Louise Nevelson, Known for Wood Sculptures, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Louise Nevelson, whose eccentric and flamboyant persona became as well known as the aristocratic and elegant wooden sculptures that will be her more lasting legacy, died Sunday, it was learned Monday.

The doyenne of American sculpture had been in poor health for several months and died at her home in Manhattan’s Soho district in New York at age 88.

And although success came to her relatively late in life she welcomed it not as a disquieted senior citizen but as a proud peacock.


Gowned in yards of trailing silk and brocades that cascaded from her shoulders to the floor and with harnesses of precious metals wrapped around her neck, she toured the country, picking sites for the statuary she created from scraps of carpentry and sipping tea with those who had funded it.

With her false eyelashes made of mink fur, and her often bizarre headgear, she was light years away from the shy daughter of Russian immigrants who once remembered that “when I was in the ninth grade my own voice frightened me.”

Mrs. Nevelson was born in Kiev in the Soviet Union a few months before the turn of the century, the date never precisely known, she said. Her family, the Berliawskys and their four children, came to the United States when she was 4 and settled in Rockland, Me.

Isaac Berliawsky eked out a living by chopping down trees for builders but went on to become a successful lumber merchant and real estate entrepreneur.

Three of his children lived traditional, successful lives in Rockland.

But Louise Berliawsky decided on her career at an early age.

“I felt like an artist. You feel it--just like you feel you’re a singer if you have a voice,” she once said. “I have that blessing, and there was never a time that I questioned it or doubted it.”

She remembered being asked by the town librarian as a child what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“An artist,” she replied quickly. But then she reconsidered momentarily and said, “No a sculptor. I don’t want color to help me.”

In 1920, she married Charles Nevelson, a New York shipping broker, and moved to that city.

She studied modern dance and gloried in her new-found freedom, even as she and her husband were quarreling over the time she spent away from the house.

They had a son, Myron, and then separated in 1931.

She left her husband in New York and her son in Maine and traveled to Munich, where she studied with Hans Hofmann. When the Nazis came to power she returned to New York to work with paint, plaster, rock, metals and the odd wood scraps that became her signature.

Worked for Muralist

She also became an assistant to Diego Rivera, the famed Mexican muralist, and taught art for a time in the late 1930s under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration.

Rivera’s influence can be seen in the Aztec overtones of her often mystical work marked by light and shadow.

She had her first one-person show in 1940 but when none of her monochromes sold she took them back to her loft apartment and destroyed them. Few examples of her early work have survived.

She staged additional shows at the Grand Central Moderns Gallery in the 1950s with mixed success but in 1956 the Whitney Museum bought “Black Majesty” and the following year the Brooklyn Museum bought “First Personage.”

But it was not until 1959, when she was 60, that Mrs. Nevelson was recognized as a major artist with “Dawn’s Wedding Feast,” her first all-white “environment” after a series of totally black, brooding works.

It was a series of standing and assembled columnar bride, groom, wedding cake and chapel, constructed in Mrs. Nevelson’s favorite medium, pieces of wooden junk.

In succeeding years, Mrs. Nevelson produced her notable all-black sculpture house, “Mrs. N’s Palace,” which covered an entire room, and the white “Chapel of the Good Shepherd” in St. Peter’s Church in New York.

Memorial to Holocaust

Her 1964 “Homage to 6,000,000,” an enormous painted wood memorial of the Jews killed in the Holocaust, sold for $110,000 in 1980. Two Nevelson sculptures dedicated in 1983 were commissioned by the American Medical Assn. in Washington at a cost of $640,000.

In 1985 she brought to Los Angeles a 30-foot-tall, 33-ton sculpture called “Night Sail,” which was placed in downtown’s Crocker Center.

Commissioned by Crocker National Bank and Maguire Thomas Partners, it was the first of her large outdoor pieces seen publicly in Southern California. It is one of her “black” pieces and made of aluminum and steel and she spent two years designing it specifically for the site in the plaza between IBM Tower and Crocker Court.

She saw “Night Sail” as a link between the two buildings and a key component in the burgeoning downtown skyline with its “luxury of space. Something we New Yorkers don’t have.”

“She wanted to make a major contribution to the world as an artist. . . . The work will remain,” said Richard Koshalek, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. “The individual will be missed the most--the spirit and dedication and kindness that Louise Nevelson demonstrated to other artists, museums and the world in general.”

She continued to study and work well into her 80s, creating sets and costumes for the opera “Orfeo and Euridice” in St. Louis in 1983.

Medal of the Arts

In 1985, Mrs. Nevelson, survived by her son and three grandchildren, became one of the first 12 recipients of the National Medal of the Arts presented by President Reagan.

She continued her studies of the world’s religions and philosophies but told the Associated Press in a recent interview that she was not trying through her work with black boxes and bits of wood to find a meaning to life.

“I’m not looking for the truth. I’m looking to fulfill my life to its fullest capacity.”

In fact, she told The Times in 1985, she had decided that truth was at best elusive and more probably impossible.

“In the ‘70s I looked back on my life and decided to give myself 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.”