The flamboyant life of Louise Nevelson


Louise Nevelson (b. 1899 Kiev; d. 1988, New York) was a flamboyant character. An iconic and vital figure in post-war New York, she is regarded for her groundbreaking sculptural environments as much as her persona, which was captured in memorable photographs by Cecil Beaton and Richard Avedon.

Nevelson created her first assemblages in the mid-1950s, and quickly made an impact in the New York art scene with her pioneering approach to sculpture. Inspired by Cubism, Nevelson took scraps of wood and other materials found on the street near her studio, in Little Italy, and assembled them into free-standing and wall-mounted structure that she would paint a solid colour—most famously, black or white.

She emigrated from czarist Russia as a child and grew up in Rockland, Maine, a region she quickly left to move to NY to live “la grande vie”. As an adult, she returned to Europe where she studied with Hans Hoffman and while travelling would often share dinner tables with Jean Gabin and other famous actors and artists.

Upon her return to the United States, she served as Diego Rivera’s assistant and later as an art instructor in the Works Progress Administration. Her trips to Mexico surely influenced her art. She would call herself “the architect of light and shadows”. In 1941, she had her first solo exhibition, and in 1946, was included for the first time in the Whitney Annual exhibition, which she would participate in eleven more times. Although she worked in white and gold and later with painted steel, her developments in the 1950s sustained her work throughout the rest of her life.

She has been the subject of one-artist exhibitions at numerous institutions including The Jewish Museum, New York (1965, 2007); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1967, 1970, 1980, 1987, 1998); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (1973); Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (1986); Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome (1994); Centre national d’art et de culture Georges Pompidou, Paris (1997).

Nevelson’s sculptures range from small assemblages to free-standing columns and monumental wall-based works consisting of multiple small compartments. Although the physical form of the scraps remains unchanged in her work, Nevelson subsumes them in an entire system, creating a unified whole from disparate parts.

Pace London’s current exhibition, at 6 Burlington Gardens, coincides with Pace New York’s presentation of Blackness in Abstraction, a major exhibition organised by Adrienne Edwards, a curator at Performa and curator-at-large at the Walker Art Center. The exhibition considers the eponymous theme, treating Nevelson and her expressive treatment of black as a historic anchor for subsequent generations of artists.

Next autumn, Thames & Hudson will publish Louise Nevelson: Light and Shadow, by Laurie Wilson.




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Images: © 2016 Estate of Louise Nevelson/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York