Louise Nevelson (b. 1899, Pereiaslav, Ukraine; d. 1988, New York, NY) was a pioneering modernist sculptor, best known for her monumental assemblages made from found wooden objects. Described as “environments,” these immersive sculptures combined reclaimed debris that Nevelson then united through painting the entire structure in one color—typically black or white and sometimes gold. While the influence of Cubism and Duchamp’s readymades is present in her work, Nevelson created a constellation of personal, cosmic and formal devices that made her a singular artistic voice in a flourishing era of American abstraction.
At a young age, Nevelson and her family immigrated from present-day Ukraine to Rockland, Maine. She later moved to New York and studied under artists such as Chaim Gross and George Grosz at the Arts Students League. She also briefly studied painting under Hans Hofmann in Munich and in 1932, she worked as an assistant to Diego Rivera on his iconic mural Man at the Crossroads at Rockefeller Plaza. Nevelson noted that she also drew significant inspiration from Uruguayan sculptor and muralist Joaquín Torres García.
While many of her contemporaries used metal to create large-scale sculptures, Nevelson sought out materials that were more evocative and reflected the energy and architecture of her adopted home of New York City. She found inspiration in wood, combining found objects into collage-like reliefs with boxes and abstract shapes stacked, nestled, and fit together like puzzle pieces. Many of her materials were found on the streets near her home in lower Manhattan, including firewood and scrap materials from evicted neighbors and demolished buildings. She spray painted the assemblages to disguise their function, using primarily black until 1959 when she began to use white and gold. In the late 1960s, she began to experiment with a wider range of materials including steel, aluminum, plastic, and latex. Later in her career, when she was in her seventies and eighties, Nevelson also took on large commissioned public works, such as Bicentennial Dawn (1976) in Philadelphia, Shadows and Flags (1978) in New York, and Trilogy (1979) in Detroit. Throughout her artistic practice, Nevelson also created a large body of smaller scale collages, which were largely unknown during her lifetime but have been exhibited in recent years to much acclaim.
Nevelson was the subject of two retrospectives at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1967 and 1980 as well as a traveling international retrospective in 1973. She was the featured artist in the United States Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 1962 and 1976. In 1978, New York created the Louise Nevelson Plaza, becoming the first public space in New York City named after an artist. Nevelson’s work is held widely in public and private collections around the world, and her artistic influence endures into the 21st Century, particularly pertaining to the history of Feminist art and installation-based work.