Louise Nevelson was born in Kiev in the Ukraine in September 1899. (The exact date of her birth was uncertain, but she settled for Sept. 23). She was the second of four children. Her parents were Isaac Berliawsky and his wife, Minna Zeisel Smolerank.
Her father and her grandfather were in the timber business. In 1902 her father decided to start a new life in the United States. True to the family tradition, he went into the lumber business in Rockland, Me., and made a success of it.
His family remained in the Ukraine until he could offer them security in the United States, and this separation was particularly painful to Louise, who lost the power of speech for six months by way of unconscious protest. A Feeling For Wood
When the family was reunited in Rockland, Mr. Berliawsky saw to it that they were dressed in a luxurious and flamboyant style that heightened their foreignness. Louise was indoctrinated into this mode of life to the point of lifelong addiction; and although she cared nothing for possessions and still less for comfort, she was to the end of her days a spectacular figure for whom no combination of clothing, headgear and jewelry could be too startling.
It never occurred to her to be anything but an artist. In her autobiographical book, ”Dawns and Dusks,” she related how a librarian in Rockland asked her what she would be when she grew up. ”I’m going to be an artist,” she replied. ”A sculptor. I don’t want color to help me.” A feeling for wood had been bred into her, and by the time she was 6 she was already working with small pieces of wood that she had scavenged from her father’s lumber yard. She told friends in later years that in school she was always cold and only found warmth when she was in art class.
She also inherited from her parents a passionate belief in freedom and independence of thought, a radical orientation in politics, and a crusader’s attitude to the emancipation of women. A Dabbler in Different Arts
She grew up to be a tall, rangy, speculative and almost preternaturally determined young woman who was bent on trying all the arts, either one by one or simultaneously, until she found the one that fulfilled her completely. It turned out to be her first love, sculpture; but on the way to that definitive realization, she tried painting and drawing, tried the piano, tried acting, singing and modern dance.
”I never made friends,” she said later, ”because I didn’t intend to stay in Rockland, and I didn’t want anything to tie me down.” In 1920, however, she married Charles Nevelson, whose family was in the shipping business, and moved to New York. Her son and only child, Myron Nevelson, was born in 1922.
From 1920 onward she was responsible for her own education. With her fiery and tenacious nature, she was not cut out for the routine and restraints of a well-run, well-financed family life. After 11 years of ever-increasing discontent, she separated from Mr. Nevelson in 1931. Thereafter she was responsible – financially, morally and in every other way – for herself alone. This had its price, but she paid it gladly. An Extra in Films
In 1929-30 she studied at the Art Students League in New York with Kenneth Hayes Miller. But her regained freedom allowed her to go to what then seemed to her the indispensable source of modern art: Hans Hofmann’s school in Munich. Hofmann was indeed a great teacher, but in Munich in 1931 the rise of the Nazi Party made it difficult for him or his students to give of their best. After a few months, Hofmann went into exile and Mrs. Nevelson thereby lost her main reason for being in Europe.
People in Germany responded, as they did everywhere, to her uproarious vitality, and for a time she worked in Berlin and Vienna as an extra in the movies. But that uproarious vitality could turn to melancholy and self-questioning; both then and in 1932, during a second journey to Europe, she had low moments at which her longed-for fulfillment seemed as far away as ever.
As she was a practicing artist for 30 years before she made her first sale, Mrs. Nevelson’s progress could be said to have been both slow and scant. But she was bent on working in her own country and on her own terms. ”I could be a leaf on the tree in Paris,” she once said, ”but I could be the whole tree in America.”
Even so, that tree had to be planted. Mrs. Nevelson returned to this country for good in 1932, but it was several years before she made anything that was distinctly her own. She drew, studied for a while with Hofmann (who in the meantime had established himself in New York), she kept up her studies in theater and dance, and for a time she worked as an assistant to Diego Rivera while he was preparing his murals for Rockefeller Center.
Like many others at that time, she was preoccupied with the art of pre-Columbian Mexico, and in 1933 she made a small stone group of two figures in a style closely akin to the reclining figures that Henry Moore was making at that time and under that same influence. Constant Change, Constant Work
In the spring of 1936, Mrs. Nevelson entered a competitive exhibition at the A.C.A. Gallery in New York and was one of four young artists invited to show at the A.C.A. in September of that year. Her work on that occasion was singled out for extended notice in The New York Times, in which her sculptures were described as ”unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.”
