Louise Nevelson


Kiev 1899 - NEW YORK 1988

Louise Nevelson was born Leah Berliawsky in 1899 in Perislav, Poltava Governorate, Russian Empire, to Minna Sadie and Isaac Berliawsky, a contractor and lumber merchant. Even though the family lived comfortably, Nevelson's relatives had begun to leave the Russian Empire for America in the 1880s. The Berliawskys had to stay behind, as Isaac, the youngest brother, had to care for his parents. While still in Europe, Minna gave birth to two of Nevelson's siblings: Nathan (born 1898) and Anita (1902). On his mother's death, Isaac moved to the United States in 1902. After he left, Minna and the children moved to the Kiev area. According to family lore, young Nevelson was so forlorn about her father's departure that she became mute for six months. 
In 1905 Minna and the children emigrated to the United States, where they joined Isaac in Rockland, Maine. He worked as a woodcutter before opening a junkyard. Eventually he became a successful lumberyard owner and realtor. 
Nevelson's first experience of art was at the age of nine at the Rockland Public Library, where she saw a plaster cast of Joan of Arc. Shortly thereafter she decided to study art, taking drawing in high school. She painted watercolor interiors, in which furniture appeared molecular in structure, rather like her later professional work. Female figures made frequent appearances.
Unhappy with her family's economic status, language differences, the religious discrimination of the community, and her school, Nevelson set her sights on moving to high school in New York. 
She graduated from high school in 1918, and began working as a stenographer at a local law office. There she met Charles Nevelson and they got married in June 1920 in a Jewish wedding at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston. Having satisfied her parent's hope that she would marry into a wealthy family, she and her new husband moved to New York City, where she began to study painting, drawing, singing, acting and dancing. She also became pregnant, and in 1922 she gave birth to her son Myron (later called Mike), who grew up to be a sculptor. In 1924 the family moved to Mount Vernon, New York, a popular Jewish area of Westchester County. During the winter of 1932–1933 she separated from Charles, unwilling to becoming the socialite wife he expected her to be.  
Starting in 1929, Nevelson studied art full-time under Kenneth Hayes Miller and Kimon Nicolaides at the Art Students League. Nevelson credited an exhibition of Noh kimonos at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a catalyst for her to study art further. In Munich she studied with Hans Hofmann before visiting Italy and France. Returning to New York in 1932 she once again studied under Hofmann, who was serving as a guest instructor at the Art Students League. She met Diego Rivera in 1933 and worked as his assistant on his mural Man at the Crossroads at Rockefeller Plaza. The two had an affair which caused a rift between Nevelson and Rivera's wife, Frida Kahlo, an artist Nevelson greatly admired. Shortly thereafter, Nevelson started taking Chaim Gross's sculpture classes at the Educational Alliance. She continued to experiment with other artistic mediums, including lithographyand etching, but decided to focus on sculpture. Her early works were created from plaster, clay and tattistone. During the 1930s Nevelson began exhibiting her work in group shows. In 1935, she taught mural painting at the Madison Square Boys and Girls Club in Brooklyn as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). She worked for the WPA in the easel painting and sculpture divisions until 1939. Her work during the 1930s explored sculpture, painting and drawing. Early ink and pencil drawings of nudes show the same fluidity seen in the works of Henri Matisse. Nevelson also created terra-cotta semi-abstract animals and oil paintings. 
In the 1940s, she began producing Cubist figure studies in materials such as stone, bronze, terra cotta, and wood. 
During the 1950s, Nevelson exhibited her work as often as possible. Yet despite awards and growing popularity with art critics, she continued to struggle financially. 
Her own work began to grow to monumental size, moving beyond the human scale sized works she had been creating during the early 1940s. Nevelson also visited Latin America, and discovered influences for her work in Mayan ruins and the steles of Guatemala. 
In 1958 the Museum of Modern Art purchased one of Nevelson's Sky Cathedral works, and in 1959 Nevelson was included in MoMA's Sixteen Americans exhibition
In the early 1960s, she began creating white and gold pieces, and enclosing her small sculptures in wooden boxes. The change in scale of her sculptures, the influence of Latin American ancient art, and her gallery activity during this time is credited with bringing "Nevelson's sculpture in league with the grand scale of Abstract Expressionist painting, as well as the earlier mural painting of Rivera.
From 1957 to 1958, she was president of the New York Chapter of Artists' Equity and in 1958 she joined the Martha Jackson Gallery, where she was guaranteed income and became financially secure. That year, she was photographed and featured on the cover of Life. In 1960 she had her first one-woman show in Europe, in Paris. Later that year a collection of her work was included in the group show, "Sixteen Americans", at the Museum of Modern Art alongside Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. In 1962 she made her first museum sale to the Whitney Museum of American Art, who purchased the black wall, Young Shadows. That same year, her work was selected for the 31st Venice Biennale and she became national president of Artists' Equity, serving until 1964. 
In 1967 the Whitney Museum hosted the first retrospective of Nevelson's work, showing over one hundred pieces, including drawings from the 1930s and contemporary sculptures.
In 1964 she created two works: Homage to 6,000,000 I and Homage to 6,000,000 II as a tribute to victims of The Holocaust. Nevelson hired several assistants over the years: Teddy Haseltine, Tom Kendall, and Diana Mackown, who helped in the studio and handled daily affairs. By this time, Nevelson had solidified commercial and critical success. 
Nevelson continued to utilize wood in her sculptures, but also experimented with other materials such as aluminium, plastic and metal. In the fall of 1969 she was commissioned by Princeton University to create her first outdoor sculpture. Nevelson also praised new materials like plexiglas and cor-ten steel, which she described as a "blessing". She embraced the idea of her works being able to withstand climate change and the freedom in moving beyond limitations in size. These public artworks were created by the Lippincott Foundry and were a monetary success.
In 1973 the Walker Art Center curated a major exhibition of her work, which traveled for two years. In 1975 she designed the chapel of St. Peter's Lutheran Church in midtown Manhattan. When asked about her role as a Jewish artist creating Christian-themed art, Nevelson stated that her abstract work transcended religious barriers. 
Nevelson died on April 17, 1988. 


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