Louise Nevelson
Biography & Assemblage Art of American Abstract Sculptor.

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Dawn’s Wedding Chapel (1959)
Whitney Museum of American Art.
An example of Nevelson's
unusual abstract sculpture.

Louise Nevelson (1899-1988)

The Russian-born American abstract sculptor, Louise Nevelson (born Louise Berliawsky), who moved to the USA in 1905, only took up art seriously at the age of 30. Influenced by Cubism and African art, she explored painting and murals, before settling on sculpture. She became known in the 1950s and 1960s for her unique style of wooden relief-like assemblage art. Typically, this involved the creation of large wooden structures - often taking up an entire wall - which consisted of numerous compartments filled with arrangements of "found" objects, commonly fragments of furniture, painted in flat uniform colours - black, gold or white. As well as being one of the most innovative American sculptors, Nevelson was also a painter and printmaker. Her best known works include Dawn's Wedding Chapel II (1959, Whitney Museum, New York) and the Louise Nevelson Plaza (1979, New York’s financial district). She also made smaller-scale sculptures in aluminium and lucite, as exemplified by Transparent Sculpture VI (1967-8). Other works by Nevelson can be seen in some of the best art museums in America and around the world.

EVOLUTION OF SCULPTURE
For details of the origins and
development of the plastic arts
see: History of Sculpture.

MODERNIST SCULPTURE
Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973)
Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916)
Jean Arp (1886-1966)
Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)
Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967)
Naum Gabo (1890-1977)
Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973)
Henry Moore (1898-1986)
Alberto Giacometti (1901-66)
Jean Dubuffet (1901-85)
Barbara Hepworth (1903-75)
David Smith (1906-65)
Meret Oppenheim (1913-85)

BEST SCULPTURE
See: Greatest Sculptures Ever.

BEST ARTISTS
See: Greatest Sculptors.

MODERN PLASTIC ARTISTS
For a list of sculptors like
Louise Nevelson, see:
Modern Artists.

Biography

Like the great modernist Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964), a decade before her, Louise Berliawsky was born in Kiev, just as Russian sculpture was about to blossom. In 1905, she emigrated to America with her family, settling in Rockland, Maine. At 21, she married Charles Nevelson and settled in New York, where two years later she had a son. Like many artists before her, including Alexander Calder (1898-1976), Nevelson trained at the Art Students League in New York between 1929 and 1930, where she studied life drawing and painting with George Grosz (1893-1959) - the German expressionist painter who was known for his savage caricature drawings of Berlin life in the 1920s - along with the abstract painter Baroness Hilla Rebay von Ehrenweisen (1890-1967).

During this period Nevelson was introduced to Cubism, collage and Dadaism, as well as the works of Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris and Marcel Duchamp. In 1930 she moved to Munich and studied under Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), an important abstract expressionist painter who inspired students as well as artists throughout the world. In 1932 Nevelson returned to America and worked with Ben Shahn (1898-1969) as assistant to Diego Rivera on his frescos in New York. She also taught art at the Educational Alliance art school in Manhattan.

 

Assemblages

Between 1932 and 1944 Nevelson began experimenting with plastic art - in particular, abstract wooden assemblages. She also worked in aluminium, magnesium and lucite. Surrealism, Cubism, African and Pre-Columbian art were very important influences on her works which she exhibited at shows throughout the 1930s.

Nevelson remained fairly unknown until she had her first solo exhibition at the Nierendorf Gallery in New York in 1941. She converted the gallery into a space which had overtones of prehistoric caves, an Egyptian tomb and a store window - all conjuring an ephemeral image of a world that has vanished or maybe only imagined. In 1943 the artist began her Farm assemblages which incorporated pieces of wood and found objects, as exemplified in works such as: The Circus, Menagerie Animal and Ancient City (all 1945, Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama). She also created works made of terracotta, such as Moving Static Moving Figures (c.1947, Whitney Museum, New York).

Development of Style: "Sculptured Walls"

In 1947 Nevelson began working at the British artist’s Stanley William Hayter's printmaking workshop known as Atelier 17. Hayter was associated with Surrealism until the 1930s but from 1940 onwards with Abstract Expressionism. At Atelier 17, Nevelson began to learn etching. Her first aquatints (intaglio printmaking technique) however date from 1953 (eg. Flower Queen). In 1958 Nevelson held a one-woman exhibition at the Grand Central Moderns Gallery, New York. She created an environment entitled Moon Garden Plus One and Sky Cathedral (re-assembled at Museum of Modern Art, New York). These were room sized sculptures created from stacks of boxes filled with fragments of carved wood and found objects like furniture legs, mouldings, chair backs and bits of ornaments. This was one of her earliest large-scale works. By gathering the objects into a complex assemblage, then painting it black to obscure the identity of the original object, this had the effect of unifying it formally. The sculpture was placed against a wall, and became known as 'sculptured walls'. Another example is her Mirror Image 1 (1969, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston). This juxtaposing of objects embraced elements of action painting, Cubism and colour field painting. (Note also the innovative assemblages created by the French artist Arman [1928-2005] in Paris and New York during the early 1960s.) These all-black assemblages were succeeded by all-white assemblages such as Dawn’s Wedding Chapel (1959, Whitney Museum, New York). She also experimented with an all-gold work in An American Tribute to the British People (1960–65, Tate, London). It was towards the end of the 1950s that Nevelson became recognized as one of the most creative twentieth century sculptors in America.

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to evaluate contemporary American sculptors like Louise Nevelson, see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture. For earlier works, please see: How to Appreciate Sculpture.

Awards and Recognition

As her career progressed, Nevelson won the Grand Prize for Art at the New York Coliseum Exhibition. In 1959 the Martha Jackson Gallery gave her a solo show. In 1960 she was awarded the Logan Award for work shown in the 63rd American Exhibition and two years later she was included in the Venice Biennale. In 1962 Nevelson became President of the National Artist's Equity and First Vice-President of Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors. The following year she was made President of the National Artist's Equity. In 1963, as one of the leading abstract sculptors in America, she participated in the National Council on the Arts and Government in Washington DC. She received an honorary degree from Western College for Women, Oxford, Ohio. She won the Gold Medal for Sculpture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1983, the National Medal of the Arts in 1985, and the Guggenheim Museum’s Great Artist Series Award in 1986.

Mature Style

In the 1960s Nevelson experimented with clear perspex (e.g. Transparent Sculpture II, 1967, Whitney Museum). She also started using steel to make lighter, partly transparent structures. Her works became more geometric and in 1969 she received her first outdoor commission from Princeton University. Other commissions followed, including Transparent Horizon (1971) for MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the early 1970s Nevelson started fabricating steel structures which suggested botanical gardens, such as Seventh Decade Garden (Gallery Beyeler, Basel). One of her most important works from this period was the Louise Nevelson Plaza, completed in 1979, an outdoor environment of seven sculptures in New York's financial district. She also completed various examples of installation art in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia.

Louise Nevelson died in New York in 1988.

The best examples of Nevelson's American art can be found in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Whitney Museum. Her work has been linked to Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Installation Art and Feminism.

• For more about the history and styles of plastic art, see: Homepage.
• For more about modernism in sculpture and painting, see: Modern Art.


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