|Place of Birth||Pereyaslav, Russia (now Ukraine)|
|Place of Death||New York, NY, USA|
|Birth Name||Leah Berliawsky|
Louise Berliawsky was born into a Jewish family from Ukraine who emigrated, under duress of anti-Semitic persecution and pogroms, to Rockland, Maine. From the age of six, she struggled to fit into the waspy New England community and always felt like an outsider. In 1920, the Berliawsky family arranged their twenty-year-old daughter’s marriage to Charles Nevelson, whom she met through the clerical job that she took in Rockland after completing high school. Although she had vowed never to marry, she realized marrying Nevelson would lift her out of Maine and bring her to New York City, where she could pursue her dream of becoming an artist while also being the wife of this wealthy Jewish businessman.
Yet very early in her marriage, Nevelson realized she would not have the independence or freedom she desired because of her husband’s disapproving attitude. Nevelson’s parents held fairly progressive beliefs about women’s rights; as immigrants, they encouraged their children—regardless of sex—to seek opportunities in America that would not have been open to them as Jews living in Eastern Europe.1 In later interviews, Nevelson claimed that, prior their marriage, she and her husband discussed her ambitions to follow her creative dreams and agreed not to have children. Her plans were soon quashed by an unplanned pregnancy and by a husband who was unsupportive and even antagonistic about her art classes and singing lessons (she was, at this early stage, also interested in performing on stage). The 1920s were challenging for Nevelson: the once-vibrant and exuberant woman suffered from postpartum depression after her son’s birth in 1922 and then, feeling ill equipped for motherhood, largely delegated the responsibility of childrearing to nannies. Charles Nevelson’s financial fortunes also waned throughout the 1920s—a product of bad investments and the Depression—causing the couple to quarrel often and move to increasingly less glamorous quarters. But, she was able to dip her toes into the New York art world with Saturday classes in 1924 at the Art Students League with Anne Goldthwaite and later private lessons from the artist-couple Theresa Bernstein and William Meyerowitz. In the fall of 1929, she entered life class at the League with Kenneth Hayes Miller—Minna Citron, a future colleague at Atelier 17, was a classmate—and later Kimon Nicolaïdes’s afternoon sessions.2
As a way to escape the pressures of her marriage and motherhood, Nevelson left her son Mike in Rockland in the care of her parents and made an extended visit to Europe, first to Munich in September 1931 where she studied with Hans Hofmann and later to Paris in summer 1932. Once back in New York, Nevelson built significant professional momentum throughout the 1930s. While continuing classes at the League with Hans Hofmann and George Grosz, Nevelson also found employment in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as an art teacher, and she likely also participated in the sculpture division.
Nevelson’s big break came slightly later when she met the art dealer Karl Nierendorf, a recent transplant from Germany. He offered to host her first solo exhibition in September 1941, which mainly consisted of her polychrome-painted WPA sculptures, and the show opened to mostly positive reviews. She would have six more exhibitions with Nirendorf before his death in 1947 terminated their partnership. The frequency of her shows, sometimes two in a year, and their (mostly) critical success gave Nevelson enormous confidence. Throughout her time on “the Project” in the 30s and into the 40s, most of her sculpture reflected the influence of cubism, seen clearly in the blocky, rotatable components of pieces like Moving Static-Moving Figures (ca. 1945, Whitney Museum of American Art). But she also used the early 40s to explore a new dimension of her creativity with surrealism, which had begun to infiltrate the New York art world as more and more European expatriate artists arrived and began to disseminate their work and ideas.
Given her expanded interests and new network of colleagues, it is not surprising she sought out Hayter’s studio—known as a meeting place of exiled surrealists—just after having a hysterectomy in the spring of 1948. Although she did not immediately fall in love with printmaking, she returned to Atelier 17 four years later and completed twenty-nine new plates in rapid succession over the course of ten (nonconsecutive) months (September 1952 through May 1953 and briefly again in October 1954).3 By then in her early fifties, Nevelson had realized she would have to be far more aggressive about exhibiting her work publicly, if she wanted to continue building name recognition in the art world.4 Self-promotion aside, the introduction to making intaglio prints at Atelier 17 had major impacts on Nevelson’s progression as a sculptor.
Her assertive plate preparation accelerated her shift toward painted wood sculpture, which she began making in earnest by the mid-1950s and which cemented her artistic reputation. The generously inked or painted surfaces of both the Atelier 17 plates and these wood sculptures offer a clear through line from printmaking to sculpture.5 Furthermore, building the textures of her plates through additive processes—layering soft ground, aquatint, and stop-out varnish—also contributed to her switch from modeling clay to a constructivist junk aesthetic for her sculptures, for which she glued or nailed scraps of wood into spatial arrangements. So formative were Nevelson’s Atelier 17 prints to this transition that she hung them on the walls surrounding a selection of wood sculpture and terra-cotta pieces (incised, of course) in Ancient Games, Ancient Places (1955), the first of several career-defining exhibitions at Grand Central Moderns Gallery.6
Louise Nevelson papers, circa 1903-1988, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Laurie Lisle research material on Louise Nevelson, 1903–1989, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Baro, Gene. Nevelson: The Prints. New York: Pace Editions, 1974.
Glimcher, Arnold B. Louise Nevelson. New York: Praeger, 1972.
Johnson, Una. Louise Nevelson; Prints and Drawings, 1953-1966. Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Museum of Art, distributed by Shorewood Publishers, 1967.
Lisle, Laurie. Louise Nevelson: A Passionate Life. New York: Summit, 1990.
Nevelson, Louise. Dawns + Dusks: Taped Conversations with Diana MacKown. New York: Scribner, 1976.
Rapaport, Brooke Kamin, ed. The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend. New York and New Haven: The Jewish Museum and Yale University Press, 2007.
Weyl, Christina. “Innovative Etchings: Louise Nevelson at Atelier 17.” In American Women Artists, 1935-1970: Gender, Culture, and Politics, edited by Helen Langa and Paula Wisotzki, 127–43. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2016.
Wilson, Laurie. Louise Nevelson, Iconography and Sources. New York: Garland, 1981.
———. Louise Nevelson: Light and Shadow. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2016.
- Biographical information about Nevelson for this paragraph comes from Laurie Wilson’s biography: Laurie Wilson, Louise Nevelson: Light and Shadow (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2016), 33, 36, 53, 58–59, 66. ↩
- Student Registration card, Art Students League of New York. ↩
- The chronology of her second stint at Atelier 17 can be dated using the student ledger book, Allentown Art Museum, The Grippe Collection. The trigger for her prolific output at Atelier 17 might have been her son Mike Nevelson’s departure in late October 1952 for what was supposed to be a multiyear trip to Brazil. Thanks to Laurie Wilson for this insight. ↩
- Wilson, Louise Nevelson: Light and Shadow, 154–55; Louise Nevelson, Dawns + Dusks: Taped Conversations with Diana MacKown (New York: Scribner, 1976), 105. ↩
- Dido Smith advocated that Nevelson first experimented with black paint in her etchings. Dido Smith, interview by Laurie Wilson, June 21, 1977, courtesy Laurie Wilson; Dido Smith, “Louise Nevelson,” Craft Horizons, June 1967, 75. ↩
- The exhibition was originally titled Nevelson, Sculpture, Sculpture-Collages, Etchings. Wilson, Louise Nevelson: Light and Shadow, 162, 449n11. ↩