Louise Nevelson (1899-1988)
Perry, Alyce, School Arts
About the Artist
Louise Berliawsky was born in Kiev, Russia. In 1905, she immigrated to Rockland, Maine, where her father established a lumberyard. Often she worked on collages with wood scraps from her father's lumberyard. Although interested in dance and theater, Nevelson always knew she would be a sculptor. In 1920, Louise Berliawsky married Charles Nevelson, proprietor of a cargo-shipping business. They moved to New York City, where she pursued studies in drama and dance. In 1922 she gave birth to her only son Myron (Mike). Believing that her roles as mother and wife restricted her artistic potential, Nevelson separated from her husband in 1931.
Newly separated, Nevelson traveled to Munich to study with the painter Hans Hofmann. She also worked as a movie extra in Vienna. The dramatic, contrasting lighting effects and the artificial illusion of space on the movie sets in Vienna are expressed in her work. The geometry and abstract forms of the African art of the Musee de L'Homme (Paris) fascinated her. The use of eclectic materials--cowrie shells, raffia, wood--in African sculpture inspired Nevelson's use of found objects in her sculptures.
In 1932, she returned to New York and joined the Art Students League, where Hans Hofmann taught. After the Art Students League, Nevelson apprenticed with Diego Rivera while he painted socialist-themed murals for Rockefeller Center, and learned about pre-Columbian Mesoamerican art from Rivera and his artist-wife Frida Kahlo.
In Europe, Nevelson had learned about the Cubist movement led by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Cubists attempted to render three-dimensional forms on two-dimensional surfaces by shattering, analyzing, and reassembling subject matter in an abstracted, fragmented form. The reassembled elements of an object were simultaneously shown from multiple perspectives.
When Nevelson began to sculpt, Cubism had been thoroughly explored in painting but was not much explored in sculpture. Nevelson theorized:
"Cubism was really a sculptor's form. When we look at the early paintings of the Cubist school we find a paradox. The cube is a solid. In painting it becomes abstract. In sculpture we accept the cube: it has become concrete and consequently has been resolved and become tangible." (Lisle, p. 196)
Biographer Laurie Lisle recollects, "Louise herself liked to say that Picasso had resolved the cube, Mondrian had flattened it, and she had endowed it with poetry." (Lisle, p. 198)
About the Artwork
During 1940-50, Nevelson discovered the assemblage format for which she is best known. Nevelson collected found items--crates, balusters, bedposts, moldings, shelving--to incorporate into her sculptures. She collected items at junkyards, demolition sites, or in her neighborhood trash. Friends and family saved unusual scraps and boxes for her. Nevelson reshaped the fragments with files, hammers, and scissors, or soaked wooden pieces in water to make them pliable. Elements were assembled into box-like units, combined to form an entire sculpture. She created collages with these fragments using her artistic intuition, never making revisions. Completed works often inspired a series of sculptures.
Nevelson sought materials with complementary textures and shapes for her assemblages. Her searches were "a sculptural act, and I do not consider the selected 'found form' less mine than the invented form" and that "they will see it for what it is, not for its utilitarian use. …