As her dealer since the 1960s and dear friend Arne Glimcher told us the day of the opening, ‘Nevelson was as famous as Warhol, but when she died her work disappeared because her son inherited it and he really locked it up. I represented her but I didn’t represent her son. He wasn’t selling anything and no one was seeing the work at all. It’s different now.’ With another exhibition only ending last month at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and many shows planned ahead, The Nevelson is back in business.

Louise Nevelson Untitled (Sky Cathedral), 1964 No. 22852 wood painted black 8' 4" x 10' 11-1/2" x 1' 6-3/4" (254 cm x 334 cm x 47.6 cm) © 2017 Estate of Louise Nevelson/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

For Nevelson, space was always the greatest luxury. She would call herself an architect – of shadow and light – given the colossal dimensions of her most well-known work. Trained with Frederick Kiesler in the 1930s at his International Theatre Arts Institute in Brooklyn, one can only imagine how that early education with a master of space and so free of any attachment to specific medium would have influenced her for life.

There’s no doubting she was one of the early pioneers of installation art, with her walls and environments, as she would call them. ‘When I make an exhibition I make an exhibition the same way as when I am making a piece. So the harmonious has to be doubled or tripled. It’s a multiplicity of the same as each piece is.’[1]

Another big influence of hers was Picasso and the cubist movement, which she saw as one of the greatest awareness that the human mind has ever come to, and helped her move from drawing to form. One can’t help but think about Picasso’s playful sculptures, which he made with anything he found. And her use of found objects, later assembled, could also establish her as a precursor to arte povera. But unlike the Italians, there was no political agenda. As she explains: ‘I got into wood at the time of the Second World War, when you couldn’t get materials, and I didn’t want to stop working. It was natural. Wherever I went, there just seemed to be sculpture. Most of the wood that I had for the first exhibition I got from Con Edison on the street. I said to myself, I hope no one from Con Edison comes to my show! But now they have boxes and they lock that wood.’[2]

Louise Nevelson Untitled, 1986 No. 67933 © 2017 Estate of Louise Nevelson/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York wood painted white 39" x 6" x 8" (99.1 cm x 15.2 cm x 20.3 cm) 51" x 10" x 11" (129.5 cm x 25.4 cm x 27.9 cm) two parts

Louise Nevelson Dawn’s Staff, 1969-1975 No. 05961 © 2017 Estate of Louise Nevelson/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Despite all this, when you Google her name today, the first entry you see associates her only with one movement: feminist art. I don’t see anything feminist in her art. The only thing feminist in Nevelson is her gender, and let me remind everyone that Art has no gender. Virginia Woolf already said it a long time ago. We really have to stop this nonsense of feminist or women art, unless it’s really specifically and politically about gender inequality (a very real thing), which her work is not. It only helps to maintain the status quo, and on top of that, helps to promote a lot of bad art. I don’t hear anyone talking about men art. As Nevelson said: ‘I am not a feminist. I’m an artist who happens to be a woman.’

It was interesting to hear Diana MacKown, her close friend and assistant for 30 years on the subject, ‘She was very independent; she wasn’t part of the feminist movement, as such. She did what she did. I remember some ladies coming down to her studio – one was Judy Chicago. And Judy was interviewed lately and she mentioned Louise and I thought, aha!’ Despite her indifference, she seems to be associated only with the feminist movement. ‘It is stupid,’ says MacKown. ‘It limits it, and not only that, it’s like a MeToo movement, and an excuse. So I don’t like that either. She was so much of a woman, she knew who she was, more like Catherine the Great of Russia. Totally independent, and she liked men!’

When this great personality disappeared from the scene,’ Glimcher adds, ‘there was space for someone else and the feminist movement happened, and Louise Bourgeois was there. And that was perfect for Louise Bourgeois to take that place. That’s very feminist art. Nevelson is very classic. Nevelson is like Rothko and de Kooning. That’s the generation she belongs to. She’s an abstract expressionist sculptor.’

