Louise Nevelson

Louise Nevelson (1900-1988) was an American abstract sculptor who explored both the density and transparency of materials. Her imagery was based on surrealist and cubist models.

Born in Kiev, Russia, Louise Nevelson emigrated with her family to the United States in 1905. She studied painting at the Art Students League, New York City, from 1929 through 1930 and traveled to Munich in 1931 to study with Hans Hofmann. In the mid-1930s, she turned to sculpture. In 1944, a piece designed an abstract sculpture composed of wood was shown to the public for the first time. In her early work she uses traditional materials and processes, and the images are almost exclusively figures, as in Mountain Woman (1949-1950).

By the mid-1950s Nevelson had emerged as a significant force in American sculpture. She constructed free-standing and relief pieces in wood that was finished in a monochromatic hue. Black Majesty (1955) is a series of totemic events vertically projecting from a horizontal pedestal. At the same time, the presentation of her pieces became environmental in scope, and she often exhibited them under a common title or theme, for example, The Royal Voyage (1956) with jagged forms sprawled on the floor as well as mounted on pedestals, The Forest (1957), and Moon Garden plus One (1958).

Some comparisons have been made between Nevelson's work of the 1950s and concurrent attitudes in American painting, such as abstract expressionism. However, her compositions—while at first glance open-ended and freely handled in their assembled state—exhibit greater control, both formally and in their mythopoetic intent. Like some contemporary sculptors, she used cast-off materials; but her ingenious framing and pedestal devices, such as the relief, the box, and the column, in addition to her painterly concerns with light and dark, set her apart.

By the end of the 1950s Nevelson had moved from black and natural surfaces to overall white in the memorable series Dawn's Wedding Feast. The scale of this exhibition seemed to forecast her large single wall reliefs Homage to 6,000,000 I (1964) and Homage to the World (1966). She, again returned to wood painted black (triangular) in Silent Music I (1964).

In the mid-1960s Nevelson came to prefer compositions with fewer elements, more rigidly controlling the relief space. She turned to such new materials as black lucite, aluminum, and magnesium, as in Atmosphere and Environment. In Environment she achieved open, freestanding structures that are as concerned with volume as with mass. In her work of the late 1960s she used welded vertical shapes; however, she also continued to execute wood constructions.

Nevelson's artwork of the mid-1970s, she utilized cast paper in Dawn's Presence (1976). The early 1980s and mid-1980s, she worked with detailed PHSColograms in Keeping Time with Fashion (1983) and painted wood in Mirror Shadow XI (1985). Remembered for her natural abstract sculptures, her death in 1988 marked a significant loss to the world of art.


Further Reading on Louise Nevelson

The most comprehensive work on Nevelson is John Gordon's, Louise Nevelson (1967), published on the occasion of the Whitney Museum retrospective exhibition of her sculpture; Louise Nevelson (1970), by Mary Hancock Buxton is valuable for the artist's later work; Louise Nevelson: Prints and Drawings, 1953-1966, by Una E. Johnson (1967); and Louise Nevelson (1969), exhibition catalog of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and College of Fine Arts, University of Texas; useful for general background is a work by the editors of Art in America, entitled The Artist in America (1967); Nevelson's updated artwork can be located in Imaging Incorporated (1995-96); Early Nevelson (1997); and Pace Editions Inc. (1976); www.Artincontext.com.