Few sculptors worked in wood in the late 1950s and ‘60s when Louise Nevelson made her great wooden walls. By the time she produced her Sky Cathedral in 1958, which was shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, she was 60 years old.
She was an artist who did her great work late in life, a phenomenon fairly rare in the history of artists. Born to a Jewish family in the lumber business in Ukraine, she grew up near great forests in Maine and married a gentleman named Nevelson who was in the shipping business.
She began studying painting in New York, separated from her husband, studied with Hilla Rebay (who became the first director of the Guggenheim Museum), went to Europe, studied with Hans Hoffmann in Munich, went back to New York, became an assistant to Diego Rivera in mural projects and began making small-scale sculptures of a Surrealist persuasion. She exhibited in New York galleries in the 1940s, and received good reviews, an unusual occurrence for women artists at the time.
Her groundbreaking work was the creation of walls which she made from cut-off wood items—wheels, dowels, parts of chairs, boxes—all kinds of found objects which she scavenged on the streets of New York. She chose those pieces whose shape, scale and texture appealed to her. She then assembled them into large walls, which she painted black to conceal their previous function, endowing things which once had a practical function with a sense of mystery.
Her process of making sculpture by assembling pieces is related to that of her colleagues such as David Smith and Herbert Ferber, except that they welded metal pieces and wood was Nevelson’s material of choice.
In the spectacular exhibition in 1958 at MoMA the viewer entered into a dark night and was not at all interested in detecting the previous identity of all, the pieces. “I really deal with shadows and space,” she wrote. “Those are the important things in my work and for me, because I identify with the shadow.”
But after the night comes the day, and Louise Nevelson began painting her walls a monochrome white in the late 1950s. These she named “Dawn’s Wedding Feast.” These festive works, she felt, would express hope and a new beginning. Finally, still working in monochrome, she produced golden walls which resemble altars in Baroque churches. But black, which she said “encompasses all colors, is the ultimate,” is the color to which she returned in her final phase.
Although Minimal Sculpture was the leading mode for sculpture in the ‘70s in public spaces, Nevelson received many commissions. Her black metal walls and sometimes free-standing pieces began to appears in Princeton and Philadelphia and in Scottsdale, Arizona and Louisville, Ky.
There is a Louise Nevelson Plaza filled with her work in Lower Manhattan and a beautiful white relief wall in St. Peter’s Church on Lexington Avenue, as well as a great wall in a synagogue in Great Neck, called “The White Flame for the Six Million” (1970-71.) One of her public pieces is in the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco.
Unlike so much “Plopp Art” which we see in public places, Nevelson’s sculptures are site-specific and adapted to the environment in which they are placed. The retrospective of Nevelson’s sculpture was organized by the Jewish Museum of New York and is installed at the de Young Museum the way it should be seen.
Image: Louise Nevelson’s Case with Five Balusters, from “Dawn’s Wedding Feast,” 1959.
The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson:
Constructing a Legend
Through Jan. 13, de Young Museum
Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco.