The Nevelson legend

Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), once a major figure in postwar American art but of late rather forgotten, is being honored with a limited retrospective at New York's Jewish Museum.

Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), once a major figure in postwar American art but of late rather forgotten, is being honored with a limited retrospective at New York's Jewish Museum. The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend, the first major American survey of her work since 1980, is on view through September 16. Some 66 of her works include sculpture, drawings and two room-size masterworks. The exhibition focuses on all phases of Nevelson's career and demonstrates how her life story was a force that propelled her work. Later this year the show will be seen at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco-de Young from October 27 through January 13, 2008. The selection comprises works from international and national collections, dating from 1928 to 1988, including abstract self-portraits; a re-creation of Dawn's Wedding Feast (1959), the white installation Nevelson constructed specifically for an influential Museum of Modern Art show; and Nevelson's culminating environment, Mrs. N's Palace (1964-1977), a black sculpture evoking a house with a mirrored floor. The show has been mounted by guest curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport. Gabriel de Guzman, Curatorial Program Coordinator at The Jewish Museum, is the project coordinator. After an early period of creating small-scale objects, Nevelson's breakthrough environments in wood appeared to acclaim in the late 1950s. She employed cast-off wood parts, actual street throwaways, and unified them with monochromatic spray paint. They eventually developed from tabletop pieces into human-scale columns and then room-size walls, and ultimately installation and public art that competed with the monumentality of their architectural surroundings. Nevelson was born Leah Berliavsky in the Ukraine in 1899. She arrived in America in 1905. In 1920, she married Charles Nevelson, the scion of a Jewish shipping family. They divorced in 1941. Later, mindful perhaps of Salvador Dali's successful invention of a public image, she dressed like a 16th-century boyar, with fanciful headgear, massive neckwear and robes and three layers of false eyelashes. President Ronald Reagan gave her the National Arts medal. In conjunction with the exhibition, The Jewish Museum and Yale University Press have produced the most extensive study of Nevelson to be published in over 25 years. The lavishly illustrated book focuses on all phases of the artist's remarkable ascent to the top of the art world, from her modernist-derived drawings of the 1920s and 1930s to her groundbreaking wood sculpture of the 1940s to large projects of the 1950s through the 1980s. In addition, it demonstrates how Nevelson's flamboyant personal style and carefully cultivated persona enhanced her reputation. The 256-page volume, containing 140 color and 37 black-and-white illustrations, is edited by curator Rapaport, who has contributed a major essay. Other essays are by Arthur C. Danto, Harriet F Senie and Michael Stanislawski. Gabriel de Guzman has provided an illustrated chronology. The essays examine the role of monochromatic color in Nevelson's painted wooden sculpture; the art-historical context of her work; her acclaimed large-scale commissioned public artworks; and her "self-fashioning" as a celebrated artist, particularly her origins as a Ukrainian-born Jewish immigrant to the United States. The book sells for $40 (softcover) at The Jewish Museum and $55 (hardcover) at The Jewish Museum's Cooper Shop and at bookstores.