Life and Art of Louise Nevelson, American Sculptor

Sculptor Louise Nevelson with her work

Jack Mitchell / Getty Images

Louise Nevelson was an American sculptor best known for her monumental monochromatic three-dimensional grid constructions. By the end of her life, she was met with much critical acclaim.

She is remembered through many permanent public art installations throughout the U.S., including New York City’s Louise Nevelson Plaza on Maiden Lane in the Financial District and Philadelphia's Bicentennial Dawn, made in 1976 in honor of the bicentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Fast Facts: Louise Nevelson

  • Full Name: Louise Berliawsky Nevelson
  • Occupation: Artist, sculptor
  • Born: September 23, 1899 in present-day Kiev, Ukraine
  • Died: April 17, 1988 in New York City, New York
  • Education: Art Students League of New York
  • Known For: Monumental sculptural works and public art installations.

Early Life

Louise Nevelson was born Louise Berliawsky in 1899 in Kiev, then part of Russia. At the age of four, Louise, her mother, and her siblings set sail for America, where her father had already established himself. On the journey, Louise fell sick and was quarantined in Liverpool. Through her delirium, she recalls vivid memories which she cites as essential to her practice, including shelves of vibrant candies in jars. Though she was only four at the time, Nevelson’s conviction that she was to be an artist was present at a remarkably young age, a dream from which she never strayed.

Louise and her family settled in Rockland, Maine, where her father became a successful contractor. Her father’s occupation made it easy for a young Louise to interact with material, picking up pieces of wood and metal from her father’s workshop and using it to construct small sculptures. Though she began her career as a painter and dabbled in etchings, she would return to sculpture in her mature work, and it is for these sculptures that she is best known.

Though her father was a success in Rockland, Nevelson always felt like the outsider in the Maine town, notably scarred by the exclusion she suffered based on her height and, presumably, her foreign origins. (She was captain of the basketball team, but this did not help her chances at being crowned Lobster Queen, a distinction awarded the most beautiful girl in town.) Though her father was known around Rockland due to his professional activities, Nevelson’s mother secluded herself, rarely socializing with her fellow neighbors. This hardly could have helped young Louise and her siblings adjust to life in the United States.

The feeling of difference and alienation drove young Nevelson to escape to New York by any means possible (a journey that reflects somewhat of an artistic philosophy, as she has been quoted as saying, “If you want to go to Washington, you get on a plane. Someone has to take you there, but it's your voyage”). The means that presented itself was a hasty proposal from Charles Nevelson, who young Louise had only met a handful of times. She married Charles in 1922, and later the couple had a son, Myron.

Advancing Her Career

In New York, Nevelson enrolled in the Art Students League, but family life was unsettling to her. In 1931, she escaped again, this time without her husband and son. Nevelson abandoned her newly-minted family—never to return to her marriage—and departed for Munich, where she studied with the famous art teacher and painter Hans Hoffman. (Hoffman would himself eventually move to the United States and teach a generation of American painters, perhaps the most influential art teacher of the 1950s and 60s. Nevelson’s early recognition of his importance only reinforces her vision as an artist.)

Louise Nevelson with her work in the 1950s
Louise Nevelson with her work in the 1950s.  Getty Images

After following Hoffman to New York, Nevelson eventually worked under the Mexican painter Diego Rivera as a muralist. Back in New York, she settled in a brownstone on 30th Street, which was filled to bursting with her work. As Hilton Kramer wrote of a visit to her studio,

“It was certainly unlike anything one had ever seen or imagined. Its interior seemed to have been stripped of everything...that might divert attention from the sculptures that crowded every space, occupied every wall, and at once filled and bewildered the eye wherever it turned. Divisions between the rooms seemed to dissolve in an endless sculptural environment."

At the time of Kramer’s visit, Nevelson’s work was not selling, and she was often by her exhibitions at the Grand Central Moderns Gallery, which did not sell a single piece. Nevertheless, her prolific output is an indication of her singular resolve—a belief held since childhood—that she was meant to be a sculptor.

Persona

Louise Nevelson the woman was perhaps more well-known than Louise Nevelson the artist. She was famous for her eccentric aspect, combining dramatic styles, colors, and textures in her clothing offset by an extensive collection of jewelry. She wore fake eyelashes and headscarves that emphasized her gaunt face, making her appear to be somewhat of a mystic. This characterization is not contradictory with her work, which she spoke of with an element of mystery, as if it arrived from another world.

Louise Nevelson in the eccentric costume she was known for, photographed in her New York studio in 1974.
Louise Nevelson in the eccentric costume she was known for, photographed in her New York studio in 1974. Jack Mitchell / Getty Images

Work and Legacy

Louise Nevelson’s work is highly recognizable for its consistent color and style. Often in wood or metal, Nevelson primarily gravitated towards the color black—not for its somber tone, but for its evincing of harmony and eternity. "[B]lack means totality, it means contains all… if I speak about it every day for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t finish what it really means," Nevelson said of her choice. Though she would also work with whites and golds, she is consistent in the monochrome nature of her sculpture.

Abstract Sculpture by Louise Nevelson
A characteristically monochrome abstract sculpture by Nevelson. Corbis/VCG via Getty Images / Getty Images

The primary works of her career were exhibited in galleries as “environments”: multi-sculpture installations which worked as a whole, grouped under a single title, among them “The Royal Voyage,” “Moon Garden + One,” and “Sky Columns Presence.” Though these works no longer exist as wholes, their original construction gives a window into the process and meaning of Nevelson’s work.

The totality of these works, which were often arranged as if each sculpture were a wall of a four-sided room, parallels Nevelson’s insistence on using a single color. The experience of unity, of disparate gathered parts which make up a whole, sums up Nevelson’s approach to materials, especially as the spindles and shards she incorporated into her sculptures give off the air of random detritus. By fashioning these objects into grid structures, she endows them with a certain weight, which asks us to reassess the material with which we come in contact.

Louise Nevelson died in 1988 at the age of eighty-eight.

Sources

  • Gayford, M. and Wright, K. (2000). Grove Book of Art Writing. New York: Grove Press. 20-21.
  • Kort, C. and Sonneborn, L. (2002). A to Z of American Women in the Visual Arts. New York: Facts on File, Inc. 164-166.
  • Lipman, J. (1983). Nevelson's World. New York: Hudson Hills Press.
  • Marshall, R. (1980). Louise Nevelson: Atmospheres and Environments. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc.
  • Munro, E. (2000). Originals: American Women Artists. New York: Da Capo Press.