The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend

Erin Garcia
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Ken Garcia
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On View at the de Young Museum

San Francisco, August 10, 2007—The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend is the first major retrospective in America in more than two decades to examine the work of one of the towering figures of postwar American art. Louise Nevelson (1899–1988) was known for her monumental sculptures and her practice of constructing them from found wood. Her autobiographical works symbolically address issues of marriage, motherhood, death, Jewish culture, memory and (although she resisted the label) feminism.

The exhibition, organized by The Jewish Museum, New York, looks at the entire span of Nevelson’s career with more than 70 works of sculpture and drawings. Included in the exhibition are sculptures that were pioneering in the fact that they created discrete environments. Mrs. N’s Palace is a room-sized installation that envelops viewers; Homage to 6,000,000 I speaks to the seemingly unfathomable number of Jews who died in the Holocaust with a massive, curved wall; and Dawn’s Wedding Feast replicates a metaphorical wedding party, including the bride, groom and guests.

Nevelson was born in the Ukraine and immigrated to the United States with her family six years later. Her life encompassed most of the 20th century, giving her exposure to Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and installation art. Although linked to all of these movements, Nevelson formed a unique visual language that earned her recognition as one of America’s most distinguished artists. Her work continues to inform contemporary sculpture nearly 20 years after her death.

Her groundbreaking technique involved assembling cast-off wood pieces and transforming them with coats of monochromatic black, white, and (more rarely) gold spray paint. Nevelson’s work started with tabletop scale objects, but quickly grew into human-scale and room-sized works. Her later, monumental public works stood their ground with the buildings that surrounded them.

Despite the size and drama of Nevelson’s sculptures, they were at times overwhelmed by her larger-than-life public persona. She was known for wearing eye-catching assemblages of couture, ethnographic clothing, outsize jewelry and hats. A trademark look involved donning multiple layers of false eyelashes. “With the passage of time, Nevelson’s larger-than-life persona may be viewed in historical perspective, thus allowing viewers to focus on her extraordinary artistic legacy,” says Timothy Anglin Burgard, Ednah Root Curator-in-Charge of the American Art Department.

The Jewish Museum and Yale University Press have co-published a catalogue that accompanies the exhibition. It is hailed as the most extensive study of Nevelson to be published in 25 years and includes essays by Brooke Kamin Rapaport, the curator of the exhibition, as well as by noted scholars such as Arthur C. Danto, Harriet F. Senie, and Michael Stanislawski.

This exhibition has been organized by The Jewish Museum, New York, where it was supported through major grants from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Homeland Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. The San Francisco presentation is made possible by the Helen Diller Family Foundation and the Koret Foundation. Major support is also provided by The Francis Goldsmith Exhibition Fund.

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Images of works in the exhibition are available upon request.

Image credit: "Louise Nevelson," 1977. Photograph by Hans Namuth. © 1991 Hans Namuth Estate. Courtesy Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona

International Contemporary Art at the de Young Museum
Since 1988, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco has been committed to collecting international contemporary art. This commitment is expressed through sculpture in the permanent collection with works by James Turrell, Joan Miro, Stephen de Staebler, Claes Oldenburg and Mark di Suvero.

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