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Visual Arts  

The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson
By Cynthia Kirkeby
Jan 7, 2008, 11:28 PST

Photo © Alexander Harte 2007

Constructing a Legend

© Nevelson - Photo © Alexander Harte 2007
Louise Nevelson was a Ukrainian immigrant, recognized as one of America’s most distinguished artists, whose work is still changing the face of contemporary sculpture long after her death. Through January 13, 2008, her work will be on exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.
© Nevelson - Photo © Alexander Harte 2007
The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend, was organized by the Jewish Museum in New York. The exhibit brings together many pieces that have not been seen at the same time since they were originally shown by the artist.

An assemblage artist, Nevelson collected found objects on strolls through her community, which she then combined into collections that she painted in monochromatic white, black, or even gold. The effect is to lose the identity of the individual components to a point and view the assemblage as shapes that tell parts of a story. Now random pieces of wood take on the shape of sunflowers or railings and cans may combine with other pieces to become columns. Her father was a woodworker, which is evident in her choice of wood fragments as the primary components in most of her sculptures.

Homage to 6,000,000 I By Nevelson - Photo by © Alexander Harte 2007

The works in this unusual exhibit span Nevelson’s career. Pieces from her black, white, and gold periods create separate environments within the museum. Homage to 6,000,000 I creates a massive curved wall made up of individual boxes. Each box is the same, yet the interiors are each different. This huge installation speaks of the unbelievable number of Jews who died during the holocaust. Perhaps for her, each box was the remnants of a separate life, all combining into a formidable wall of remembrance.

The installations from her black phase are in a section lit by a low blue light. Your eyes slowly accustom themselves to the dimly lit forms. Apparently, Nevelson originally wanted to exhibit these works in a dark room with no light at all, so that visitors would have to feel their way through her work, but she was eventually talked into showing the exhibit with a dim blue light. The de Young Museum is the first to try to replicate the way the artist originally showed her work.

Dawn's Wedding Feast By Nevelson - Photo by © Alexander Harte 2007
Looking at Nevelson's work makes you much more aware of the shadows that play around and within an object. The shapes she chose to create her pieces are intriguing, but the shadows are mesmerizing. Her friend Howard Lipman once showed her a beautiful antique chair and asked her what she thought. "I couldn't care less about the chair," she said, "but look at its shadow," she exclaimed.

A large installation called Dawn’s Wedding Feast is from her white period is almost as complete as it was during it’s first exhibition. The curator was able to track down almost all of its original components, and they are on view together for the first time in decades. This “wedding party” is complete with bride, groom, and wedding guests, and is rife with symbolism.

The catalogue that was created for this exhibit by the Jewish Museum and Yale University is considered the most extensive study of Louise Nevelson in 25 years, and is definitely worth reading for anyone interested in the contemporary art movement.

Classroom Project: Constructing Our Identities

  • Collect a group of shoe boxes, all the same size, one for each student.
  • Have each student bring in a collection of “found items” from home. These should consist of things that were trashed or can be thrown away, since they will be painted.
  • Paint all of the items and shoe boxes (inside and out) monochromatic. You can use spray paint or tempera paint (if you’re painting anything that is glass or slick surfaced, add a little dab of liquid soap to the tempera paint and it will be able to cling to the surface).
  • Each student should assemble their items inside their box.
  • Assemble all of the boxes into a wall, wall or walls, and photograph the exhibit.


  • Have students chose the color they want their items painted: black, white, or gold. Assemble the “walls” by color.
  • Have students paint each item monochromatic, but each item can be ANY color they choose: black, red, green, blue, etc. Assemble the boxes by color palette.

Secondary Projects:

Have each student write an essay about the items they chose for their box, the significance of how they assembled the individual pieces, and how they view the overall assemblage with the other students.

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