Written by Diyana J/ 29 October 2021
I took a deep dive into the world of sculptors, primarily taking an interest in those who used wood in their works. I came across Louise Nevelson, either by chance or fate. Here was a woman who wore heavy mascara atop her mink lashes, lavish fur coats and silk headscarves who spoke about her work as if she was speaking about herself. I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for in my research, only having started it with the goal of learning and there was too much to process from Nevelson.
I had never witnessed an individual who was as sure of themselves as much as Louise Nevelson was. It showed in the way she carried herself, with righteous purpose to live in every moment. She described her art as manifestations of energy. She spoke of her work as if they grew themselves, as if an other-worldly power had taken these discarded pieces of wood crates and broken furniture pieces from the streets, and put them together to form what she called ‘environments’.
Having worked on murals, paintings and textiles, she was known best for her large-scale sculptures that encouraged her audiences to interact with her larger than life works from various angles in different lighting conditions, indoors or outdoors. Looking at her work now, they feel like enclosures of her moods throughout the different stages of her life. Again, she was so sure of herself and absolutely ferocious in her pursuit of not just her work, but living authentically her life.
In one of her interviews, recently published by the Met, Nevelson talked about an event where she was having coffee with other artists and sculptors alike.
“So, I was sitting with these men, they were talking about art and being very fancy and things. One of them said to me, ‘Don’t you know Nevelson, you’ve got to have balls to be a sculptor. And I said, ‘Oh well, I’ve got balls.’ And they shut up." - Louise Nevelson
What she said shed some light upon the political scene of the arts in the 1950s – mainly the emergence of the Feminist Art Movement. There were those who ridiculed her works, saying that her grand sculptures that were painted all in black (with no hint of feminine gentleness), could not have been made by her, but were made by an unknown man. It seemed as if the Art World at the time had no idea what to make of Nevelson, because she was forceful, ferocious and unequivocally so in portraying what she wanted, the way she wanted it with no thought of those around her – even her female peers.
“I’m not a feminist. I’m an artist who appears to be a woman.” – Louise Nevelson.
Nevelson was portrayed in one of the most iconic feminist artworks by Mary Beth Edelson, called ‘Some Living American Women Artists/Last Supper 1972’.
One glance across a collection of Nevelson’s works, and you can tell her fascination with the colour black. She was completely convinced that black was the colour that encompasses all colours and not the negation of colour. She also experimented, with not just wood but metal and also plexiglass. Later in her career, she added white and gold to her works before returning back to all-black sculptures. Notably, she was one (if not only) of the sculptors who succeeded in repurposing discarded pieces of materials in her work. She used black to her advantage, concealing the history of wood or metal fragments, to envision these massive forms of her expression.
Interestingly enough, when one thinks of energy, you would perhaps associate it with a myriad of colours and bustling bolts of movement. But when I look at Nevelson’s work, primarily Sky Cathedral, it showed her roots in Cubism of geometric forms and abstract expressions which she was largely inspired by. She exaggerated these forms in ways that completed the bigger picture, without drawing the audience into the small details, forcing you to look at the ‘environment’ as a whole. These changed with the lighting conditions of the venue it was placed in. She made sure to cover windows and limit daylight, to engulf the audience in her work. On other occasions, she’d placed her sculptures outdoors where the weather and seasons would interact with them differently.
I could tell you many things about her; her struggle as an American Immigrant, her divorce with her estranged ‘Wall St’ husband, her decision to maintain her married name after said divorce because she did not want to ‘divorce her son.’ Nevelson emerged at the cusp of the Art Scene in America, and in such an era where women were thought to be only home-makers, wives and mothers, I believe Nevelson merely wanted, no needed, to be only herself.
She entered Depression when her son was sent to fight in the war. At the time, she started piling crates on top of each other and made sure they were entirely enclosed, draped in black velvet. Her art was for her visual eye, for herself and herself only. This sentiment struck a chord within me, as I read about her and watched her interviews, listening to her speak about how the public viewed her. Of course, it’s natural to called her ‘an ambitious woman’ but in return she said,
“Sure, I’m ambitious but (that) isn’t the way I put it. I feel that if you have energy, if you have great desires, you create energy yourself. Because if you don’t have those, well… you can have a nice life.”
She spoke of the differences between a ‘nice life’ and something much, much more.