Life & Culture

The most important artwork you haven’t seen before

Sculptor Louise Nevelson is a legend in America, but almost unknown over here.


This year, the London art world spotlight is falling on the work of Jewish sculptors. Next week, the Ben Uri Gallery opens an exhibition of drawings by the renowned Lithuanian-born sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, and Anish Kapoor and Sir Jacob Epstein will both be featuring at the Royal Academy in the autumn.

And this week an exhibition of the work of American abstract expressionist Louise Nevelson opened at the Louise Blouin Foundation in Notting Hill.

In America, Nevelson’s is a celebrated name, her works often shown in museums and public art spaces alongside those of her good friends Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning.

Here in Britain she is much less well-known. In fact, as the foundation’s gallery manager Scott Bauer points out: “There has never been a significant show of her work in the UK. It is time for people here to see what an incredible artist she was.”

Jeff Burch of PaceWildenstein, the leading New York Gallery that represents her estate (Nevelson died in 1988), is mystified as to why her work is not better known here.

“It is very odd,” he says. “She is one of the core artists of PaceWildenstein and we have always seen her in the realm of Rothko and Reinhardt, and even Rauschenberg as, like him, she uses discarded objects in her art.

“In America we assume that she is important internationally but for some reason, London has always been left out of the loop.”

So who was Louise Nevelson? She was born Leah Berliawsky in Ukraine in 1899, where her father’s family were wealthy timber merchants.

Her father emigrated to the United States first and she followed with her mother and siblings in 1905, with the family settling in Rockland, Maine, where her father established himself in the lumber business.

The children’s names were Americanised and Leah became Louise though they continued to speak Yiddish at home.

Louise took an early interest in sculpture — she remembered admiring a plaster cast of Joan of Arc in her local library and proclaiming that she was going to be a sculptor.

She longed to move away from Maine and did so when she married shipping company director Charles Nevelson and settled in New York. But the marriage did not last and in 1931 she set off for Europe where she studied art, returning to continue her studies in New York.

In the 1950s she began making the works she is best known for, accumulating a range of objects which she spent weeks assembling into large abstract sculptures.

“I always wanted to show that art is everywhere,” she explained “except it has to pass through a creative mind.” Wood was her primary material, appropriately enough given her father’s occupation. Among her best known works are two pieces she made in tribute to the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. For those, she worked on a truly monumental scale — the larger work (now in a Japanese Museum) is over 5m long. The way she stacked wooden crates with disparate objects seems to evoke the victims themselves, or parts of their stolen property.

So why is her work so important? Burch explains: “She was an abstract expressionist in the 1950s when the movement was mostly dominated by men. She adapted her art to New York. She would scavenge for discarded objects on the streets. Then she made them monochromatic because that is the way she saw things — in black and white. The cool colour in New York at the time was black and she always wore black and her sculptures were black.

“She basically had everything going against her. She was a migrant, she was Jewish, she was a woman, she was newly divorced with a child and she was on her own. But in the post-Second World War landscape, you really could be anything and do anything that you wanted. And she was right into that.”

Her reputation as an artist has been enhanced by her colourful character on the New York art scene. She was known for her trademark fanciful headgear, and for having a strong ego — “I wouldn’t marry God if he asked me,” she once commented, and on another occasion noted: “I always thought, bluntly, that I was a glamorous, goddam exciting woman.”

Burch is obviously very excited about the exhibition. “Most of the pieces in the show have never been exhibited before and have never been in seen. There were legal issues with the estate and the pieces on show have been in storage for a long time.

“There is no-one more important in 20th century as a woman artist than Nevelson. She was definitely a leader.”

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