Ocean Gate

Ocean Gate, 1982
Louise Nevelson (1899–1988)

Louise Nevelson worked for thirty years without selling a single piece of sculpture. Her first one-woman exhibition did not occur until she was past forty, and commercial success came only once she was in her sixties. Today she is recognized worldwide as one of the twentieth century’s most significant and innovative sculptors, known for her dramatic works that combine discarded and broken objects into powerful architectonic assemblages.

Born Louise Berliawsky in 1899 near Kiev, Ukraine, Nevelson immigrated with her family to Rockland, Maine, when she was five years old. Her family’s Jewish heritage hindered them from integrating into the local community, and Nevelson married early in order to exchange the small-town prejudice of her upbringing for life in the more cosmopolitan and accepting environs of New York City. Symptomatic of her lifelong rebellion against gender conformity, especially the dictates of conventional domesticity, Nevelson’s marriage was short-lived. Except for a brief stay in Europe, Manhattan became home for the remainder of her life.

Nevelson has explained that she began using discarded pieces of wood during the Second World War because artistic materials were so scarce. She also may have turned to wood as a nostalgic gesture toward the lumberyard her father operated while she was growing up. In 1971, when in her seventies, Nevelson began working with direct-welded aluminum scraps. While visiting the manufacturer of her outdoor steel sculptures, she happened to pass a room filled with another artist’s leftover pieces of aluminum. Immediately making the connection to her earlier wood sculptures constructed from abandoned fragments of debris, Nevelson realized that the same accretion process of direct assemblage could be applied to discarded pieces of metal. As in her earlier wood pieces, she painted the finished sculptures black to achieve a unity of form and emphasize the visual play of contrasting shapes.

Ocean Gate is a substantial achievement from this mode in Nevelson’s career. By stacking aluminum fragments that resemble leavings from a metal shop floor and aligning them in parallel planes, Nevelson orchestrates dramatic effects, using the ever-shifting patterns created by the movement of the sun’s light across the sculpture. Painted matte black, the metal sheets play off each other, giving an impression of constant motion. Ocean Gate conjures the mythic potential of water, sky, and earth through its vocabulary of arcs and S-curves punctuated by pointed projections, whose shadows inscribe the jumble of jigsaw-like aluminum plates with provocative shapes.

The various tensions Nevelson built into the work—surface and depth, negative and positive space, inside and outside, geometric and organic form, unity and multiplicity, design and process, organization and chaos—-are fundamental to all of her best works, emphasizing the interrelations among the object, perceptual experience, and the spectator’s own psychological and emotional responses.

Louise Nevelson (1899—1988)
Ocean Gate, 1982
Welded aluminum, black paint
Museum purchase, gift of Bernard and Barbro Osher

Listen to Colin B. Bailey, Director of Museums, provide his perspective on Louise Nevelson’s Ocean Gate.