But a good notice doesn’t pay any bills, and for most of the 1930’s Mrs. Nevelson had no success and little or no money. She lived in one place after another, treating her studio as an ark to be filled, and no sooner filled than left. Such was her compulsion to work hard and move on that she seemed to be reliving in microcosm the trauma of enforced migration that was endured by hundreds of thousands of European refugees in the 1930’s, and shortly to be experienced by even greater numbers of people.
Mrs. Nevelson felt such things in her whole body, as a great dancer feels them; and with her well-developed sense of theater and her first-hand experience of the film studio, where whole environments are no sooner built than they are dismantled, she gradually felt her way toward the work for which she eventually became famous. Celine Was a Suitor
Meanwhile, life touched her at many points. While crossing the Atlantic in 1932, for instance, she met Louis-Ferdinand Celine, the French novelist who was already famous for his ”Journey to the End of the Night” and was to become notorious during and after World War II for the ferocity of his anti-Semitism. Celine was attracted to her, as were many other gifted men. Some years later, when he wanted to stay on in the United States, he went so far as to propose marriage. Mrs. Nevelson by then could see where his sympathies lay, and with characteristic forthrightness showed him the door and told him she would rather see him dead than alive.
”I was often depressed and alone,” she later said of herself at that period, ”but I was functioning as my own person and that kept me going.” After she had pawned the last relics of her comfortable married life, it would have been natural for her to apply to the Works Progress Administration for one of the mural or sculptural commissions for which she was well suited. But she was proud and kept putting it off, and in the end all that could be offered her was a teaching post at the Educational Alliance School of Art in Lower Manhattan. ‘I Built an Empire’
That apart, Mrs. Nevelson had total control of her time. That she was very poor was part of a price that she paid. ”There’s a price for what you do,” she once said, ”and there’s a price for what you don’t do. It’s a two-way deal.” Even at the lowest point in her outward fortunes she refused to contemplate any change in her working habits. ”I needed my full consciousness to project ideas,” she said later. ”I didn’t want to make things. I built an empire, and you don’t build on that scale by cutting time.”
Even so, it irked her that nobody saw her work. In 1941 she decided that after 20 years’ work she had the right to have an exhibition, not just a ”show,” but a show at the best gallery in town. She picked Karl Nierendorf, whose gallery at that time had enormous prestige. She went in to see Mr. Nierendorf, undeterred by the fact that he had never before shown an American artist. Such was the force of her conviction that he came to her studio that same evening and agreed to give her a show the following month. A Circus Is Devised
Nothing remains of this show, but from all accounts it is clear that Mrs. Nevelson conceived of an exhibition as an environment that could remind the visitor of a prehistoric cave, an Egyptian tomb or an unusually well-conceived shop window. Since 1931 she had been interested in African and in American Indian art as well as the art of pre-Columbian Mexico; and since the Museum of Modern Art’s ”Fantastic Art-Dada and Surrealism” of 1936 she had been aware both of the potential of the dream and the automatic procedures that were an important part of European surrealism.
When she showed as a guest at the Norlyst Gallery in 1943, she devised a complete circus in which the performers (both human and animal), the audience and the walls of the circus tent were all most carefully presented. The sculptures in question combined standing African figures, the collocations of found objects fundamental to surrealism, and her own sturdy and unceasing invention. Nothing from the show was sold, and when it was over she took the work back to her studio and burned it.
What in another artist might have been either perversity or pique was in her case a recurrent compulsion to close the account and move on. As of 1943, Mrs. Nevelson’s habits became less nomadic, in that a legacy from her father allowed her to buy a house and garden on East 30th Street. Karl Nierendorf’s continuing support added a further element of stability, and 1944 and 1945 in particular were years of great creativity, in which a powerful and irreducible nature was clearly getting close to its definitive expression. Sculpture as Cinema
In 1946 she had an exhibition at the Nierendorf Gallery called ”Ancient City.” In this, perhaps for the first time, she proved that she could sum up a complete world – most often, a vanished and unpopulated one – with just one or two disparate objects. What she needed to arrive at her definitive and entirely personal style was a way of combining many insights of this sort within a single monumental sculpture.
The concentrated effort that she needed to put forward to that end was blocked, however, by a long series of misfortunes. Mr. Nierendorf died, she herself underwent serious surgery and was too weak to go on working as usual, and none of the media with which she experimented proved satisfactory. Nearly 10 years were to pass before her next substantial exhibition, at the Grand Central Moderns Gallery in 1955.
