Friday, September 9, 2011

Patron Saint #4: Louise Nevelson, Assemblage Artist

Louise Nevelson - photo found here

“Humans really are heir to every possibility within themselves, and it is only up to us to admit 
it and accept it. You see, you can buy the whole world and you are empty, but when you 
create the whole world, you are full.” 

- Louise Nevelson, via an interview by Arnold Glimcher “Louise Nevelson Remembered”

One loss that is unlikely to be mentioned during this 9/11 memorial weekend are the works of art destroyed at that time. Which is understandable... the loss of artwork can't really be compared to human lives. As one of the pieces was created by an artist I felt compelled to talk about these past few days, however, I thought it might be mentionable here at this time. The artwork in question was an immense wooden wall sculpture,"Sky Gate - New York" (below), erected in the World Trade Center in 1978. It was created by a Ukrainian, Jewish immigrant named Louise Nevelson who died 10 years later, at the age of 88. Despite her legendary contribution to Abstract Expressionism and contemporary sculpture, hers is unlikely to be a "household name". As one critic wrote at the time of her first exhibition: "We learned the artist was a woman in time to check our enthusiasm. Had it been otherwise, we might have hailed these sculptural expressions as by surely a great figure among moderns."

Nevelson - Sky Gate - NY -1975

Louise Nevelson's birthday is coming up. She was born the 23rd of this month in 1899, and died (you'll note the symmetry) in 1988. She was a late bloomer even by today's standards. She didn't begin exhibiting until she was in her 40's and wasn't really accepted in the art world until her 60's. Even then she was as at least as notorious for her strange costumes and mink false eyelashes ("a cross between Catherine the Great and a bag lady") as she was for her assemblages, which were once described by art historian Robert Rosenblum as being "junkyards of secular carpentry (transformed) into almost sacred altarpieces where light and shadow reign". Actually, this is an apt description... maybe she was unconsciously inspired by her father's ownership of a junkyard, but, in any case, her assemblages were created by found objects, and that which others discarded. She felt that, not only was she recreating the world but that she was likewise rescuing these objects and imbuing them with a new spiritual life.

I find her work enigmatic, futuristic and oddly refreshing; like something that might have lined the space capsule of Nicholas Roeg's "The Man Who Fell to Earth". Two of her works are featured below.

Nevelson - Case with Five Balusters, from Dawn’s Wedding Feast, 1959

Nevelson - Sky Cathedral (detail)

When I found the photo of Nevelson (above - top of post) I was dumbstruck by her powerful beauty and strength of character... I was also conscious of the fact that her variety of beauty is almost impossible to find in today's media circus, and we are all the more poor because of this lack. In reality, the youth of today are being indoctrinated to despise and marginalize the "elderly" and signs of aging in general, and aging women in particular, by the media. In part, this is hype generated by various corporations to sell cosmetics and other products. But, in the case of women, the tragedy is far deeper and more insidious than that. And nowhere is this more clear than in the case of creative, professional women. I'm not referring to the stars of television reality shows; I'm referring to real women who actually accomplish and contribute something enduring and meaningful to the history of human culture. To that end, and, as this is an art blog, I will be doing a series of posts about female artists in the coming weeks. And, like Louise Nevelson, they too, will be patron saints of this blog... courageous, full of beauty and character, and with a genius that is all too often overlooked. And, many of them will have lived and worked to a ripe old age, and not have been any less relevant for it.

Below is a video clip featuring some of Nevelson's works. For a glimpse of a music video inspired by her vision, try Nine Inch Nails'  "Me, I'm Not".
For a lengthy interview with the artist, click here.
The primary quote source for this post was Carol Diehl's Art in America article, "The World of Mrs. N".
Also, I've read that Dawns and Dusks is a definitive Nevelson resource.
And lastly, for those of you who'd love to own a Nevelson original, you might want to look into the work of her granddaughter, Maria... who, and I mean no disrespect, is either channeling her grandmother or is a direct reincarnation.


  1. COOL ART!!! Thank you for ferreting this out..and bringing her work to the light.

  2. I thought you, Bob, in particular, might be inspired by her work. She was (and still is), however, a major player, so I didn't have to do as much "ferreting" as I thought I might! ;-)

  3. Wonderful wonderful post! I was going to bring up art that was destroyed in 9/11 today but you did it far better than I could have. Thank you for breaking from the convention of today's burning buildings, and still getting to the heart of the matter. I think I have heard of Nevelson before, believe my mum took me to a gallery exhibition with some of Nevelson's stuff in it when I was a small child. I agree with you as well about the eclipse of an older, deeper and powerful female contribution and perspective (have a look at my post tomorrow if you get the chance). I'm very much looking fwd to seeing your series on female artists.

  4. Thanks T! You were lucky actually - I don't think I saw the inside of a museum till I was in my 20's.

    Women need examples of strong, creative, innovative & individualistic women to empower them. These women generally have remained outside of our reach due to a lop-sided, dysfunctional society. It's important to know them. It's important to expose them. It's important to celebrate them.

    I look forward to your post!