Louise Nevelson (1899-1988) is the leading sculptor of the 20th century. An immigrant refugee fleeing pogroms in her native Ukraine, Nevelson was brought by her parents to Rockland, Maine.
From an early age Nevelson was intent on becoming a sculptor, marry and move to New York. She is best known for wooden assemblages of discarded objects found on the streets of New York painted uniformly in black or white, with a brief period in gold spray paint.
Nevelson's career stretches across nearly her entire lifespan. Travel and study in Europe and study at the Art Student League in the New York City is evident in her early works inspired by surrealism and cubism. She established her trademark style in the 1950s, expanding that with amazing creativity until her death forty years later. With her Moon Garden + One installation at the former Grand Central Moderns Gallery, Nevelson invented the idea of sculpture presented as complete environment.
Nevelson championed public art. At the beginning of her career she was one of a large number of artists working nation-wide in depression-era WPA initiatives. As part of this program she taught art in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Nevelson returned to public projects later in life and developed new approaches to sculpting with CorTen steel.
Nevelson then and now: her enduring legacy
While public recognition of Nevelson's genius came later in her career than most, it came to her with intensity and to the end of her life. In 1983 Nevelson received the Gold Medal for Sculpture from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1985 she was one of the first recipients of the National Medal of Arts. John Russell, The New York Times, wrote in the Nevelson obituary: “Mrs. Nevelson was… among the most arresting women of her time and a pioneer creator of environmental sculpture who became one of the world’s best-known artists.”
As today’s art historians re-examine lost greats of the modern era, Louise Nevelson is continually referenced as a model artist of the 20th century, someone who includes in her oeuvre the great value and energy in the life of the city, and an equal value and importance in the human aspect of that life.
Nevelson created Chapel of the Good Shepherd in 1977 as a commissioned piece for the “new” Saint Peter’s Church at Citigroup Center (now 601 Lexington Avenue) in Midtown Manhattan. In so doing she built a human-scaled space of quiet contemplation among the impersonal skyscrapers of the modern city. Today, as historians of art and architecture are recognizing the gradual loss of our cities’ human-scale spaces to an urbanism focused on security and pressured by commercialism, Nevelson’s legacy offers respite and inspiration.