Most of the pieces in that show stood on wooden crates, which Mrs. Nevelson fragmented and reconstituted to form, in effect, a shallow cubist space. Eventually, at Christmas 1957, it appeared to her that spaces of this kind need not merely support her sculptures. They could enclose them, forming thereby an indefinitely extensible grid. It was on this principle, which reputedly came to her after close scrutiny of an empty liquor crate, that her mature style was based.
It proved ideal for her purposes. It gave an all-over structure within which incidents of every conceivable kind could be accommodated. Though immutably and self-evidently frontal, it offered deep shadow and an illusion of depth. What had previously stood was literally ”boxed in,” and the wall-sized sculptures that resulted had something of theater – and of cinema also: Mrs. Nevelson had not forgotten that what we see on the screen is just a long succession of single images, each one of them boxed into a celluloid frame of identical size. Breakthrough in 1958
When two of the earliest and grandest of these walls, ”Sky Cathedral,” was shown in 1958, Hilton Kramer wrote of them in The New York Times that they were ”appalling and marvelous, utterly shocking in the way they violate our received ideas on the subject of sculpture and the confusion of genres, yet profoundly exhilarating in the way they open an entire realm of possibility.”
As much as any artist of her generation, Mrs. Nevelson had to wait for success. Her first real breakthrough in terms of widespread public attention did not come until the winter of 1958-59, when Dorothy Miller included her in one of the anthologies of new American art that she organized at the Museum of Modern Art.
Mrs. Nevelson was in her 60’s before she could count on a steady income from her work, and she never forgot, as she once said, what it was like ”to be an American and not be respected by collectors.” But gradually the big museums and the big collectors came around to the fact that a major artist was in their midst. As for her colleagues, they, too, recognized her human stature. She was president from 1957 to 1959 of the New York chapter of Artists’ Equity and president of National Artists’ Equity from 1962 to 1964. A Host of Awards
In 1962 she represented the United States at the Venice Biennale, where she characteristically showed gigantic works, made for that place and that occasion, which could not be turned to profit.
She had shows in London, Baden-Baden, Dusseldorf, Zurich, Turin and Berne in 1963-64.
In 1965 she took part in the National Council on Arts and Government in Washington. In 1967 she had a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York.
Public commissions came her way often.
In 1969, she was awarded the MacDowell Colony medal and in 1971 the Brandeis University Creative Award in Sculpture and the Skowhegan Medal for Sculpture. In 1973-75 a large traveling exhibition of her work visited Minneapolis, San Francisco, Dallas, Atlanta, Kansas City and Cleveland. In 1975 an exhibition organized by the United States Information Agency was seen in Iran, India and Japan. From 1964 on she showed regularly at the Pace Gallery in New York, where she found in Arnold Glimcher not only a wholehearted champion of her work, but a biographer as well. Commissions Through the 70’s
Commissions included work for Princeton University in 1969; a 55-foot wall for Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, L.I., in 1970, and major sculptures in 1973 for Boston, Scottsdale, Ariz. and Binghamton, N.Y.
In 1975 she made a piece called ”Bicentennial Dawn” for the James A. Byrne Federal Courthouse in Philadelphia, and a black steel sculpture called ”Transparent Horizon” for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In 1979 Mrs. Nevelson made her most visible imprint on New York in the form of the Louise Nevelson Plaza, an entire outdoor environment of her black sculptures on Maiden Lane in lower Manhattan.
Mrs. Nevelson never allowed success to alter her way of life. If anything, she became progressively more and more independent of material possessions. Her collection of paintings by Louis Eilshemius was sold in times of stress, as was her collection of primitive art. In her house on Spring Street she lived as simply as it is possible for a human being to live, though she saw to it that her guests were looked after in exemplary style.
Nor was she ever deterred by the challenge of a new material or a new kind of commission; one of the great successes of her career, opened in December 1977, was the Chapel of the Good Shepherd in St. Peter’s Church on Lexington Avenue at 54th Street. Like the Matisse chapel in Vence, France, and the Rothko chapel in Houston, this exemplified the powers of adaptation that some artists can carry into old age. But then Louise Nevelson was never touched by old age. She put it in its place and went on with the only thing that mattered to her: her work