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Louise Nevelson: Selections from the Farnsworth Art Museum

Sepember 17 - October 30, 2004

 

The Mitchell Gallery at St. John's College will display "Louise Nevelson: Selections from the Farnsworth Art Museum" Sepember 17 through October 30, 2004 The Russian-born American artist is considered a pioneer of 20th-century art in both painting and sculpture. This exhibition presents 37 of Nevelson's paintings, prints, sketches, sculptures, collages, and a selection of pendants. (right: Louise Nevelson, Figure of a Woman, c. 1946-1951)

Born in Tsarist Russia in the autumn of 1899, Nevelson immigrated to Rockland, Maine, with her family in 1905. As an artist she was undeniably American, but with a progressive European sensibility. She evolved into one of the major proponents of modernism in the United States, and eventually become known as "the doyenne of American sculpture."

Following her marriage in 1920 to Charles Nevelson, a cargo ship owner, Louise Nevelson moved to New York City, a step that was instrumental to her artistic development. The exhibition begins with paintings and drawings created by Nevelson circa 1929-31, while she studied at the Art Students League. Her youthful exuberance is expressed in the painting, "Maine Meadows, Old Country Road," circa 1931, created on the eve of her departure to Munich to study with the influential teacher Hans Hofmann, an Abstract Expressionist. Her subsequent studies with Hofmann in Munich and afterward in New York marked a turning point in her life and art. She later credited him with introducing her to cubism and the "push and pull" of negative and positive space, concepts that were critical to the development of her mature work.

In 1933 Nevelson began studying with Chaim Gross, a young artist who was gaining recognition as one of the new generation of sculptors interested in a

return to direct carving. Although she continued to paint into the early 1950s, from this point forward, sculpture began to dominate Nevelson's artistic interests. The exhibition illustrates this phase of Nevelson's career with a number of examples of her early figurative sculpture including "Martha Graham," circa 1950, and "Bronze Bird," 1952.

By the late 1950s Nevelson found her mature voice as an artist and in a series of acclaimed exhibitions rapidly ascended to the heights of American art. The Farnsworth Collection includes "Dawn Column I," from Nevelson's sensational, all-white installation, Dawn's Wedding Feast, created for the exhibition "Sixteen Americans" at the Museum of Modern Art in 1959. Also included is the large, black wall construction, "The Endless Column," 1969 and 1985, a piece that has been described as "stately and dignified a fugue of repeating forms."

Appropriately the exhibition concludes with two wall reliefs from the artist's Volcanic Magic series, created in 1985 and among her final works. Before her death in April 1988, Nevelson donated 56 of her own works to her hometown museum. This exhibition presents 37 works from the Farnsworth Art Museum's collection and traces the full span of the artist's career, from her student days at the Art Students League to her emergence as an artist of national stature. (right: Louise Nevelson, Maine Meadows, Old Country Road, c. 1931

The opening reception and family program for "Louise Nevelson: Selections from the Farnsworth Art Museum" will be held from 3:30 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, September 19, 2004. Art educator Lucinda Edinberg will offer a Sunday afternoon tour of the exhibit at 3 p.m. on September 26 and a lunchtime tour from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m. on Wednesday, October 20. A seminar on "Looking at the Elephant" in relation to the exhibition will be led by Ebby Malmgren, a local artist and writer, and Samantha Buker, head of St. John's Student Art Society, at 7 p.m. on October 5. Independent scholar Stephen May will give a lecture on "Louise Nevelson: An American Original" at 7:30 p.m. on October 13, in the Conversation Room.

This exhibition was organized by The Farnsworth Art Museum, with tour development by Smith Kramer Fine Art Services, Kansas City, Mo. Funding has also been provided in part by Anne Arundel County, the City of Annapolis, Crosby Marketing Communications, the Cultural Arts Foundation of Anne Arundel County, the Maryland State Arts Council, members of the Mitchell Art Gallery, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Clare Eddy and Eugene V. Thaw Fine Arts Fund, William Paca Beatson Jr., Frederick Graul, and Carleton Mitchell.

