Times Staff Writer

“I’m a woman of great action. I don’t sit down and dream. I’d rather move a mountain.”

Louise Nevelson issues forceful statements as if they were three-dimensional artworks. Her words, like her monumental sculpture, stand straight and tall, building up in layered sentences and mysterious nooks and crannies with lots of space around them.

The 85-year-old artist has long since become a legend, nearly as well known for her thick false eyelashes and heavily penciled brows as for her prodigious output of painted wood and metal constructions in major museums and private collections. As befits her age and stature, she is granted a certain poetic license but, in this case, she didn’t exaggerate.

Nevelson has indeed brought a mountain to Los Angeles, in the form of a 30-foot-tall, 33-ton sculpture called “Night Sail,” at the new Crocker Center downtown. The matte black, aluminum and steel abstraction, commissioned by Maguire Thomas Partners and Crocker National Bank, is the artist’s first large outdoor piece on public view in Southern California.


The massive artwork’s arrival was greeted with civic pomp and corporate pride in dedication ceremonies Thursday evening. Mayor Bradley had proclaimed Thursday Louise Nevelson Day in Los Angeles, in honor of “a sculpture inspired by the sweeping vistas of Los Angeles and the sea that borders the city.”

Just off the plane from New York on Wednesday night, Nevelson talked about “Night Sail,” an enormous project that she says was “two years in the making.” She designed the piece specifically for the site, in the plaza between IBM Tower and Crocker Court, after several visits to the center.

What impressed her was “the luxury of space, something we New Yorkers don’t have.” Angelenos may view their city’s growing skyline as an encroachment and the plaza between two high-rises as cramped quarters, but Nevelson looked off over Grand Street and saw a limitless vista well suited to a sculpture that would have a floating quality of movement. It would glide silently through space, powered by layers of flat shapes and linear configurations that--for the literal-minded--vaguely allude to sails and riggings.

She also considered the sculpture’s man-made surroundings. Her new work would serve as a link between the two buildings and as a key component in downtown Los Angeles’ changing landscape, increasingly punctuated by cultural landmarks. “I saw Calder’s red sculpture (across Hope Street at Security Pacific), and I heard about the Museum of Contemporary Art (now under construction on Grand Avenue). I saw the plaza space and noticed that one street bordering Crocker Center was high, and the other was low,” she said, recalling a play of opposing forces.


Taking these observations into account, she formed an idea for an artwork that would have its own presence while serving as an effective counterpoint to its dynamic environment. As for why she was the artist commissioned, Nevelson said: “Well, it’s like choosing a dressmaker. When you choose a certain one, you can expect certain results, so you go to the one who understands your body a little better.

“I didn’t take commissions for years because I didn’t want to get involved with architects and engineers,” she said. “I thought that would interfere (with the art). But after you reach a certain maturity (you gain confidence). In all my commissions, there has never been one person who has superimposed an idea on me.

“The Maguires couldn’t have given me more freedom. I had the great pleasure of selecting the site and that put them to a lot of trouble because of the weight of the sculpture. There was no stupidity about this commission,” she sighed, then added, “One doesn’t get younger in two years.”

No, but if one is Louise Nevelson, one doesn’t appear to get older either. She looks as she has on magazine covers for years. A very approachable woman of regal bearing, she comes off as a sort of Gypsy queen--both wise and street-smart, exotic and pragmatic. With her head wrapped in a trademark kerchief and wearing a cotton patchwork jacket over a full-length designer suit, gray silk blouse and silver bangles, she’s a self-made personage, one who says she has created her own world and made herself responsible for it.


Reminded that she is a role model for younger artists, especially females, she beams and says: “I love it,” then lapses into philosophy about the women’s movement. “Men and women are different, but it’s not a matter of strength. Women have to recognize that they need to fulfill themselves but not by destroying others.”

She has advised her “very pretty, slightly wild” granddaughter that “if you fall into a gutter in the Bowery, you don’t just lie there. You dust yourself off and look for the next gutter.” People who see Nevelson’s life as “a fantasy” just don’t have the whole picture, she says. “Having a gift doesn’t make it easy.”

Born in Kiev, Russia, in 1899, Nevelson moved to the United States as a child. Though her parents accepted her early resolve to be an artist, she had a turbulent youth and early adulthood--marrying, giving birth to a son, separating, going to Munich to study and struggling with her art and suicidal notions.

As the prolific maker of room-size constructions--often built of boxes, artfully filled with wooden carpentry scraps--she is a pioneer of environment art and a giant among sculptors of both sexes. She has designed a “Sky Cathedral” for the Museum of Modern Art and an entire chapel for a Lutheran church in Manhattan’s Citicorp Center.


Her reputation is so secure now and she is so swathed in honors (including a 1985 honorary doctorate from Harvard University), people tend to forget that she was 40 before she had her first solo exhibition and that her work wasn’t widely appreciated until she was in her 60s.

“When I was young, I thought I would just have a ball. I was tall and everything was in the right place, but it didn’t turn out that way,” she said. “One doesn’t like labor pains, but in my case it worked out. I’m more pleased to have lived this life than any other life.

“We come here pretty ready made,” she continued. “We dye our hair a little bit, we cap our teeth a little bit, but it never dawned on me that I could do anything else. I was born to do this, but success is a little frightening. The demands. You’re not free any longer.

“In the ‘70s, I looked back on my life and decided to give myself an emblem. You know how America has the eagle and every country has an emblem? Well, what do you think I chose for mine? The question mark. And you know, it cured me. It gave me a kind of peace.”