‘Being an Artist is a state of mind’: Louise Nevelson’s Creative Drive
On the 17th of April 1988, American sculptor Louise Nevelson died in New York. Regarded as one of the most significant figures of 20th-century American sculpture, she serves as an example of incredible persistence in fulfilling one’s personal ambition. Born to Jewish parents in Tsarist Russia in 1899, at the age of six she moved with her family to America, where she soon discovered her inner calling to become an artist: “I knew that I was gifted because from the day you go to school, your teachers know what you have. At least they did in my school. In Maine, over seventy years ago, they felt I was an artist. They just knew it. Something about me projected it, even as a child, and I knew it. Some people are born a certain way. They really are, no doubt about it. Caruso had a voice when he was born. Well, others had voices but he had the combination. Then he built on it. You have something, then you devote your life to building on it. Now I evidently came from a place, maybe it was the home and the environment and all that. It made me feel like a high-powered engine. I had energy. So it does mean that some of us are born with these constitutions from birth. We’re born a certain way.” (Lynn Gilbert, Gaylen Moore, Particular Passions: Louise Nevelson)
Once set on her ambition, she was unstoppable. Despite her marriage to the wealthy entrepreneur Charles Nevelson in 1920, Nevelson persisted on her own path towards achieving her personal goal. Regardless of her in-law’s disapproval, she began studying painting, drawing, singing, acting and dancing, and after a final realisation that she was never going to be able to fulfil her husband’s expectations of becoming ‘the socialite wife’, she separated and eventually divorced him. She then entered a period of hardship and financial struggle, for she refused to ask her ex-husband for any form of support. In order to finance her trip to Europe, she sold a diamond bracelet he had gifted her at the birth of their only son Myron (Mike). She was thus able to go to Munich where she studied art with Hans Hofmann, also visiting Italy and France on her return journey to New York. Here, she met Diego Rivera in 1933 and worked as his assistant. They were briefly involved romantically, causing distress to Diego’s wife, Frida Kahlo.
In terms of her artistic career, she gradually became more aware of her inclination towards sculpture. After joining Chaim Gross’ sculpture classes at the Educational Alliance, she started experimenting with plaster, clay and tattistone. But the sculptures that would eventually become her signature works were produced of found objects. Allegedly, the inspiration for using found objects came from the period when the artist and her son were forced to go around the streets of New York searching for wood for their fireplace during hard times. Initially she started with small assemblages bearing strong Cubist influences, but with time her sculptures grew in size. “…[I]t was not until the early 1950s that Nevelson began to amass a large collection of wood fragments of all kinds. At that point her fundamental working process became a routine. First she painted each piece black (or later also white or gold), then stacked and stored the fragments wherever she could ﬁnd room. Eventually she assembled the parts into big, abstract constructions with a hammer and nails. In 1956 or 1957 Nevelson started to use milk crates and other wood boxes as containers in which to compose small, recessed reliefs, which could then be stacked or otherwise combined. This method allowed her to make ever larger assemblages out of what were initially tabletop pieces.” (Elyse Deeb Speaks, Experiencing Louise Nevelson’s Moon Garden, American Art, Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer 2007).
Calling herself ‘the original recycler’, she produced works that would cover entire gallery walls. Their complexity and enormity was overwhelming to the point that some critics found it hard to acknowledge that they were produced by a female artist. “A reviewer of her 1941 exhibition at Nierendorf Galery stated: “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.” Another review was equally blatant in its sexism: “Nevelson is a sculptor; she comes from Portland, Maine. You’ll deny both these facts and you might even insist Nevelson is a man… showing this month at the Nierendorf Gallery.”” (Brooke Kamin Rapaport, The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend, New York: Jewish Museum of New York, 2007). This very stereotypical rift between masculine and feminine art, still prevalent at the time, turned her into an active advocate of the feminist art movement. She believed that there was no such thing as gender-determined art and that art should not be perceived in such categories at all. She saw herself not as a female artist but as an individual with a highly individualistic vision. She worked hard, and what she achieved, had nothing to do with the fact that she was a woman but rather with her personal qualities, which she used for her own benefit. “No one knows how much I struggled. The work was all right. I could do that but, yes, there were depressions… At sea, at sea, what can it be that I remain so long at sea?” Yes, but I pulled out. I hunted and found a few notes that have sustained me for the rest of my life.” (Gilbert, Moore)
Featured Image: Cecil Beaton