Nice Jewish girl from Kiev goes on to career making wood sculptures
In 2007, New York’s Jewish Museum mounted an impressive exhibition of Louise Nevelson’s work. The accompanying catalog, published in a cloth- bound edition, sold for $55. A new paperback version sells for $40. This slightly modified review of the 2007 publication applies to the 2009 release since nothing has changed save for the binding.
The book contains 177 illustrations in both color and black and white. It also has four essays on Nevelson and her work as well as comments by three contemporary sculptors, two of which are presented as question and answer interviews. Finally, there is a year-by-year chronology of Nevelson’s life and a listing of her exhibitions.
Nevelson was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1899 to a Jewish family of upper middle class landowners and timber merchants. In one of the book’s essays, there is a cryptic and unelaborated reference to the association between her father’s work as a lumberman and her use of wood as the medium for her sculptures. Nevelson, her mother, and two siblings came to the United States in 1905 and joined her father in Rockland, Maine, where he worked in construction and established a
In 1918, Nevelson graduated from high school in Rockland and met Charles Nevelson, son of a wealthy New York shipping family, who had come to Maine on business. They were married two years later and settled in New York, initially in Washington Heights, Manhattan, and then in Mount Vernon. They had one son but the marriage broke up in 1931, and after a decade of separation, they were legally divorced in 1941. While they were together, Nevelson began to take lessons in painting and drawing. After the separation, she went to Europe to study art at Hans Hofmann’s school in Munich. Hofmann later came to New York and she continued to study with him at the Art Students League. In 1933, Nevelson enrolled in Chaim Gross’s sculpture class at the Educational Alliance.
During the Depression, Nevelson worked in the WPA as a sculptor. She began to exhibit her work, showing the abstract wood assemblages that eventually made her famous and financially independent. In 1956, the Whitney Museum acquired one of her wood sculptures, followed a year later by another museum acquisition, this time by the Brooklyn Museum. Gradually, museums and collectors throughout the world, including Israel, bought her work. By 1969, Nevelson began to create outdoor monumental sculptures. Her public art is the subject of one essay in the book.
Nevelson produced works for two synagogues, Temple Beth El, Great Neck, N.Y. and Temple Israel, Boston. In this connection we are told that Nevelson was not traditionally observant, although “she contributed to Jewish organizations.”
Nevelson is well-known for using “wooden remnants, with scraps, odds and ends, things discarded, left over, displaced, found, free for the taking…” Mostly, she painted them black, although some were painted white and a few appeared in gold. One essay discusses this use of “monochrome and meaning in the art of Louise Nevelson.” Unfortunately, little light shines on the question of why she mostly uses black. The author (Arthur C. Danto, emeritus professor of philosophy, Columbia University) claims that “Nevelson intended black to have a function but not a fixed symbolic meaning.” He then quotes her as referring to the qualities of wood and blackness as “mechanics.” Her response is interpreted to mean that she has failed if this is all the viewer sees. His complex amplification fails to enlighten his readers.
Nevelson died in 1988, but exhibitions of her work continue and she must be considered a significant and influential figure in American art.
(Morton I. Teicher is the founding dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and dean emeritus of the School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)