The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend

May 5 - September 16, 2007

Louise Nevelson, a towering figure in 20th-century American art, continues to inspire artists today through her pioneering installations and sculptures made of found wood. This exhibition, the first major survey of Nevelson’s work since 1980, includes 66 sculptures, works on paper, and two room-size masterworks.

Louise Nevelson constructed her sculpture much as she constructed her past: shaping each with her legendary sense of self as she created an extraordinary iconography through abstract means. Nevelson (1899 – 1988) was recognized during her lifetime as one of America’s most prominent and innovative sculptors. The sculpture for which she is best known was made of cast-off wood parts – actual street throwaways – transformed with monochromatic spray paint. Through her elegant room-size works, Nevelson regularly summoned themes linked to her complicated past, fractious present, and anticipated future. Whether expressed literally or metaphorically, in representational paintings or outsize abstract sculpture, in early self-portraits or edgy middle-year projects, Nevelson’s sense of selfhood was a force that propelled her work. The exhibition is the first major American museum survey of Nevelson’s work in this country in a generation.

Born Leah Berliawsky, Nevelson came to America in 1905 from Kiev in the Ukraine. Unlike the majority of Eastern European Jews who moved to urban centers in the United States, Isaac and Minna Berliawsky and their children settled in Rockland, Maine. As Eastern Europeans, the Berliawskys never fully assimilated into the chaste New England community. Nevelson was aware of her standing as a foreigner, until she came to embrace this feeling of “otherness” and used it to advance her work. Her goal was to leave Rockland to live in New York City. In 1918, she met a Jewish cargo ship owner, Charles Nevelson. The two were married in 1920 and moved to New York. They separated in 1931 and Louise Nevelson pursued her art.

The artist’s personal story – her migration to America, her initial struggle as a woman artist, and the march of modern art movements such as Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, feminism, and installation – form a rich platform from which to view Nevelson’s compelling sculpture. The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend will include a group of self-portraits dating from the 1940s to the 1960s and the installation of two room-size masterworks, Dawn’s Wedding Feast (1959) and Mrs. N’s Palace (1964 – 77). Dawn’s Wedding Feast was constructed specifically for an influential Museum of Modern Art show, Sixteen Americans. Mrs. N’s Palace is considered the artist’s culminating environment: it is a 20-foot-wide black sculpture evoking a house. The exhibition includes rarely displayed examples of the artist’s works on paper dating from the 1920s to the 1980s. Nevelson’s public art projects are also considered for the first time within the context of her oeuvre, as is her influence on contemporary artists in a video made for the exhibition.

The exhibition, curated by guest curator, Brooke Kamin Rapaport, includes sixty-six works drawn from international private and public collections such as The Art Institute of Chicago, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Menil Collection, Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, the Walker Art Center and the Hyogo Prefectural Museum and the Osaka City Museum of Modern Art, both in Japan.

The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend is made possible by major grants from The Henry Luce Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Irving Schneider and Family. Important support has been provided by the Lipman Family Foundation, Mildred and George Weissman, Elise Jaffe + Jeffrey Brown, the Joseph Alexander Foundation, the Dedalus Foundation, Rita and Burton Goldberg, and other donors.
The exhibition catalogue is generously underwritten by the Homeland Foundation.