Louise Nevel­son: Light and Shadow

  • Review
By – May 3, 2016

The long-lived sculp­tor Louise Nevel­son took part in every major devel­op­ment in 20th cen­tu­ry art — from prim­i­tivism through cubism, abstract expres­sion­ism, pop art, and more. Nevel­son her­self was a larg­er-than-life crea­ture, often don­ning out­ra­geous cos­tumes for dra­mat­ic effect. 

The author, clear­ly an unbri­dled admir­er, has researched Nevelson’s life so exten­sive­ly that the book could be read as a his­to­ry of 20th cen­tu­ry art, with a par­tic­u­lar focus on the New York scene. The author is both an art his­to­ri­an and a psy­cho­an­a­lyst, and her nar­ra­tive includes much ana­lyt­ic com­ment regard­ing Nevelson’s fraught rela­tion­ship with her sis­ters, who pro­vid­ed life­long sup­port to Louise.

Nevelson’s fam­i­ly, the Berli­awskys, set­tled in Maine at the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry, hav­ing emi­grat­ed from Ukraine to escape pogroms. Louise left by mar­ry­ing the wealthy Charles Nevel­son, with whom she had one son. She aban­doned both in order to live alone and pur­sue her art. Her son Mike reestab­lished rela­tions with his moth­er and the book details their relationship. 

Most inter­est­ing are the artist’s rela­tion­ships with her art deal­ers, who includ­ed some of the best-known: Martha Jack­son, Sid­ney Janis, and Pace deal­er Arne Glim­ch­er, her ulti­mate sup­port­er. Sex­u­al­ly lib­er­at­ed, Nevel­son exploit­ed some of her per­son­al liaisons for assis­tance with her art. Many devot­ed friend­ships are described as well, in par­tic­u­lar that with her assis­tant Diane Mack­own. Much as Nevel­son cre­at­ed art, she cre­at­ed her own per­sona. Some­times the charis­ma got in the way of the facts, but that nev­er impact­ed her friendships.

While Nevel­son was active in the art world for decades with­out much suc­cess, her break­through came with the recog­ni­tion that came for her box­es — cre­ations of wood, met­al, paper and found objects that were orig­i­nal­ly ana­lyzed as light and shad­ow” by the high­ly respect­ed art crit­ic Hilton Kramer of The New York Times. These large for­ma­tions were per­son­al­ly installed by Nevel­son and even­tu­al­ly exhib­it­ed in muse­ums and gal­leries across the Unit­ed States and Europe. Her lega­cy includes many per­ma­nent­ly installed mon­u­men­tal sculp­tures in out­door spaces.

Wil­son also details Nevelson’s search for spir­i­tu­al­i­ty in what she referred to as the fourth dimen­sion,” undoubt­ed­ly relat­ed to her abid­ing iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with Sur­re­al­ism. She lat­er claimed to be psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly helped by the Indi­an mas­ter Krish­na­mur­ti. Nevel­son was seem­ing­ly obliv­i­ous to dai­ly com­forts, often liv­ing with bare essen­tials, but she man­aged to take trips to prim­i­tive archae­o­log­i­cal sites to seek inspi­ra­tion for her sculp­tures. Wil­son dis­cuss­es the artist’s sig­na­ture use of black, then white, and, for a short peri­od, gold in pre­sent­ing her archi­tec­tur­al” creations.

Wil­son has fine-combed Nevelson’s long life and career, leav­ing no detail, com­ment, or review unex­plored. The result is an exhaus­tive and end­less­ly inter­est­ing win­dow into both the artist and her work — which are inex­tri­ca­bly tied. 

Relat­ed Content:

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

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