Artist Louise Nevelson: Sculptures & Paintings

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

How much do you know about 20th century abstract sculpture? If you're an art buff, you may know about the contributions of Louise Nevelson. In this lesson, we'll go over this artist's life and works.

Early Life

When you were a kid, did you know exactly what you wanted to be when you grew up? Some lucky people know from a young age where they want their lives to take them, and Louise Nevelson was one of them. To her, art was a passion, and she would stop at nothing to pursue her dream.

But before becoming an artist, Louise Nevelson was born as Leah Berliawsky in September of 1899 in Kiev. At the time of her birth, Kiev was located in Russia, but today Kiev is a part of Ukraine. As a child, her family was well-to-do but faced significant discrimination because they were Jewish. In 1902, her father left Russia to start a new life for his family in the United States. For little Leah, having her father gone was a truly traumatic experience -- so traumatic in fact, that she didn't say a single word for half a year. In 1905, the entire family moved to Maine.

In America, Leah reinvented herself, changing her name to Louise and shortly after marrying a man named Charles Nevelson in 1920. The two lived in New York, the perfect place for a budding artist. The couple had one child named Myron. By the early 1930s, Nevelson knew she wanted to be an artist full-time and she felt horribly confined by life as a wife and mother. She eventually left her husband to pursue her dream.

Becoming an Artist

New York City has always been a destination for artists of all kinds, and it proved to be the perfect place to nurture Nevelson's early art career. In 1929 she started studying at the Art Students League of New York, an art school founded in the late 1800s by a group of artists. Nevelson had the chance to study under several big-name artists of the time, including Kenneth Hayes Miller and Frederick Kiesler.

In 1931, Nevelson had the chance to go abroad and study with artist Hans Hoffman in Munich, Germany. Traveling and studying exposed her to all sorts of different artists and movements, especially Pablo Picasso. At the time, Picasso was experimenting with cubism; his large, blocky shapes and distinct geometric patterns had a profound impact on Nevelson's later work.

As a young artist, Nevelson dabbled in all sorts of media, including etching, painting, and sculpting. In 1932, she had the chance to work as an assistant with famous muralist Diego Rivera. At the time, the United States was in the throes of the Great Depression. The U.S. government had actually commissioned Rivera to paint his mural as a part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Between 1937 and 1939, Nevelson was employed by the WPA as a mural and easel painting teacher at the Educational Alliance Art School. By the late 1930s and 1940s, Nevelson focused most of her attention on sculptures.

Louise Nevelson with granddaughter
Louise Nevelson with granddaughter

Career and Artwork

Early in her career, Louise Nevelson became the epitome of the starving artist. She did everything she could to survive simply to keep producing her art. In 1941, she was featured in her first solo exhibit at the Nierendorf Gallery in New York City. The exhibit featured numerous sculptures made from different materials like bronze, plaster, terracotta, and wood. These early sculptures were an example of her love for objets trouves, or found objects. Nevelson collected different odds and ends, scraps of wood and metal, or other distinct items to include as a part of her work.

Louise Nevelson's work is very distinct. She drew significant inspiration from cubism and other abstract movements and translated them into massive free-standing and wall sculptures. During the 1950s, Nevelson developed a characteristic style of wall sculptures that featured wooden boxes stacked on top of each other at different angles, kind of like a large haphazard bookshelf. Inside the boxes, Nevelson carefully placed her found objects to tell different stories about her life experiences, her thoughts, and her feelings. She then painted the sculptures (boxes and objects) a single color, usually black or white. She broke from her stereotypical black and white color scheme in the early 1960s for an exhibit at the Venice Biennale in 1962; her Royal Tide I was painted gold to convey a sense of royalty.

Lunar Landscape created in 1959, Amon Carter Museum of Art
Lunar Landscape

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