Louise Nevelson

AMERICAN, BORN RUSSIA, 1899–1988

Louise Nevelson’s City on the High Mountain, sited just outside Storm King’s Museum Building, is a playful and complex assemblage of black-painted steel. Nevelson frequently combined elements from existing works to create new compositions, and City on a High Mountain is sourced from models for different sculptures she had created several years earlier. Conjoining the elements with large curvilinear shapes, she eventually enlarged what was a ten-foot model to the sculpture’s current height of more than twenty feet. Additional pieces added to create the final composition include the grill-like “lace,” which reminded her of lace doilies from her childhood, and a gong-like, suspended element. Of the ball of railroad spikes, created several years earlier and placed at the very top, Nevelson noted, “Sometimes it’s only a period that really finishes the sentence, and that was the period that finished that sentence.” The entire assemblage is painted black, a signature color Nevelson used extensively for three decades. “In the academic world, they used to say black and white were no colors,” Nevelson observed, “but I’m twisting that to tell you that for me it is the total color. It means totality. It means: contains all.”

Diminishing Reflection XXV, a small-scale, black, wood relief enclosed in a box, typifies Nevelson’s evocative wall pieces of the 1950s and ’60s and follows on her earliest abstract wood constructions from the mid-1940s, which incorporated found objects. Reflecting on her process of constructing such works, Nevelson said, “Sometimes it’s the material that takes over; sometimes it’s me that takes over. I permit them to play, like a seesaw. I use action and counteraction, like in music, all the time. Action and counteraction. It was always a relationship—my speaking to the wood and the wood speaking back to me.” While typically black, Nevelson’s sculptures are occasionally white or gold; their monochromatic surfaces lend a sense of order and unity to the varied parts. Among Nevelson’s first gold-painted sculptures, Royal Tide I was included in the historic Art of Assemblage exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1961. Nevelson cited a religious resonance in the color gold, as well as a natural and spiritual connection to the sun. She was also interested in its timeless quality: “Gold has been the staple of the world for ages; it is universal.”

Nevelson’s unique, distinctive sculpture reflects her rich and varied career. Born in 1899 in Kiev, Russia, she emigrated with her family to Rockland, Maine, in 1905 and married and moved to New York in 1920. Hungry for new artistic experiences, she took classes at the Art Students League in New York and with Hans Hoffman in Munich. In 1933 she assisted Diego Rivera on his Portrait of America mural for the New Workers School in New York City. By this time Nevelson had also embarked upon a decades-long dedication to dance and modern movement techniques. Finally, after a 1941 one-woman gallery exhibition, Nevelson’s work began to receive notice. Her first experiments with weathering steel date from 1966; the material enabled her to work with new, large-scale forms, matching her visions for what her art could be, and would become. During the 1970s, when Nevelson was in her seventies, commissions and demand for her monumentally scaled work expanded dramatically. She retained great ambition and vision throughout her career. “Humans really are heir to every possibility within themselves, and it is only up to us to admit it and accept it,” Nevelson stated. “You see, you can buy the whole world and you are empty, but when you create the whole world, you are full.”

Louise Nevelson
Royal Tide I, 1960
Painted Wood
86 x 40 x 8"
Collection of Peter and Beverly Lipman

Louise Nevelson
Diminishing Reflection XXV, 1966
painted wood and Plexiglas
17 ⅝ x 17 ½ x 6"

Louise Nevelson
City on the High Mountain, 1983
Painted steel
20' 6" x 23' x 13' 6"