 

Following is text from the wall panels for the exhibition:

This exhibition of the work of Louise Nevelson has been selected from the collection of the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, which holds the largest public collection of the artist's work after the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Between 1981 and 1985, Nevelson donated 87 pieces of art to the Farnsworth, including 56 of her own works. Other significant gifts came from the artist's family. It is perhaps fitting that the Farnsworth collection is especially strong in early examples of Nevelson's work, as it was Rockland where she spent her formative years and discovered her love of art.
 
Born Leah Berliawsky in the autumn of 1899 in Tsarist, Russia, Nevelson immigrated to the small coastal town of Rockland, Maine, with her family in 1905. At an early age, she received recognition from her school teachers as "the artist." She later stated, "From the first day in school until the day I graduated, everyone gave me 100 plus in art. Well, where do you go in life? You go to the place where you get 100 plus."
 
Following her marriage in 1920 to Charles Nevelson, a cargo-ship owner, the artist moved to New York City, where she lived and worked until her death in April 1988. Her attraction to the city was immediate and lasting; she called New York, "a city of collage . . . the whole thing is magnificent." Upon her arrival, she began vigorously pursuing her interests in painting, acting, dance, and singing.
 
By 1931 Nevelson's studies at the Art Students' League confirmed her resolve to become an artist, and from that time forward the visual arts became her primary focus, although she maintained a life-long interest in modern dance and theater. For the next two decades, she sought to develop her own artistic voice, studying painting with Hans Hofmann and sculpture with Chaim Gross, and serving as an assistant to the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Her paintings and early figurative sculpture reveal her assimilation of the principles of Cubism, her interest in tribal arts, and her unconventional approach to materials-all aspects critical to the development of her mature work.

 

Following is text from the object labels for the exhibition:

 
York Avenue, New York City
1934
Oil on board
Bequest of Nathan Berliawsky
 
In the fall of 1932, after studying in Munich with Hans Hofmann, and subsequent travels in Europe, Nevelson returned to New York and re-enrolled in classes at the Art Students League. That winter, separated from her husband, a situation that remained until her divorce in 1941, she took an apartment at 1237 York Avenue, where this work was painted. Despite her deep affection for urban life and the architecture of the city, this work is one of only two known cityscapes by Nevelson; the other is New York City off 30th Street, also in the Farnsworth collection.
 
Figure in a Blue Shirt
1952
Oil on canvas
Bequest of Nathan Berliawsky
 
While the identity of this figure is not conclusively known, it may be either the artist's son Mike or her close friend, the artist Ralph Rosenberg, as the majority of her paintings from this period are portraits of herself, family, and friends. Most are heavily impastoed, with thick layers of paint that project as much as an inch from the picture plane, as in the topknot of hair in Figure in a Blue Shirt. In this work, as well as in the painting Woman, Child and Three Cats, the background is composed of a grid of stacked rectangles, anticipating the form of her later wooden wall constructions.
 
Woman, Child and Cats
circa 1946
Oil on canvas
Gift of Nathan Berliawsky
 
As in her earlier drawing, Four Figures, Nevelson's interest in totemic form is evident in several paintings in the Farnsworth collection, including this work in which three cats' heads form a totem in the lower right. Her attraction to totemic form stems from her long-held interest in tribal arts, which, it has been suggested may stem back as far as her childhood in Rockland where American Indian artifacts were sold to summer tourists. Undoubtedly her interest was strengthened by her exposure to museum collections in New York and Paris; her acquaintance with Wolfgang Paalen and his writings on primitive art in the Surrealist magazine Dyn; and her apprenticeship with the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera in 1933.
 
Female Figure
circa 1937
Carved wood
Gift of Mrs. Anita Berliawsky Weinstein
 
This small relief is one of Nevelson's earliest references to tribal art in sculptural form, and a rare extant example of her direct carving in wood. In 1933, she began studying with Chaim Gross, a young artist, who, along with William Zorach, was becoming known as one of the new generation of sculptors interested in a return to direct carving. Throughout the next two decades, Nevelson continued to practice both painting and sculpture, only in the mid-1950s did she stop painting and turn conclusively to three-dimensional work.
 
