Louise Nevelson - Biography and Legacy
Kiev, Russian Empire
New York, New York
Biography of Louise Nevelson
Louise Nevelson was born Leah Berliawsky in Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi, Russia (now Ukraine). In 1905, her family immigrated to Rockland, Maine, due to the terrible abuse inflicted by the Tsarist Russians on the Jewish community that she grew up in. Nevelson later recalled knowing that she would be an artist from the age of nine, having been drawn to the field after observing a plaster cast of a statue of Joan of Arc at the Rockland Public Library. She dreamed of escaping to New York to study art while she was still a high school student, and took a job as a stenographer while she continued her studies. Through her job, she met Bernard and Charles Nevelson. Louise married Charles in 1920, and the couple moved to New York City soon after.
In 1922, Louise Nevelson had a son, Myron (later called Mike), but she also sought to hone her artistic calling. From 1928 through 1930, she studied at the Art Students League in New York, but the Nevelson family discouraged her studies. In 1931, she separated from her husband and left her son with Charles, so that she could travel to Munich to study under Hans Hofmann at his School for Modern Art. Her decision to focus on her career instead of motherhood was a crucial one, and informed many of her later sculptural installations. Also in 1931, Nevelson worked as a film extra in Vienna and Berlin. In 1932, when Hofmann immigrated to America to escape the political tension in Germany, she returned to New York.
In New York, Nevelson re-enrolled at the Art Students League, and worked with George Grosz. While at the League, she studied painting, modern dance, and sculpture. She also studied with the legendary teacher Hans Hofmann and the sculptor Chaim Gross. During this time, Nevelson met Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and assisted the legendary muralist with his paintings for the New Workers' School. During the mid to late 1930s, Nevelson also worked with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), though the Federal Art Project that also employed Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, and Arshile Gorky, among many other artists.
Nevelson first gained attention for her sculpture in the early 1940s, and her works were all found object pieces of varying materials. However, her earliest works were often written off as those of a woman artist, which was akin to a four-letter word at that time. One critic wrote, "We learned the artist is a woman, in time to check our enthusiasm...otherwise we might have hailed these sculptural expressions as by surely a great figure among moderns." During the 1940s, she was aware of, but absent from, most of the contemporary artists' groups, including The Club. In an interview, she credited her outsider status to the fact that she did not fit with museum curators' and critics' preconceived notions of how an artist should be - specifically that she was not old, ugly, or male and thus could not be totally dedicated to her art.
Despite her lack of initial critical success, she remained committed to her art and her sculptures grew in size finally evolving into the large-scale walls in the 1950s. Her favored material of cast-off scrap wood was a radical departure from the endeavors of her male counterparts, like Isamu Noguchi and Alexander Calder, who worked in traditional materials like metal and marble. Despite their unconventional materials, Nevelson's works established her reputation for sculptural bravado. In 1958, Hilton Kramer declared her exhibitions "remarkable and unforgettable." The following year, Nevelson's installation work Dawn's Wedding Feast (1959) was exhibited in the group show 16 Americans at the MoMA, alongside Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Dawn's Wedding Feast addressed a common theme in her mature oeuvre, marriage, and Nevelson mentioned it was indicative of her "transition to a marriage with the world. "Through exhibitions at the lucrative Martha Jackson Gallery, Nevelson met her future dealer, Arnold Glimcher of Pace Gallery, which still represents her work. From the reputation she gained during the 1950s, she was invited to represent America in the 1962 Venice Biennale. Influenced by the Mayan ruins she encountered on her travels in Mexico and Central America during the 1940s and 1950s, her mature work reflects her interest in the spiritual communion with nature and the emotive relationship between the artistic environment and the viewer.
Outside of her three-dimensional artwork, Nevelson actively sought out artistic enrichment in her daily life, studying modern dance with Ellen Kearns from the 1930s through the 1950s. She also took voice lessons, studied acting, and was active in many artists' organizations like Artists Equity, the National Association of Women Artists, the Sculptors Guild, and the American Abstract Artists. She often hosted meetings for these groups at her house and studio on East 30th Street in New York City. In 1958, she purchased the house at Spring Street, in Manhattan's Little Italy neighborhood, where she maintained a private personal life, but was known as "Mrs. N" by neighborhood children. Her closest confidantes were her friend, the playwright Edward Albee, and her assistant, driver, friend, and housemate, Diana MacKown. Just as she carefully constructed her sculptures, she also cultivated her extravagant personal style. In the late 1960s, she met fashion designer Arnold Scaasi, who dressed her from then on. Although Scaasi designed clothes for Nevelson, she was not content to let him determine her appearance. She added lush scarves, large pieces of eccentric jewelry, elaborate headdresses, and mink eyelashes on a daily basis. She confessed to MacKown that she didn't feel dressed without several pairs of eyelashes glued on, framing her deeply kohl-rimmed eyes. Nevelson carefully cultivated her personal appearance and viewed it as further extension of her intricate artwork.
Late Years and Death
In 1967, the Whitney Museum of American Art hosted her first museum retrospective and exhibited over 100 of her works spanning her entire oeuvre. Two years later, already in her 70s, she received her first commission for a monumental outdoor sculpture from Princeton University, which she fulfilled in 1971 when the Cor-Ten steel monumental screen, Atmosphere and Environment X, was installed on the university's campus. She continued to create public art throughout the 1970s, and she even translated her work into a 1975 design for St. Peter's Lutheran Church in midtown Manhattan. When asked about this commission and her religion, she noted that her abstract art transcended faiths. Her public sculptures translated her earlier private symbolism and narratives into a grand scale. Accordingly, she eschewed many of the individual themes from her earlier work like death, royalty, and marriage, in favor of broader narratives suited to each location, like urban life or American immigrant experience. Tied to her growing interest in the public realm, Nevelson donated her papers and documents to the Archives of American Art throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, providing a record of her life to the public in perpetuity. After decades of surrounding herself with a visual feast of objects in her own home, she also donated her extensive art collections and ornate furniture to friends and museums. While she kept her lavish wardrobe, she wanted to live in a clean slate and stated that she did not want one thing to impose itself on her or her work. Nevelson continued to create sculptures during the 1980s. She was also photographed by the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe, who documented her lavishly eccentric image.Upon her death in 1988, she left behind an oeuvre as flamboyant and varied as her persona.
The Legacy of Louise Nevelson
Nevelson's work is fundamental to the history of Feminist art, as it challenged the dominant stereotype of the macho, male sculptor. In Linda Nochlin's famous 1971 essay "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" she cited Nevelson as a major influence on the new generation of women struggling to redefine femininity in art. Women sculptors during the 1960s and 1970s, like Eva Hesse and Harmony Hammond, owed a clear debt to Nevelson's exploration of biography through abstract sculpture. Even painters like Joan Snyder, Judy Chicago, and Miriam Schapiro were able to create the abstract, feminine works that they did because of the groundbreaking work executed by Nevelson decades earlier. Outside of her influence on Feminist art, her sculpture also set aprecedent for the installation art of the late 1960s and 1970s, since she designed each element in an exhibition to function both as an integral part of the holistic installation and as an individual object. Contemporary artists, like Rachel Whiteread, were clearly informed by Nevelson's abstract installation-exhibitions that reimagined banal materials into monumental abstract sculptures.