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Louise Nevelson. Sky Cathedral. 1958

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Louise Nevelson (American, born Ukraine. 1899–1988)

Sky Cathedral

Painted wood
11' 3 1/2" x 10' 1/4" x 18" (343.9 x 305.4 x 45.7 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ben Mildwoff
MoMA Number:
© 2015 Estate of Louise Nevelson / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 222

As a rectangular plane to be viewed from the front, Sky Cathedral has the pictorial quality of a painting—perhaps one of the preceding decade's Abstract Expressionist canvases, which share its mural scale. But this sculpture in relief commands a layered depth. Its intricacy lies in both the method of its construction—it is made of shallow open boxes fitted together in a jigsawlike stack—and those boxes' contents, the salvaged wood bits and pieces with which Nevelson filled many of her works. These include moldings, dowels, spindles, chair parts, architectural ornaments, and scroll-sawed fragments. Nevelson makes this material into a high wall variegated by a play of flatness and recession, straight lines and curves, overlaps and vacancies, that has been likened to the faceting of Cubism and has an absorbing visual complexity.

A Surrealist artist might have shared Nevelson's relish for curious bric-à-brac, but might also have arranged such a collection in jarring and disorienting juxtapositions. Nevelson, by contrast, paints every object and box the same dully glowing black, unifying them visually while also obscuring their original identities. The social archaeology suggested by the objects' individual histories and functions, then, is muted but not erased; it is as if we were looking at the wall of a library, in which all of the books had been translated into another language.

Audio Program excerpt

Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture

, October 3, 2010 - April 25, 2011

Director, Glenn Lowry: Though she grew up in a family of lumber dealers, it took several decades of working as an artist for Nevelson to settle on wood as her medium of choice. Sky Cathedral was the first of her wood constructions to gain notice. Here's the artist, speaking in 1964.

Louise Nevelson: I found lumber on the street that had nails and some nail holes in it and different forms and different shapes and I just nailed them together and I knew this was art, and I began to learn more about the technique, learn more about the forms and went right on.

Curator, Ann Temkin: This sculpture has almost sixty compartments in it, each of which combine and contain different found pieces of wood. All of it is painted black, creating what has often been called a wall of sculpture. You somehow have to enter into this space that has been created, and you have to find your place and your psyche within that new context.

Louise Nevelson: It's like a marriage; you are not the total actor; you play with another actor, and my play with the other are my materials. So, there is a constant communication toward a oneness, for that unity, for the harmony, and for the totality.

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