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Louise Nevelson (American, 1899-1988)


Birth Place: Kiev (Kijev oblast, Ukraine)

Louise Nevelson, an American sculptor famous for her monochromatic wooden wall pieces, was born Leah Berliawsky on September 23, 1899 in Czarist Russia. Her mother, Minna Sadie, was a contractor and her father, Isaac Berliawsky, sold lumber, operated a woodcutter and a junkyard, and later owned a lumberyard and realty business. While her fellow artists were designing and sculpting with iron and other metals, Louise, like her father, favored natural materials like wood.

The Berliawsky family immigrated to Maine in the United States in 1905, where they were part of a very small minority of Jewish families in Rockland. Minna regularly dressed herself and her children up in sophisticated “Old Country” clothing – embracing their unique identity in the community – while their minority status caused Isaac to fall into a deep depression. Louise later identified these fashion statements as her mother’s version of “art.”

Nevelson’s passion for art started in high school. When she wasn’t playing sports, Louise liked to draw and paint watercolor interiors. She did not go into art after graduating from high school. Instead, she worked as a stenographer at a law office in New York City. She met her future husband, Charles, through work contacts, and they were married in June of 1920 in Boston. Marrying a wealthy husband gave Louise the freedom and funds to start her artistic career. She studied the physical arts of acting, singing, and dancing, and later the fine arts of painting and drawing. Unfortunately, Charles expected Louise to be the ideal “socialite wife” instead of an artist. They divorced in 1941.

Louise Nevelson became famous for her “found objects” sculptures in the early 1940’s. It started with a shoeshine box displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She supplemented her income by teaching art classes, mostly sculpture, to adults. She moved away from found objects around that time and spent the rest of her career on wooden sculptures. Famous works include her first wall piece, Sky Cathedral, First Personage, and the Bride of the Black Moon. Critics described her techniques as “remarkable” and “unforgettable,” press which helped her become president of the Artists’ Equity’s New York Chapter in 1957. It was during the late 1950’s the Nevelson not only hit her stride as an artist but also made it into a financially stable career.

Nevelson experimented with other materials for her sculptures in the 1960’s (including plastic, metal, and aluminum). Princeton University commissioned her to create her first outdoor sculpture. This started a trend, and Nevelson’s outdoor artworks were also featured at the Walker Art Center, St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Manhattan. Nevelson’s legacy spanned religious iconology, celebrated monochromatic art, and is featured at several notable landmarks including the United States Courthouse in Philadelphia.

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