“Some of us come on earth seeing,
Some of us come on earth seeing color.”
– Louise Nevelson
Louise Nevelson (1899—1988) was a Russian-born American sculptor who created intricate, abstract geometric art out of pieces of wood and debris that she found on the street of New York City where she lived. Her sculptures held a grand and intimidating appeal, many of them towering walls made up of individual boxes, which were filled with the objects she found.
I am drawn to Nevelson’s work because it is comprised of detritus that most people discard, ignore and believe to be useless. She scavenged most of the wood used in her sculptures and from this scrap Nevelson created deeply personal works that told many stories of the city. Their structures were often chaotic and busy, emulating the structure of New York City with its districts and blocks and the myriad lives contained within each one, all of them unique.
Black Wall, 1959.
Nevelson began painting her sculptures one uniform colour in the 1940s, usually matte black, although she occasionally deviated to white or gold. When I look at her work, the single, solid colour helps to unify the many different shapes and aspects of the piece, as if she was saying that all of these components might be different but they ultimately work toward a common goal, or share the same playing field. This also speaks to me of the city life.
Dawn’s Wedding Feast, 1959.
Not all of Nevelson’s work were about her surroundings. A number of them were deeply personal to her and related to her past. Dawn’s Wedding Feast was the first sculpture she painted white. This piece was symbolic of Nevelson’s failed marriage, a bittersweet homage to a traumatising event in which she separated from her partner and also abandoned her son so she could travel to Europe to study art, but she also considered it the dawning of a new chapter in her life and work—signified by the change from black to white (Rapaport, B. K, et al. 2007). This sudden change is striking and an extremely conscious choice. In Louise Nevelson: A Passionate Life, Laurie Lisle, who spent extensive time interviewing Nevelson, states that Nevelson was not the sort of person to dwell on the past but preferred to look at what was important in the present (Lisle, 1989). However, I would argue that Nevelson might have instead been constructing a maze-like structure in which to bury her past, rather than process it and move on.
Troubling events in Nevelson’s early life led her to become interested in the Cubist movement. Nevelson herself said:
“The Cubist movement was one of the greatest awarenesses that the human mind has ever come to. Of course, if you read my work, no matter what it is, it still has that stamp. The box is a cube.”
Cubism gave her a sense of structure, offering her sanctuary and order when everything else in her life seemed chaotic (Rapaport, B. K. 2012).
In her article Geometric Abstraction, Ana Franco writes that although Nevelson’s art followed a geometric structure and hinted at a profound desire for order, Nevelson herself was interested in the magical powers of art (Franco, A. 2012). It is easy to see, when looking at Nevelson’s complex sculptures, that there could be a hidden spiritual message within. Her wall sculptures are maze-like, or like giant mythical puzzles, with countless dark crevices and nooks for shadows to settle. When I look at Nevelson’s work I see both the mathematical nature of her composition but also the sense of monumental curiosity, secrets and stories captured within the details.
Nevelson was also acutely aware that, at the time she was working to develop her art, she was existing in a male-dominated profession.
“Throughout her career, her beauty and flamboyance made it difficult for many people to take her seriously as an artist. She was often depressed or enraged as she struggled to exhibit and sell her work. Yet while she attacked the art world for being male-dominated, she saw herself as unique—not a model for other women.” (Lisle, 1989)
It is interesting to me to find an artist who wanted to simultaneously break down the gender imbalance in the art world and also stand apart from and above it. Nevelson’s wanting to be unique and not a model for women to aspire implies a superiority complex, although this seems strange given her hardships and the incredibly gritty experiences she had been through years before. Again I wonder if it could be possible that in her complex geometric structures, Nevelson was trying to escape the human aspects of her life—all the trials and struggles—rather than process and let go of them.
An American Tribute to the British People (1960-1964).
Nevelson’s style was borne from an intuitive art style. She once said:
“I hate the word ‘intellect’ or the word ‘logic’—logic is against nature, and ‘analysis,’ another vulgar word.” (Lisle, 1989).
I admire the notion of allowing intuition to dominate the creative process, although I also believe that to be afforded this type of creative freedom, and for people to trust your instinct, you have to have had an extensive background in your field and have done the research, trial-and-error, and learned all that you can from many different sources. According to Nevelson’s son, nobody really knew how much she knew about art because she never revealed the extent of her knowledge (Lisle, 1989). I wonder if her tendency to play her cards close to her chest was due to her not being widely accepted by her male contemporaries. Her documented bravado and flamboyance could have also been a screen for her to hide behind. Furthermore, if Nevelson thought herself above most other humans, she might not have seen any reason to impart all of her wisdom.
Mrs. N’s Palace (1964-1977).
Nevelson’s work is important to my research because of her use of geometric structures—whether they are meant to tell stories, or be a hiding place for truths. The last piece, Mrs. N’s Palace, strikes me as the embodiment of a mental fort that Nevelson might have constructed, but her use of palace speaks of her confidence and outspoken attitude and her tendency to set herself apart from everyone else.
Franco, Ana M. (2012): Geometric Abstraction. The New York-Bogotá Nexus. American Art, vol 26, No. 2 (Summer 2012). The University of Chicago Press.
Lisle, Laurie (1989): Louise Nevelson – A Passionate Life. Summit Books, New York, NY.
Rapaport, B. K. (ed.); Danto, Arthur C.; Senie, Harriet F.; Stanislawski, Michael (2007): The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend. Yale University Press, New Haven and London.
Louise Nevelson at the Tate: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/louise-nevelson-1696
Louise Nevelson photos: Maine, An Encyclopedia – http://maineanencyclopedia.com/ and Biography.com – https://www.biography.com/people/louise-nevelson-20854319