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The Sublime and the Spiritual

Abstract Expressionists used color and scale to create a sense of spirituality and the sublime


Abstract Expressionist Sculpture

Explore how sculptors took on the challenges of Abstract Expressionism


Sky Cathedral

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

1958. Painted wood, 11' 3 1/2" x 10' 1/4" x 18" (343.9 x 305.4 x 45.7 cm)

Sky Cathedral consists of boxes stacked against a wall, each compartment filled with wooden scraps including moldings, dowels, spindles, and furniture parts. Nevelson then covered the entire assemblage with black paint, both unifying the composition and obscuring the individual objects. She once explained her fascination with the color black: “When I fell in love with black, it contained all color. It wasn’t a negation of color. It was an acceptance. Because black encompasses all colors. Black is the most aristocratic color of all. … You can be quiet and it contains the whole thing.”1

Although primarily a sculptor, Nevelson shared with Abstract Expressionist painters an interest in creating large works that play with line, flatness, and scale. Like her contemporaries Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, Nevelson was interested in the sublime and spiritual transcendence. Sky Cathedral, like many of Nevelson’s wall pieces, evokes the sense of a shrine or a place of devotion. The artist wrote that, in her art, she sought “the in-between places, the dawns and dusk, the objective world, the heavenly spheres, the places between the land and the sea.”2

Louise Nevelson in Arthur C. Danto, “Black, White, and Gold: Monochrome and Meaning in the Art of Louise Nevelson,” in The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend (New York: Jewish Museum, 2007).
John Gordon, Louise Nevelson, (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1967), 12.
Carol Kort and Liz Sonneborn, A to Z of American Women in the Visual Arts (New York: Facts on File, 2002), 165.

Awe-inspiring or worthy of reverence. In philosophy, literature, and the arts, the sublime refers to a quality of greatness that is beyond all calculation.

 The arrangement of the elements within a work of art photograph. The composition is the interplay between the subject, foreground, background, and other elements in the photograph.

A three-dimensional composition made from a variety of traditionally non-artistic materials and objects.

Geometry and Magic
In the late 1940s and early 1950s Nevelson traveled to Central America, where she was enchanted by the “world of geometry and magic”3 of the Mayan ruins she saw.

Nevelson’s Materials
Nevelson once said that when she began making her wall pieces in the 1950s, she couldn’t afford traditional art materials. She instead foraged in her Manhattan neighborhood for cast-off wooden objects such as architectural ornaments or baseball bat fragments.

Multimedia

AUDIO: Louise Nevelson discusses her wood constructions