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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Louise Nevelson

Some of us who are starting to get "up in years" so to speak, may be starting to think in terms of our "life's work" and if we'll ever come to a point where we'll be "known" to some degree, revered, collected, or able to live comfortably only from our art. For those who sometimes ponder such things, we can all take heart from this lady. She was born in 1899 in Kiev, Russia. As a child, her family moved to the great state of Maine where at the tender age of nine she proclaimed her desire to become a sculptor. Now, fast-forward thirty-five years to 1943. She has her first exhibition as an artist. Add to that another twenty years. She's sixty-four before she's able to support herself from her art.  In between is a lot of studying abroad, relying on the goodness of her family, and even selling her jewelry to have money to live on. Her name was Louise Nevelson.

White Vertical, 1972,
Louise Nevellson
Art critics and historians love superlatives. They give credence to what they write about. Louise Nevelson has been crowned by those who bestow such blessings, as "the most celebrated female sculptor in the history of American modernism." It sounds good though some might find a few too many qualifiers in such a distinction. Let's just say she's the most outstanding female sculptor of this century...well...actually, the two centuries!  Geesh, there haven't actually been all that many female sculptors, has there?  Of the top of my head, I can't even think of one...certainly none that comes close to the extraordinarily distinctive, quiet, complex beauty that marks her signature work. The mere mention of her name conjures up images of large, darkly painted grids of ingeniously composed wooden collages. Whether using found shapes or machine-crafted spindles and knobs, her work is endlessly fascinating and quietly pleasant to contemplate. There is an orderliness overlain with an excitement akin to opening presents on Christmas morning.

Couple, 1935-40, Louise Nevelson, 
a free-standing work in plaster,
displaying her cubist influences.
(Courtesy: Dr. Fred Rothchild)

One of the things that sets Nevelson apart from many other artists of all stripes is that she does not observe any hierarchy of mediums. At a time when other sculptors were welding steel, she was "sawing logs." Materials of all kinds show up in her work from wood, paper, and cloth to Plexiglas, lead, bronze and plaster (as seen at right). Another distinction regarding her work is its potential for interchangeability. Her hallmark environmental sculptures of the 1950s had designed into them the capability for their being rearranged, often in nearly endless combinations making them dynamic, not in the sense of a Calder mobile, but as evolving entities driven either by the artist or the owner. Her lack of preference for one sculpture medium over another allows her an incredible range of creative possibilities, either in terms of mixing or matching. Beyond her work though, I can't help thinking of Louise Nevelson as an excellent role model for artists today--study endlessly, persevere always, work perpetually, and wait patiently.  Time has a way of recognizing talent and integrity.

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