Seated Figure
circa 1946-51
Cast stone
Gift of Louise Nevelson
 
Nevelson's early experiments in sculpture include numerous semi-abstract animals and figures in black-painted terracotta, plaster, and cast stone. Many of these were made at a WPA-supported sculpture workshop on 39th Street run by Louis Basky and his apprentice Alexander Tatti. Tatti is credited with developing "tattistone," a self-hardening material used frequently by Nevelson for these early works. Her strong appreciation for Mayan statuary and the Cubist sculpture of Lipchitz, Picasso and others is clearly evident in works such as these.
 
Maine Meadows, Old County Road
circa 1931
Oil on board
Bequest of Nathan Berliawsky
 
Filled with exuberance and youthful energy, this is one of Nevelson's most successful paintings from the early years of her career. Although undated, it relates closely to another less finished work in the Farnsworth collection, View of Rockland Meadows, which bears the date 1931. The road of the title, Old County Road, is still in use today; it runs along Rockland's inland side, connecting the north and south of town with coastal Route 1. Very likely painted on the eve of her departure for Munich to study with the influential teacher Hans Hofmann, Maine Meadows, Old County Road, gives testament to Nevelson's happiness at the prospect. As if to suggest her newfound confidence as an artist, she has filled the narrow band of pale blue sky with colorful stars. She later said, "[the star] could be a crown, five points, I've always felt like a star."
 
Woman with a Red Scarf
circa 1947
Oil on canvas
Bequest of Nathan Berliawsky
 
Although undated, similar works in the Farnsworth collection place this painting, which is undoubtedly a self-portrait, in late 1947. In this extremely powerful work, the artist has depicted herself with bound hands while surrounded by stars, symbolically suggesting forces outside herself that are restricting her ascent as an artist. A number of traumatic events in Nevelson's personal life around this time may help explain her anguished portrayal. In October 1946, her father died suddenly of heart failure; in June 1947, her son Mike, who had been living with her in New York, returned to Rockland under strained relations; and in October 1947, her dealer and close friend Karl Nierendorf died unexpectedly.
 
Ancient Splendor
1953-55
Etching
Bequest of Nathan Berliawsky
 
In the spring of 1950 and the winter of 1951, Louise and her sister Anita traveled to Mexico and Guatemala to visit the Mayan ruins. The experience had a profound affect on the artist, she said, "This was a world of forms that at once I felt I could identify witha world of geometry and magic." As a result of this trip, she produced a series of thirty etchings that evoke the forms and atmosphere of the ancient sites. These prints, from that series, were all created between 1953-55 at Atelier 17, a highly regarded printmaking workshop led by Stanley William Hayter. A selection of these prints was included in Nevelson's critically acclaimed exhibition, "Ancient Games in Ancient Places," held at Grand Central Moderns Gallery in 1956.
 
Martha Graham
circa 1950
Cast Bronze
Gift of Louise Nevelson
 
Nevelson was a devoted follower of modern dance, in particular the work of Martha Graham. This piece, one of the few examples of her early sculpture to be cast in bronze, captures the great dancer's strength and fluidity, and is one of Nevelson's strongest figurative works. A kindred spirit, Nevelson said, "Martha Graham by the nature of her spirit, by the nature of her energy, by her presence and intensitywas undoubtedly movement of the twentieth century. She was a pioneer."
 
Dawn Column I
1959
Painted wood
Museum purchase
 
After years of struggle establishing herself as an artist, by the late 1950s, Nevelson began making great strides towards her mature style. In 1958, for her annual exhibition at Grand Central Moderns Gallery, she created Moon Garden + One, a totally black environment that included her first wall construction, Sky Cathedral, now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. The critical success of this show confirmed her stature as an artist of importance, and in the following year she was included the exhibition "Sixteen Americans" at MOMA. For this show, she created Dawn's Wedding Feast, a lavish all-white environment suggesting a nuptial ceremony. This work, Dawn Column I, represents one of the witnesses to the marriage; it stood in the exhibition with ten similar columns on a narrow platform flanking the symbolic altar. Although it was Nevelson's wish to keep the installation intact, this proved impossible, and over the years individual pieces, such as this, were sold to museums and private collectors.
 
