of the boxes with a lyrical arrangement of curves, textures, light, and shadow. The urban environment of Manhattan provided the artist with the discarded objects that were the building blocks of her sculptural practice.

In the 1970s, Nevelson began to work with the medium of Cor-Ten steel, a durable metal that rusts on the exterior but retains its internal integrity. She designed numerous monumental outdoor works, including the  1963 Cor-Ten steel “Atmosphere and Environment X”. In 1973, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis curated a major exhibition of Nevelson’s work which traveled the country for two years. In 1978, a small plot in lower Manhattan was renamed Louise Nevelson Square in her honor; seven tree-shaped monumental steel pieces were installed there by the artist.

Louise Nevelson died on April 17, 1988, at her home in New York City. In 1994, the Nevelson-Berliawsky Gallery of 20th Century Art opened at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Nevelson’s hometown of Rockland, Maine.

Second Insert Image: Louise Nevelson, “East Landscape”, circa 1955, Aquatint and Etching with hand-Coloring in Watercolor, Private Collection

Third Insert Image: Louise Nevelson, “Dircus Wagon”, Aquatint and Etching with Hand-Coloring in Watercolor, circa 1955, Private Collection

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