Louise Nevelson (American, born Russia, 1899-1988)

Moving-Static-Moving-Figure, 1947
Painted terracotta, wood, and bronze
21 1/4 x 14 1/2 x 11 1/2 in.
Gift of Jerome B. Lurie

Louise Nevelson has a place in the pantheon of modern sculptors of her generation, including Alexander Calder, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi, and David Smith--all born within the same decade (1898 to 1908). Her charismatic personality, however, nearly eclipses her contributions to sculpture. Known for her signature heavy mink eyelashes, eccentric outfits, and defiant self-confidence, she reveled in her status as a celebrity. Nevelson’s playwright friend Edward Albee dramatized her life in the play Occupant, which premiered off-Broadway in 2002 with Anne Bancroft cast as the artist.

Born Leah Berliawsky in Kiev, she immigrated with her family to Rockland, Maine, in 1905. There, her father, who descended from a line of woodcutters, worked in the local lumberyard; interestingly, his daughter would employ wood as the primary sculptural medium for her signature works.

She married Charles Nevelson in 1920 and moved to New York, where she spent two decades pursuing various interests, including singing, dancing, acting, and painting. Nevelson studied at the Art Students League in 1929 and 1930, separated from her husband in 1931, and that year traveled to Munich to study with the painter Hans Hofmann. She took classes with him again in 1932, until the threat of Nazism impelled him to leave Germany and teach in New York.

Nevelson returned to America in the early 1930s and apprenticed to the Mexican painter Diego Rivera, assisting him, along with the artist Ben Shahn, on mural projects in Manhattan. Her association with Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo (they lived in the same building ), fostered Nevelson’s interest in the indigenous art of Mesoamerica.

Like many artists of her generation, Nevelson created abstracted forms to embody the notion of a universal and primal humanism. Her pedestal-top sculptures from the 1940s reflect the interest of various mid-century abstractionists in expressing profound truths through ancient myths--for example, the distorted pictographs of Adolph Gottlieb and primal figures of Jackson Pollock. At Manhattan’s Sculpture Center, Nevelson worked in terracotta to produce the Moving-Static-Moving-Figures series (1946 –48). She stacked combinations of biomorphic shapes on metal dowels and incised the surfaces of most of these elements to suggest ancient, rugged mythic personae. Edward Albee much appreciated the imaginative and suggestive "squat, blunt combination of a child's toy and prehistoric monument" in his friend's sculptures of this period. (1)

The stacking technique in the Moving-Static-Moving-Figures series may have inspired Nevelson’s next phase, in the early 1950s, when she combined found wooden objects to create more sophisticated assemblages, most of which she painted a uniform black. Late in that decade, the artist’s career took off, starting with her inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1959 exhibition Sixteen Americans. Today, more than two decades after her death, Nevelson's artistic reputation rests on this later, signature style.

--Patricia McDonnell, director of the Ulrich Museum of Art

1. Edward Albee, “Louise Nevelson: The Sum and the Parts,” in Louise Nevelson: Atmospheres and Environments, exh. cat. (New York: Clarkson N. Potter in association with the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1980), 23–24.

Louise Nevelson (American, born Russia, 1899-1988), 'Moving-Static-Moving-Figure,' 1947. Painted terracotta, wood, and bronze, 21 1/4 by 14 1/2 by 11 1/2 inches. Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University, Wichita, Kansas. Gift of Jerome B. Lurie