Laurie Wilson’s extensively researched biography Louise Nevelson, Light and Shadow includes a story that demonstrates the artist’s character perfectly. The seventy-seven-year-old Nevelson was suffering from cancer, and reporters had come to interview her. One journalist asks “How are you feeling?” And she answers, “Dying. Other than that, I’m fine.” There was not a grain of self-pity evident in her response. She had a barbed wit and intolerance for fools — including herself. These traits were the solid foundation from which her public persona developed.
This new biographical account of Louise Nevelson, written byWilson, a practicing psychologist and art historian, is the most fact-based to date. Previous biographies such as Laurie Lisle’s Louise Nevelson: A Passionate Life (1990) reads like a novel because less research and fewer interviews were conducted. Nevelson’s World, published in 1983 by Jean Lipman was published by one of Nevelson’s collectors and is, as far as I’m concerned, therefore biased.
Wilson’s book traces Nevelson’s path from persecution in Pereiaslav (now Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi), one of the oldest cities in the Ukraine, to the largely misogynist American art world of the 1930s, through to the
scandal of the lengthy and scandalous dispute between Nevelson’s long-time assistant, Diana MacKown, and her son Myron Nevelson, regarding her $100 million dollar estate. Wilson delves into the artist’s psyche in a quest to offer psychological and scholarly-based insights into the relation between Nevelson’s art and her personal eccentricities.
Wilson’s effort to find the motivation for Nevelson’s unbelievable tenacity leads her to discover that the legend of Louise Nevelson began shortly after her birth in 1899:
Sholem Aleichem, the renowned writer of Yiddish tales, had come to visit his sister and stopped in at the Beliawsky [Nevelson’s birth surname] home next door to greet the new baby [Nevelson]. “This child is destined for greatness,” the famous man declared when he saw her. Not surprisingly, the prophecy became legendary.
Wilson implied that this story, having been repeated incessantly by her family to Nevelson, was one of the foundational beliefs that kept her resolve steady for over fifty years before she finally achieved critical and financial success.
Louise Nevelson was unique, a one-off. She had her own style of dressing, of living, of sculpting. Her work was like no one else’s. She never looked the way artists were supposed to look; even when she was broke, she managed to look like a million dollars. In the 1930s and ’40s she became known as “The Hat” because she wore gorgeous chapeaux — sometimes stolen and sometimes purchased by lovers for her favors.
As far as Nevelson was concerned, she was at the service of her work. Her wit, her humor, her beauty, eccentric clothing, her hands and soul had one mission: to get the import of her work noticed. It may seem that she created a colorful persona as a marketing tool. However, the details in the book unveil the theory that it was a psychological defense mechanism she had learned from her mother.
The Berliawsky family fled the Ukraine because of pogroms, large-scale, organized anti-Jewish riots that had been happening intermittently throughout the Russian empire since the 12th century. During these campaigns, Jewish men, women, and children were senselessly murdered. The family’s escape to Maine in the U.S.A. was laden with hope. Nevelson’s father, Isaac Berliawsky, left first; then his family followed once he was financially able to care for them. However, the racism they were met with in New England was insidiously destructive, if not as physically violent as the persecution they left behind. Nevelson’s mother Minna retreated to the confines of her home to reign supreme over her household, safe from the social rejection of white Protestant New Englanders. Whenever the matriarch did appear in public, she drew attention to her and her daughters’ captivating beauty with the latest and most expensive outfits in fashion. She hid her pain at the lack of social acceptance behind a façade of chic clothing, elegance, pride, and haughtiness.