The Endless Column
1969­1985
Painted wood
Bequest of Nathan Berliawsky
 
Rather than an assemblage of irregular found wood which characterized her first wall constructions, this later piece is composed of machine-made shapes in a regular, rhythmic pattern. In his catalog essay for the 1985 exhibition of Nevelson's art at the Farnsworth, Willy Eisenhart described this work as "stately and dignified, musical in its harmonies of lines and shadows, defined by a fugue of repeating forms." Nevelson added the top two rows of boxes and the flanking sentinel-like constructions to the original central column at the time of the 1985 exhibition.
 
Volcanic Magic XVI
1985
Wood and paper collage
Gift of Louise Nevelson
 
Constructed from a variety of found materials, these late works closely recall Nevelson's native Russian roots. Their dynamic, abstract compositions bear striking similarity to the non-objective relief sculptures created by the Russian Constructivists Vladimir Tatlin, Ivan Puni, Vassily Ermilov and others around 1915-20. In a radical change from her previous constructions, the works in the Volcanic Magic series retain their original finishes, strengthening their ties to the work of the Constructivists and their antecedents, Cubist collage.
 
Pendants
1985
Wood with brass overlay
Wood with silver overlay
Gifts of Louise Nevelson
 
Nevelson inherited her flair for dressing from her mother, and as her reputation as a leading American artist grew, her mode of dress became increasingly extravagant, an assemblage of textures and cultures as unique as her art. A favorite ensemble was a skirt made from an Amish quilt, worn under an 18th-century Chinese robe, and topped by a floor-length Persian coat, a riding helmet, and her signature false eyelashes. She designed many pieces of her personal jewelry as well, each one as artfully created as one of her sculptures; these examples were donated to the museum on the occasion of her 1985 exhibition.
 
Mother and Child II
circa 1946­51
Terra Cotta
Gift of Louise Nevelson
 
Figure of a Woman
circa 1946­51
Terra Cotta
Gift of Louise Nevelson
 
Full Moon
1980
Polyester resin cast
Gift of Kurt Olden
 
The Ancient One
1953­55
Etching
Bequest of Nathan Berliawsky
 
Bronze Bird
1952
Cast Bronze
Gift of Anita Berliawsky
 
Child
circa 1946­51
Terra-cotta
Bequest of Nathan Berliawsky
 
Facade: 1 "The Drum"
1967
Photo collage
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Rothschild
 
Moon Passage
1976
Color lithograph with collaged paper
Gift of Maurine and Robert Rothschild
 
Night Form
circa 1946­51
Terra-cotta
Gift of Louise Nevelson
 
Nude
circa 1930
Graphite on paper
Bequest of Nathan Berliawsky
 
Portrait of a Woman
circa 1946­47
Oil on board
Bequest of Nathan Berliawsky
 
Reclining Female
circa 1946­51
Terra-cotta
Gift of Louise Nevelson
 
Series of an Unknown Cosmos I
1979
Wood and paper collage
Gift of Louise Nevelson
 
Small Stele
circa 1946­51
Terra-cotta
Gift of Louise Nevelson
 
Still Life with Pitcher
1927
Oil on canvas
Gift of Arnold Glimcher, 1981
 
Sunken Cathedral
1953­55
Etching
Bequest of Nathan Berliawsky
 
Three Children
1946
Oil on canvas
Bequest of Nathan Berliawsky
 
Two Women
1946
Oil on canvas
Bequest of Nathan Berliawsky
 
Two Women
circa 1946
Cast aluminum
Gift of Louise Nevelson
 
The Woman
circa 1946
Oil on canvas
Bequest of Nathan Berliawsky
 
Untitled
1973
Aquatint and collage
Gift of Pen Bay Board of Realtors
 
Untitled
1976
Wood and paper collage
Gift of Louise Nevelson
 
Volcanic Magic XXIII
1985
Wood and paper collage
Gift of Louise Nevelson
 
Female Nude
circa 1929
Oil on canvas
Gift of Louise Nevelson
 
Woman, Child and Cats
1946
Oil on canvas
Gift of Nathan Berliawsky

 

Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy these earlier articles:

Women: A Century of Art featuring Louise Nevelson: Selections from the Farnsworth Art Museum (6/14/04)
Four Originals: Cassatt, O'Keeffe, Nevelson, Frankenthaler (7/31/03)

rev. 9/1/04

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