“You are not the total actor; you play with another actor, and my play with the other are my materials.”
Louise Nevelson’s sculptures tend to be big, which would not be so extraordinary were it not for the fact that working on such a scale tended to be a hard-won achievement for women artists of her generation. Consider a work like Sky Cathedral (1958), which MoMA purchased the same year Nevelson finished it. Standing over 11 feet tall and 10 feet wide, this sculptural assemblage comprises pieces of wood that the artist joined together and then coated in black paint. Despite the uniformity of its surface color, Nevelson’s work offers us a lot to see. There are crevices and shadows, hairline cracks and rough grain, as well as objects that are easily recognizable and others that seem eerily familiar. Like so many of her titles, Sky Cathedral alludes to the poetic associations Nevelson envisioned for the humble scraps of wood she assembled, in this case into a towering facade.
Wood was a familiar material to Nevelson’s family, though the artist herself balked at any biographical connection to her selected medium. She was born to Jewish parents living near Kiev (now Kyiv) when the region was part of the Russian Empire. Her father immigrated to the United States in 1902 to work in the lumber trade. Three years later, Nevelson and the rest of the family joined him in Rockland, Maine; she spent the remainder of her childhood there, moving as a young adult to New York City in 1920. Over the next 15 years, Nevelson would gradually pursue formal training in artmaking and occasionally exhibit paintings and sculpture. It was only after she moved to lower Manhattan in the early 1940s, however, that she began making her assemblages. She filled her studio space with materials that she salvaged from the surrounding neighborhood, favoring wood because it was an inexpensive and readily available resource.
Nevelson found commercial success only after she began painting her constructions with a single color in the 1950s. The use of color—first black, later white, and then gold—would become essential to Nevelson’s process of making compositions from found pieces of wood. “It’s like a marriage,” Nevelson observed. “You are not the total actor; you play with another actor, and my play with the other are my materials. Sometimes they tell me something and sometimes I speak to them, so that there is a constant communication toward a oneness, for that unity, for the harmony, and for the totality.” In That Silent Place (1954–55), the artist arranged wooden blocks so that their imperfections help create a relationship among the parts. A few pieces lean to one side, while others are not quite square. Holes meant for screws, nails, or dowels remain empty. Nevelson arranges these elements into a pattern of structure and void that evokes a cityscape.
The artist did not limit her idea of “oneness” to discrete objects. By the end of the 1950s, her investigations into space grew into room-sized environments. Dawn’s Wedding Feast filled an entire gallery with wall constructions as well as freestanding and hanging columns and other elements reminiscent of architectural forms.
Nevelson was spontaneous when she worked, often making decisions as she made her compositions. This improvisational process was as true for her wooden wall reliefs as for work in other mediums that she subsequently explored. Fellowships at the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles in 1963 and 1967 gave Nevelson the opportunity to expand her practice to printmaking. She approached the lithographic medium with experimental zeal, investigating materials and methods that were uncommon in printmaking but consistent with assemblage, such as using fabrics and cut paper to create compositions on the plate.
A sense of discovery allowed Nevelson, even in the late years of her practice, to continue testing out new approaches and mediums, from embossing thin plates of lead to designing sculptures in aluminum and Plexiglass to making public art projects in weathering steel. “It is not the medium that counts,” Nevelson said. “It is what you see in it and what you do with it.”
Erica DiBenedetto, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2022