Louise Nevelson

Scavenger Par Excellence, Wandering Jewess.

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Louise Nevelson is best known as a renaissance woman who blurred the boundaries between sculpture and assemblage, collage and woodworking.

At first glance, her art looks like discarded junk. Nevelson, who died in 1988, collected wood from the street corners of Manhattan and placed them in boxes she’d built, painting the entire business with a monochromatic coat (first black, then white and gold). The heaps of boxes filled with assorted shapes (with a variety of textures from splintered to smooth wood, often with errant nails sticking out) could be confused with an abandoned factory, with alien machines that long ago ceased to function.

“When you put together things that other people have thrown out,” she maintained, “you’re really bringing them to life--spiritual life that surpasses the life for which they were originally created.” Indeed, Nevelson’s sculptures-paintings-collages appear far too orderly to be trash.

Uncomfortable Memories

Louise Nevelson was born Leah Berliawsky in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1899. Eventually, the Berliawskys left for America, settling in Rockland, Maine in 1905. As an Orthodox Jew she faced discrimination from her peers. Yet, with the help of a friendly local Roman Catholic priest and funds from the New York-based Abraham and Straus department store the Berliawskys helped found Adas Yeshuron, Congregation of the People of Israel in Rockland.

Still, Nevelson’s memories were primarily uncomfortable ones: “We were an immigrant family, foreigners in a Daughters of the Revolution town ... they needed foreigners like I need ten holes in my head.”

Budding Artist

Nevelson studied full time at the Art Students League in New York from 1929 to 1930. Forever racing against the grain, in 1931 Nevelson traveled to Munich at a time when Jews were trying to flee to study with renowned German abstract expressionist Hans Hoffman. Through Hoffman, Nevelson fell in love with Cubism, an encounter she described as “like when some people find God, and I have never left it.”

And yet, Nevelson would leave cubism and lay the groundwork for the later craze for installation art. After a second trip to Europe (this time, Paris), Nevelson enrolled in the Art Students League again in 1932, studying with Hoffman, who had managed to immigrate to New York. Over the next two years, she worked in Mexican muralist Diego Rivera’s studio (1932), studied sculpture with Jewish sculptor Chaim Gross at the Educational Alliance (1933), and explored life drawing and painting with George Grosz at the Art Students League (1934).

Her first exhibit came in 1934, when she showed several paintings at Gallery Secession in New York. Her first museum show came the next year, when she exhibited terra-cotta sculptures at the Brooklyn Museum. In 1941, the Nierendorf Gallery (NY) exhibited the first solo show of Nevelson’s work, which received complimentary reviews from the New York World-Telegram and the New York Herald Tribune. Nevelson showed her work at that gallery for the next seven years.

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Menachem Wecker

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He lives in Washington, D.C.