I have made my world and it is a much better world than I ever saw outside.
- Louise Nevelson
Creator of wood assemblages made from found objects and parts of furniture doused in black paint, she became the darling of the New York art world, especially during the last three decades of her life when her success was assured. Nevelson has been called "the most celebrated female sculptor in the history of American modernism"; she called herself the "Architect of Shadows," and looking at a typical selection of her art one can see why she dubbed herself that. Her signature work was the wall sculpture, which truly defies description or pigeonholing (probably what Nevelson wanted and desired more than anything). A constant in most of her works is the use of wood as her medium. She cultivated an artistic image, was thin and draped clothes haphazardly on her figure, smoked small cigars, and wore exceedingly long, fake eyelashes.
She was born in Kiev, Russia and at age five, moved with her family to Rockland, Maine where her father ran a lumber yard. In a town that was mostly Protestant, middle class, white people, she felt out of place as a Jew and an immigrant. In 1920, she moved to New York and married Charles Nevelson, whose "WASP" family she regarded as terribly stuffy. They had a son, and when he was nine years old, she went to Munich to study, separating from her husband and leaving her son for several years with her parents.
In 1959, she was one of "Sixteen Americans" in an important Museum of Modern Art exhibition. In the mid 1960s, she began welding found objects to welded steel, and directed a team of workers to make her black painted sculptures. For her, the color black symbolized harmony and continuity.
Nevelson’s refusal to conform to established disciplines led her to violate received ideas on the limits of sculpture and create her own. Caught between the three-dimensional imperatives of sculpture and the two-dimensional frontality of a painted canvas, her early affinity for assemblage betrays a sculptural and architectural aesthetic combined with a quintessentially painterly concern.
The daughter of a lumber merchant in Kiev, Nevelson had an innate affinity for wood. In her assemblages and installations she instinctively ordered and arranged the different forms that she gleaned from the detritus of society – bits of moulding, balustrade fragments, splintered wainscoting, strips of lath – with no premeditated thought to composition beyond a natural predilection for horizontal and vertical axes.
In her debut London show, hosted by the Hanover Gallery in 1963, she transformed the gallery space by installing architectural ‘walls’. In these iconic works, forms are assembled into a systematic grid of cells, similar-sized units in which volumetric roundness and curvilinear flatness vie against the rectilinear order of the stabilizing grid mechanism, offsetting the tension between irregular, organic forms and the constrictive confines of the cell. When amassed together these individual cells conjoin to create unfamiliar landscapes whose interpenetrating shapes form an open, tactile surface that offers no center of interest because of an all-over proliferation of detail.
Nevelson was by no means a pioneer in building her images from the debris of urban life: there are clear precedents in Marcel Duchamp and, in particular, Kurt Schwitters. By painting the elements black, however, she erased their previous history and semantic value, depriving them their power to trigger a concatenation of allusions. For all the particularity of her forms and the distinctiveness of her style, one cannot read off past events from the surfaces of her works. Her sculptures reveal the tarnishes, scars and inscriptions of previous lives but the matt black paint conceals their associative potential. Of more immediate concern for Nevelson are the quietly repeating forms and internal rhythms that become conspicuous as variable light creates complex shadow patterns across the black recesses of negative space and the blackened forms which mysteriously absorb and refract the light.