Birth of sculptor Louise Nevelson
Louise Nevelson’s artwork began as tabletop collages of found wood, then grew through wall sculptures before metamorphosing into complete environments. Beginning her work with the Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, she then incorporated cubism and surrealism imported from Europe, combined with her personal vision and experience, to lead the avant-garde art world of America in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Nevelson’s personal life began in hardship and loneliness before a similar metamorphosis into that of a rich New York society matron. Born in the shtetl of Pereyaslav, fifty miles southeast of Kiev, on this date in 1899, her family moved to Rockland, Maine in 1905. Isolated even from the other two dozen Jewish families in the town, Louise excelled in art in high school and wanted to attend the Pratt Institute in New York. But after the wealthy businessman Charles Nevelson proposed to her, the couple married and moved to 300 Central Park West in New York City.
After giving birth to her only son Myron (Mike) Irving Nevelson, Nevelson embarked on an increasingly bohemian lifestyle, exploring Eastern religious movements and spiritualism, studying art at the Art Students League and theatre with Princess Matchabelli. In the 1931, she travelled to Munich to study with painter Hans Hofman, where she found the element of cubism that would become her guiding light: the structuring of abstract compositional elements within a geometric grid, bringing order to seeming chaos. As she said later, “If an object is in the right place, it is enhanced to grandeur. More than that, it pleases the inner being and that, I think, is very important. That equals harmony.”
Returning to America, she took part in her first exhibition in 1935, showing small semiabstract figures modeled in clay. In 1941, she convinced gallery owner Karl Nierendorf to represent her, resulting in four solo exhibitions of her work. She divorced her husband and moved into her own house on East 30th Street. She encountered monumental totemic sculptures of the Mayan culture on trips to Mexico and began to work on a larger scale in her own work, with sculptures that encompassed the viewer. Her work began to be acquired by institutions like the Whitney and Brooklyn Museums and the Museum of Modern Art.
In the 1960s Nevelson designed works for the Jewish Museum in New York, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church in Manhattan. When asked about designing a Christian chapel as a Jew, Nevelson replied, “To me there is no distinction between a church and a synagogue. If you go deep enough into any religion you arrive at the same point of harmony.”
In the 1970s, she began to work with the medium of Cor-Ten steel, a durable metal that rusts on the exterior but retains its internal integrity. Nevelson was able to design numerous monumental outdoor works, including Atmosphere and Environment X. In 1978, a small plot in lower Manhattan was renamed Louise Nevelson Square, and 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.
Art historian Robin Clark observed, “Louise Nevelson took her identity as a Russian-born American Jewish woman artist and used it as raw material to construct both a myth and a body of work that speaks hyperbolically to the binary opposites of which she was made: extravagance and asceticism, clarity and confusion, darkness and light.”
Source: “Louise Nevelson,” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Birth of sculptor Louise Nevelson ." (Viewed on December 15, 2018) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/sep/23/1900/birth-of-sculptor-louise-nevelson>.