Louise Nevelson née Berliawsky married Charles Nevelson, a wealthy merchant residing in Manhattan, as a means to escape small town Maine for New York City, and then unexpectedly had a son. Her husband was unable to understand the visceral need for Nevelson to learn and practice art. All through her childhood, Nevelson’s love of art was encouraged by her family and her teacher, Miss Lena Cleveland. Beyond believing in her artistic brilliance, art animated every cell in her body and thought in her mind. Yet her husband forbade her to be involved in the arts or take classes. Cut off from her source of vitality, she fell into a deep depression. When this occurred, she confided in her mother and her sister Anita. Nevelson’s mother, ahead of her time, supported her daughter wholeheartedly, committing to take care of Myron Nevelson , if needed. The artist was then free. She made the commitment to leave her husband to pursue her calling. Marjorie Eaton, also an artist and lifelong friend of Louise, said:
Charles Nevelson gave Louise ten dollars a week to live on trying to force her to come back to him by making her uncomfortable. He didn’t know what to do with her and wanted to stop her. He wanted a beautiful woman for a domestic relationship. He didn’t know he had a genius.
Nevelson’s refusal to recognize who he married was a mirror of the deeply entrenched and normalized misogyny within her society. This prejudice was as pervasive and present in the art scene: among male art teachers, artists, and gallerists. It was an affront to them to have a confident female artist who believed in her brilliance. Consequently, Nevelson was booted out of more than one art class for “not possessing enough talent” to continue, and rejected by numerous gallery owners, though she had more ambition and emotional courage than many male artists. She, like her mother, cultivated her public persona to be the much needed protection for her self-esteem. This character evolved over the decades into her iconic image in the 1970s: cigarillo on lips, three layers of false eyelashes, marvelous headgear, chunky jewelry, and a chinchilla coat.
Barbed wit and attention-grabbing garb could only go so far. It was not enough to provide the incredible emotional wherewithal needed for her to keep the vision of her own artistic greatness, over decades of penury and disappointment. The author highlights spirituality as Nevelson’s
emotional anchor. Nevelson’s spirituality was precipitated by the first Krishnamurti lecture she attended in 1928. His main concepts intercepted and overlapped with the cubists’ and surrealists’ philosophical ideas of the fourth dimension. This dimension was imagined to be a timeless space between physical and spiritual reality, a domain of purity and limitless potential. In this inner space, Louise found refuge and inspiration. This was where she visualized and embodied the recognition she craved for her work, well before it arrived. The book recounts a moment during her first solo exhibition at the Grand Central Moderns Gallery in January 1955 that illustrates how connected her work was to this realm beyond time and place.
When asked about the meaning of the exhibition’s title Ancient Games, Ancient Places decades later, Nevelson was explicitly non-explicit: “It’s known fourth-dimensionally. It gives me a private dimension. And that private dimension actually has more space. Everything’s unlimited in that place.” By equating “Ancient Place” with the fourth dimension, Nevelson was referring to “cosmic consciousness” both as it was understood by writers on spirituality and as a vague place where she could not personally be pinned down in the here and now.
Wilson focuses on the works called “Bride” (1955) in this exhibition, examining their psychological significance to the artist.
Was the fourth dimension a means of escape from an unpleasant reality? Her own marriage had not been happy, and, as with other professional and personal disappointments she had experienced, she wasn’t very good at expressing her emotions in words. The repetition of brides and bridal pairs in her work, however, suggests that, like many creative people before her, she found a way to face her pain by allowing it to inform her art.
The art historical and psychological analysis contained in the book, the interviews, and the research, all seek to unearth who exactly Louise Nevelson was in all her contradictory poses. Louise Nevelson was the glamorous artist on magazine covers. She was also the woman with an intolerance of fools, and an artist ferociously determined to reach the critical acclaim that she eventually did. Like her assemblage sculptures made of various pieces of found furniture, architectural remnants, and debris, she was also an assemblage of experiences. She was sometimes larger than life, at other times hid from it. One body of work, the massive metal sculptures made in the last phase of her artistic career are, in my understanding, an enthusiastic embrace of these contradictions and a celebration of her triumph over the challenges she had faced.
Laurie Wilson’s biography Louise Nevelson, Light and Shadow was published by Thames & Hudson in 2016.