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The Fabulous Louise Nevelson

Dawns + dusks : taped conversations with Diana MacKown Nevelson, Louise, 1899-1988 New York : Scribner, c1976

Dawns + dusks : taped conversations with Diana MacKown
Nevelson, Louise, 1899-1988
New York : Scribner, c1976

Tomorrow, September 23, is the birthday of artist Louise Nevelson.  Her wall sculpture, Night Zag Wall, is on view in Crystal Bridges’ Twentieth-Century Art Gallery.  I am inordinately fond of Nevelson, as much for her flamboyant outfits, over-the-top make-up, and indomitable spirit as for the work she produced.  She had things her way.  She simply would not take any other path.  And she did it all FABULOUSLY.  If you have never read the delightful collection of recorded conversations with Nevelson, Dawns and Dusks, you must do so.  You can view it in the Crystal Bridges Library.  I highly recommend it. Louise Nevelson’s story is typical of women of her time and station in many ways. She was married at age 21 to a well-to-do man whose family expected her to be a proper society lady.  Due to these expectations, and the fact that she soon had a child, Nevelson had very little formal training in art. After ten years of marriage, she divorced her husband. Always outspoken and colorful, she would later say, “No more marriages for me. Because I recognized the bondage….It’s a lot of work and it’s not that interesting. I wouldn’t marry God if he asked me.” After her divorce, Nevelson traveled and studied with artists such as Hans Hofmann, Chaim Gross, and Diego Rivera. She taught art classes for the WPA. She had her first solo exhibition—of paintings, primarily—at the age of 42. Critics were complimentary, but put off by her gender. A critic for Cue magazine wrote: “We learned the artist is 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…. you might even insist Nevelson is a man, when you see her Portraits in Paint.”

Louise Nevelson "Night Zag Wall," 1969-1974 Painted wood

Louise Nevelson
“Night Zag Wall,” 1969-1974
Painted wood

So how could an artist have triumphed in the face of such unreasonable prejudice?  “In Nevelson’s case, she was the most ferocious artist there was,” said Museum President Don Bacigalupi.  “She was the most determined, the most forceful, the most difficult. She just forced her way in. And so that was one way to do it, but not all women chose to or could take that route.” When the women’s movement began, Nevelson eschewed the title of “feminist.” But she also had no time for women who bowed to the male-dominated status quo.  “They were taught to look pretty and throw little handkerchiefs around but never to show that they had what it takes,” she said.  “Well, I didn’t recognize that, and I never never played that role. If you play that role, you don’t build an empire.” Nevelson didn’t find her true métier until she began working in wood after the beginning of WWII. She had been working in metal, and when steel became scarce due to the war, she began scavenging wood scraps.  She produced her first series of sculptures in wood at age 55. At age 60 Nevelson was asked to be part of an exhibition titled “16 Americans” at MOMA, along with young male artists such as Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, and Robert Rauschenberg: all under the age of 40. She had finally “arrived.” Nevelson was awarded the Edward MacDowell Medal in 1969. After the presentation ceremony, a woman in the audience asked Nevelson if she would have been satisfied with her life in art if  “it had turned out that after all you weren’t first-rate.” To this the artist answered: “It never occurred to me to be anything else.”

Linda DeBerry
Senior Copy Editor / Publications Manager

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