Known for her monumental work made out of found wood objects, Louise Nevelson combined ancient forms with a modern sensibility. Her sculpture works remain as haunting as ever, presenting us with the enigmatic presence of mysteries beyond our understanding—all rendered with both grace and severity.
The Louise Nevelson Foundation is presenting a celebration of the artist’s legacy alongside the Biennale Arte event opening April 23. “Louise Nevelson. Persistence” will showcase more than 60 works made between the ‘50s and ‘80s.
Louise Nevelson’s Early Life
Louise Nevelson (1899 to 1988) was born into a Jewish family, the Berliawskys, in the Poltava Governorate of the Russian Empire—what is modern-day Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine.
After moving to Rockland, Maine in 1902, her father worked as a woodcutter and later a lumberjack, making wood a constant presence in the household. After witnessing a plaster cast of Joan of Arc at the age of nine, she decided she wanted to be an artist.
Just after high school, she met the wealthy Charles Nevelson, and they quickly married. They moved to New York City where Louise pursued painting, acting, drawing, singing, and dancing. When Charles moved the family upstate, Louise separated from her husband to return to the thriving art scene of the city.
She enrolled in classes at the Art Students League, traveled to Europe to study under Hans Hofmann, held an assistantship under the legendary muralist Diego Rivera for his controversial “Man at the Crossroads” mural at Rockefeller Plaza, and exhibited in group shows. Impoverished but committed, she was getting ready to step out into the spotlight.
The Nierendorf Gallery presented Nevelson’s first solo exhibit in 1941. The terracotta and wood sculptures borrowed motifs from pre-Columbian art introduced to her by Rivera. In the following years, she explored printmaking as well as found objects. Her painting and sculpture worked through important movements from her formative education—including Cubism and Surrealism.
Over the next decade, she gradually accrued more critical interest, with her name rising in notoriety—though she still struggled financially.
Nevelson frequently exhibited in galleries into the ‘50s, with her work gradually growing in size. This coincided with several trips to Mayan archeological sites in Latin America, which began to influence her to take on the monument as her main form.
Coming Into Her Own
These experiences culminated in her iconic assemblages. These were made out of found wood pieces, combined into monochromatic objects that stand silent and imposing yet inviting viewers in with their mystery.
It was Colette Roberts and her Grand Central Modern Gallery that presented the fully realized modernist works of Nevelson—debuting works like “Sky Cathedral” (1958).
She continued to revise and perfect this approach throughout the rest of her life. By the ‘60s, she began adding in plastic and formica elements. And by the ‘70s, she created sculptures entirely out of aluminum and steel.
While she never stopped experimenting, that original formula continued. Her “Cascade VII” (1979), for instance, is still entirely made of wood. Those years in her father’s home, filled as it was with wood, no doubt continued to make its presence felt in some corner of her mind.
Remembering Louis Nevelson
Nevelson’s profile has never dimmed, even in the decades since her death in 1988. And she is now accepted into the canon of great 20th century masters. Through mythic scale and detailed nuance, she has worked her way into the public imagination.
In April 2022, the Louise Nevelson Foundation is presenting a celebration of the artist’s legacy alongside the Biennale Arte event. “Louise Nevelson. Persistence” will showcase more than 60 works made between the ‘50s and ‘80s. Set in Venice’s historic Procuratie Vecchie in the Piazza San Marco, this fitting tribute to a giant of modern art will take place 60 years after her first appearance at the Biennale Arte.