Louise Nevelson Mirror Shadow XXXXII, 1987 No. 19142 © 2017 Estate of Louise Nevelson/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Anyway, It took her many years to gain public recognition, despite having the critics and many artists on her side for a couple of decades. Giacometti told a critic at the Venice Biennale – where they met in 1962 when she was one of the three artists chosen to represent the US – she had created ‘a new form of sculpture’, which wasn’t made by sculpting. A generation older than Jasper Johns or Carl Andre, she was roaming the streets picking up stuff for her works before those guys were wearing long pants. Later, her and Johns became good friends.

Although Nevelson knew from the start she was an artist, her journey – growing up as a small Jewish immigrant kid in a small and conservative New England town to become one of the US’s most important sculptors – was not an easy one. Her resilience, confidence in her talents and raw force were unshakeable, despite the many people who disregarded her at the beginning. One of these was the artist Hans Hofmann, whom she studied with in Munich and who asked her to leave his class, telling her not only would she never be a great artist, but that she would never be an artist, period, and that she was wasting her time.[1] When he came to the US, she enrolled again in his class at the Art Students League in New York, and in time he changed his opinion and the pair even became good friends. This shows not only her confidence and determination, but also her courage: ‘I always trusted myself, if I felt that something was right I always did it.’[2] Part of her success was this resilience to work no matter what. As she said: ‘I don’t like the safe way, it limits you. One has to have courage and one has to gamble with life to really move into the areas where they can fulfil themselves.’[3]

Louise Nevelson and Glimcher

The current show is Nevelson’s 27th at Pace Gallery, since her 1963 debut with them. Pace Gallery founder, Glimcher, discovered Nevelson’s work at MoMA in 1959, when she was part of the group exhibition, Sixteen Americans – showing for the first time a white sculpture, after five years only working in black. In a few years she would be united with the young entrepreneur in an exceptionally profitable, long-lasting and creative union as artist and dealer. He wasn’t even 20 years old at the time. He actually first thought she was a man, having mistakenly read ‘Louis’ instead of ‘Louise.’ Glimcher was open to the new and was drawn simultaneously to pop art, just coming on the scene, and abstract art. Nevelson was one of his three favourites, along with Josef Albers and Claes Oldenburg. She was the first New York artist he wanted to have at his fledging gallery in Boston.

Louise Nevelson Dawn’s Presence – Three, 1975 No. 08833 wood painted white 123" x 127" x 99" (312.4 cm x 322.6 cm x 251.5 cm) © 2017 Estate of Louise Nevelson/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

According to MacKown, this latest show is very close to the essence of her first exhibition at Grand Central Moderns in 1958, with its first room bathing in a similar special light. Featuring 20 of Nevelson’s iconic black and white painted wood sculptures, wall reliefs, and installations, it brings together works from the late 1950s through to the late 1980s. A highlight of the exhibition is the monumental installation Dawn’s Presence – Three (1975-80), the artist’s only complete white environment held in private hands. Dawn’s Presence – Three stands at over 10ft tall by over 10ft wide, and encompasses ten interrelated elements. It is presented in the company of additional white sculptures from the same body of work, Dawn’s Staff (1969-75) and Dawn’s Landscape XXXII (1975). Don Joint, a friend of MacKown, put it beautifully on the opening night of the exhibition when he said: ‘It’s like walking on the surface of the moon and seeing a castle.’

Louise Nevelson Sky City I, 1957-1959 No. 04252 © 2017 Estate of Louise Nevelson/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Louise Nevelson

Black & White

February 1 – March 3, 2018

PACE gallery

537 West 24th Street, NYC

[1] From TV interview with Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel (1976)

[2] Ibid

[3] From Louise Nevelson, Light and Shadow by Laurie Wilson

[4] From TV interview with Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel (1976)

[5] Ibid.