Louise Nevelson

Scavenger Par Excellence, Wandering Jewess.

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Reaching Success

After another solo show in 1942, Nevelson was included in the Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Sculpture, Watercolors, and Drawings at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1946, and would show in that exhibit 13 times over the next 27 years.

In 1952, she was featured in the National Association of Women Artists annual exhibit, and she showed in several one person shows in the following years at the Lotte Jacobi Gallery and at Grand Central Moderns.

In 1958, renowned critic Hilton Kramer published “The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson” in Art Magazine, and the next year, Nevelson’s Dawn’s Wedding Feast (1959), a room-sized installation, appeared at the Museum of Modern Arts’ show Sixteen Americans.

In 1978, many exhibitions later, New York City mayor Abraham Beame named the downtown triangle surrounded by Maiden Lane, William Street, and Liberty Street the Louise Nevelson Plaza. The plaza is being redesigned to be completed in the fall of 2007.

Memories of Her Past

Nevelson considered her father—a woodcutter and junk collector—an influence on her wooden sculpture scavenger hunting. Yet, she maintained a complicated connection to her father and his steadfast shtetl ways of life. Biographers have suggested she exhibited "surprisingly little curiosity about her homeland," falling prey to "selective amnesia often found among this generation of immigrants."

Laurie Lisle's 1990 biography notes that Nevelson deliberately signed some works "Louise Neverlands" and never revealed her original name after changing it upon arriving in America. "She discarded her past for a number of reasons, notably the pain of growing up a poor Jewish girl in an insular Yankee town, and later the difficulty of being a rebellious woman in a patriarchal society," Lisle wrote.

At age 35, Nevelson reflected, "I often hear the remark 'Oh! if I could be a child again,' but somehow, for myself, I am always so busy living in the present that I never look back to relive my childhood but more to search the 'why and wherefore' of things of the present."

Yet despite her cultural and ancestral ambivalence, Nevelson chose to infuse her work with deep Jewish content, becoming one of the most significant modern artists and female artists of the 20th century.

Holocaust Memorials?

Nevelson gave no indication why she devoted several pieces to memorializing the Holocaust. As an artist who had experienced anti-Semitism both in Ukraine and in the United States, one can speculate that the subject matter must have affected her deeply. But such inquiry remains speculation, and Nevelson called her works abstract and insisted they “transcended” religion. 

However one views Nevelson's connection to her religious heritage, Arnold B. Glimcher's charge in his 1976 book that Nevelson's Homage to 6,000,000 (1964) was not a Holocaust reference is nothing short of absurd. "The title, like all of Nevelson's titles, is a designation for purposes of identification," Glimcher wrote, as if Nevelson's could have just as well titled her work "Untitled #237." Nevelson created two versions of the Homage, one of which resides at the Israel Museum. Nevelson hoped the works would create "a living presence of a people who have triumphed. They rose far and above the greatest that was inflicted upon them. I hear all over this earth a livingness and a presence of these peoples ... They have given us a livingness."

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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.